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Solving My Biting Horse With Food

My biting horse Fox… This was a challenge to solve… I was tempted to quit using food! I’m glad I didn’t give up!

A biting horse isn’t a bad horse, or even a misbehaving horse… Biting is a symptom with multiple causes. There are many factors that can cause a horse to bite. Addressing those factors is what will make the undesirable biting behaviour disappear. I learned this the hard way. I’m hopeful that sharing this will be helpful to those of you out there that have started with R+ and are finding your horse is getting nippy, or for those of you that have a mouthy horse. Just because we train with food doesn’t mean we automatically have biting horses.

Lets dive in! My last post in Learning Theory was on Classical Conditioning in training you can find it here. For this next post I am still on the subject of Classical Conditioning. Specifically, the subject of Conditioned Emotional Responses or CERs.

I recently put a video on Instagram demonstrating how non-nippy my R+ horse Fox is. You can see it here. Fox’s nippy behaviour around food was one of the reasons why I originally reached out to an R+ trainer and learned the little elements, and nuances around training horses with food. I received a lot of messages following this Reel asking me how I sorted out the nipping, and what the underlying issues were. So, I thought a blog post on the subject would be handy!

What is a CER?

First off, a CER is a Conditioned Emotional Response to a formerly neutral stimulus. This was demonstrated very well in the popular “Little Albert” study. (Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. 1920) This is an old study where they demonstrated how a baby “Albert” could be taught to fear a white rat. They even furthered the study to show how the fear could be generalized to similar looking animals, and objects.

Albert wasn’t afraid of the rat until the rat had been paired with a loud noise that caused a fear response in Albert. Soon the rat would cause the fear response without the loud sound. Albert’s fear response is a Conditioned Emotional Response. Simple right? The important thing to remember here is that Albert’s emotional fear response was involuntary. His reaction to the emotional response (moving his hand away from the rat) could be classified as voluntary, or in-voluntary. That is hard to measure and say for sure.   

The Conditioned Emotional Response is important for good training!

This is important because when I first began true R+ training, Fox’s Conditioned Emotional Response Around food coming from my hand looked like a mix of frustration, anxiety, and excitement. These terms are just labels for the behaviours that were exhibited by Fox when I had food.  

To clarify a little on which behaviours I was attaching to each label… “frustration” was behaviours like nipping, ear pinning, tail swishing etc… “Anxiety” looked like snow eating, staring off into space, taking the food frantically when it was offered, performing the behaviours frantically, moving slower than normal, walking over me, face rubbing, excessive blinking etc.. “Excitement” looked like nickering, dropping, prancing, etc. These behaviours would on occasion escalate into “rage” striking, biting, charging and kicking.    

Nowhere was Fox trying to be the dominant horse, testing me, or trying to push me around. It’s more complicated than that.

There were a lot of behaviours exhibited around me having food. They would show up in different orders, depending on the situations. If I continued with food the situation would always eventually escalate to Fox exhibiting “rage” behaviours. The biggest thing to remember here is that he was not trying to be the dominant horse. He wasn’t trying to win. He didn’t need to be corrected in the traditional way.

Further down I will explain what happened when I tried to correct it. Remember I came from a traditional training background where dangerous behaviour was not tolerated, and often met with corrections…aka punishment. That being said positive training doesn’t mean permissive. Of course dangerous behaviour is still dangerous. There are a lot of options for lasting solutions around dangerous behaviour that are substantially more effective than the previous traditional methods/corrections.    

My biting horse Fox attempting to remove my leg here…

Positive does not mean permissive. The behaviour still needed to be changed. It took a bit of trial and error….

So what was the solution for Fox? The nipping and other behaviours are, in my experience, Fox’s reaction to a Conditioned Emotional Response. Similar to Albert removing his hand from the fur of the rat. Is the nipping voluntary? Or is it involuntary? Hard to say. One thing that really helped me was thinking of it as different from an Operant Voluntary Behaviour (even though it very well could be). (Check my blog post on Operant Conditioning if you need a refresher on what Operant Behaviour is. You can find it here.)

Eating Snow, and Dropping. It is tricky to see when the tension in Fox is escalating. He doesn’t respond in a more typical way with obvious energy and tension. He is a lot more subtle… His end reaction is the same… although he typical will go into fight over flight.

Here’s why. Focusing on the nipping, as an operant behaviour, meant I needed to figure out what was reinforcing it. At that point I hadn’t realized that the other behaviours happening around it were related. I was especially confused by the rage reaction, as he seemed “calm” up until that point.

At first I tried to treat the symptom (the biting). I thought it was the problem…but the actual problem was a lot more complicated.

My first solution was to remove the thing that I thought was obviously reinforcing the nipping. Meaning I would withhold the treat. Which is classified as Negative Punishment. Fox knew I had the food, he nipped me for it, he didn’t get a treat. I was attempting to punish him for nipping by withholding the treats whenever he became nippy.

Next, I taught him an alternative behaviour.  He would move his head away from my hands before I would bring the treat out. The “head away” behaviour. Fox couldn’t nip me if he was moving his head away. I had always been very careful to not reward biting when using food with horses, and up until Fox I hadn’t run into a horse that had started biting. With the behaviour never being reinforced, the use of negative punishment when it showed up, and an alternative behaviour installed, the biting behaviour should disappear right? Wrong…

The harder I worked to treat the symptom the worse it got.

It got much worse. At first it was just a little lipping, then more, then biting, then snapping at my hand when it moved near his face, biting my arms, and legs etc. On a few occasions it even became striking, rearing, and lunging with the mouth open, ears pinned, tail snapping. I’m not proud of it, but when I felt threatened, I would use traditional methods involving positive punishment. The exact opposite of what I wanted to be doing.   

Fox never hurt me, but I knew it was only a matter of time, and I knew something was going terribly wrong. I just didn’t have the faintest idea what it could be. It’s interesting as I understood this so well with other forms of anxiety in horses… I just didn’t connect it to the biting because I was stuck on the idea of it being purely Operant. All I kept thinking was that something had to be reinforcing it. I seriously debated about not using food with him at all. I had a lot of trainers tell me to give it up, but I knew there was a very important lesson hidden in this, so I persevered.

Not a happy horse…

The more I thought about it, worked with it, and learned, the more I began to ask the right questions. This lead to understanding the actual problem.

To figure it out I eventually asked the questions: Where did the biting behaviour come from in the first place? Why is it so strong, and even escalating? Why isn’t it going through a process of behavioural extinction? What is reinforcing it? The answer… it likely was a reaction to a Conditioned Emotional Response around the food in my pocket. Which means to change it we need to first change the Emotional Reaction that the horse is having around the food in the pocket. The biting could still be operant, maybe biting out of frustration is rewarded by relieving the frustration??? Hard to say. But it didn’t matter to me at that point. I had something new to try!

Here Fox was giving me a known behaviour that I had taught with R+ hoping to get a treat out of me. He would often try multiple behaviours to try and get food without being cued to do so. When he didn’t get rewarded he would get even more frustrated. Scenarios like these are why it is very important that we spend the time it takes to make sure that we as trainers, understand how to train with food.

Going back to the humane hierarchy by Dr. Susan Friedman, we can see that the first step to behavioural modification is checking into health/wellness. You can find a blog post where I explained the humane hierarchy here.

The underlying causes of the biting….

1. When I first started using treats with Fox in my R-/R+ program he was being fed half a bale of hay (25lbs) loose on the ground twice a day. Which means he was eating big meals quickly, and then going long periods of time with an empty stomach. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, except for the fact that horses are constantly producing stomach acid regardless of whether they are eating or not. This is a very big deal. Horses need to eat throughout the day to protect their stomach from that acid. Access to 24/7 forage is the best feeding option.

Horses can start feeling the negative effects of their stomach acid in as little as 4 hours after their last meal. A long time between feedings massively increases the risk of the horse developing painful stomach ulcers. Not to mention just feeling pain from the acid in general. (Sykes, B.W. et al., 2015)

So, Fox was feeling the effects of an empty stomach, and in desperate need of forage in order to feel better… He discovered that I had the food he needed in my pocket, but I wouldn’t give it to him… leading to an anxious/frustrated emotional reaction.  

2. I didn’t have Fox on a ration balancer, mineral block, or any vitamins. He just got hay. This led to a vitamin deficiency which likely made Fox feel like he needed to consume more food than he actually needed, to try and get enough vitamins. Leading to an anxious/frustrated emotional reaction.

3. I was using a high value sugar filled treat. This is something that Fox gets really excited about in general, even if he has a full stomach. Unfortunately, he was likely feeling hungry, and likely had cravings for vitamins, so any food was high value. The sugar treats would have increased his excitement X 1000…

4. I would only give Fox the treat if he did the behaviour that I was asking for, and my reinforcement rate was very unpredictable. Often, I would use negative reinforcement, and add the treat for good measure. Sometimes I would use the treat to get the behaviour utilizing luring. Often, I would wait for the head away behaviour, or not give a treat when Fox bit. To Fox I was withholding food.  

It was impossible for Fox to know when he would get the food, and when he wouldn’t. This put him in the perfect position to invent tons of superstitious behaviours (biting maybe?), as well as develop the frustrated/angry emotions caused by negative punishment.

5. Finally, I thought it was fun to run with Fox… I would take off running… he would buck and squeal, and follow me. I assumed this was him having fun, and wanting to play too!

Running away from him with food in my pocket was essentially teasing him. Which again is a form of negative punishment. The squeal and buck wasn’t him having fun. It likely was him expressing his frustration over having to chase after food that he desperately needed to reduce the pain in his stomach, food that he was excited about, and couldn’t just have…

Once I understood the underlying issues it made a whole lot of sense.

After reading this do you blame Fox for wanting to bite me? Over time these factors created a form of trigger stacking that eventually caused the feelings to escalate into a fight response.  Likely this all got generalized to an overall anxious/excited Conditioned Emotional Response to food in my pocket. I’m sure this response is what triggered the biting, and other behaviours.

It doesn’t matter how much I punished Fox for nipping or taught alternative behaviours he was still going to do it. The punishment seemed to increase his anxiety, and made the behaviours escalate even faster. Its common sense… withholding food from a hungry animal is going to make them angry.

If Fox were a wild bear the biting would have made way more sense way sooner!

If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around this, imagine if Fox were a hungry bear and I was holding peanut butter just out of his reach. If the bear bit me, would you be surprised? Or would you be more surprised if he didn’t attack me?

I feel terrible that it took me so long to figure this out! I originally chose to use food to try and make learning easier for Fox, to reduce the stress of negative reinforcement. To make training fun for him. It’s important to acknowledge our mistakes. I did what I thought was right at the time, but I was ultimately wrong. Acknowledging this gives me space to do better.

Fox and Jade eating their steamed hay out of their Nag Bags the best slow feeder nets that I have found so far. 24/7 access to forage is important!!

If I had quit using food, or assumed it was dominance, I would have missed out and not made some very needed changes! These changes are important for all horses. Not just R+ horses.

I almost quit using food before I figured this all out, in which case I wouldn’t have changed Fox’s management, and he would likely still be trotting around with a sore empty stomach. This is why stopping the use of food isn’t the best option! Biting is a symptom not the actual problem. I’m glad I persevered. I now understand a whole lot more than just how to train with food. This was a very important lesson to learn!!!

Once I figured out where I was a going wrong, I made changes to Fox’s management (Actually the management of all of my horses). It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of trial and error.

A relaxed happy Fox. He isn’t just comfortable and calm about my hand being near his face, he also will target my hand and follow me anywhere at liberty. The biting and other behaviours stopped when the underlying issues were resolved.
  1. Fox has a dust/mold allergy and requires his hay steamed, he also gains weight easily…. So, it was a real challenge to figure out how I could steam enough hay, and keep it available 24/7 without him overeating. I also made sure to keep him with a companion which means I was steaming for two horses not just one. Hay Nets with the smallest holes I could find made a huge difference here! As well as buying a big hay steamer!
  2. I got Fox onto a ration balancer… and it was a bit surprising to me, but he started to eat less hay in general. So now he has hay 24/7 and doesn’t overeat. He has been slowly losing the excess weight. Another unrelated positive is that his mane and tail are growing out just beautifully! I wouldn’t have guessed that a vitamin deficiency would make him overeat… (Update 2023: We now work with an equine nutritionist and have balanced Fox’s diet even more. This has made a huge difference with his allergies.)
  3. I changed the “treats” that I was using. Fox’s ration balancer comes in a pellet form, so I use that mixed with alfalfa pellets. Fox doesn’t consider his ration balancer to be a high value food when he is getting it every day, which means his overall excitement level over it is a lot lower. Alfalfa is known to help neutralize the acid in the stomach, so I think it’s awesome in training. Fox is a little more interested in the Alfalfa, but sometimes he prefers his regular hay, so I don’t consider it super high value to him. (Update 2023: I now use Timothy pellets for training with Fox as he has crazy high protein in his hay, and the Alfalfa was pushing him over his protein requirements, we also use celery on occasion)
  4. I no longer just feed for behaviour. Fox always has alternative food during training so that he can leave me and go eat. My feeding is very predictable for him now, and I am careful to never withhold food. This was a big learning curve, and I strongly recommend getting an instructor who understands this process to help!
  5. I keep an eye out for any mild signs of frustration/anxiety, and immediately respond to it by calming Fox down.

These changes didn’t completely solve the biting… like I said its complicated… Here’s the next step.

I bet you’re wondering if this solved the nipping? Not completely. A Conditioned Emotional Response can be tricky to change. Especially one so well practiced. The above changes took away the unconditioned stimuli that originally caused the response, and dramatically slowed down the escalation of behaviour.  

The next step was to pair the food in my pocket with a better Emotional Response. This is when I used Protected Contact. In my post on Protected Contact, I talk about how I used it to help change Fox’s behaviour around food, you can find it here. I mention an alternative behaviour, but I left out the work around the Conditioned Emotional Response as it’s a big topic.

While Fox was in protected contact the first thing I did was reward him for eating (More on this here). He would stand at the gate with his alternative reinforcement (The hay) and I would just throw pellets onto his hay. Eventually he began to eat hay even when he knew that I had food in my pocket. This was a huge step forward. Once he was eating his hay, he was no longer searching for the food in my pocket and he would visibly relax. I also quickly found out that feeding in his feed pan would also cause him to relax. When I began training a behaviour other than just eating, I chose a new alternative default behaviour. It looked like this:

  1. Fox is calmly eating hay
  2. Say Fox’s name and throw food in his bucket
  3. Do one rep of the new behaviour (whatever small approximation that we were on) (In the beginning he would have already started exhibiting A Negative Emotional Response)
  4. Feed a big handful into his bucket, say all done and walk out of sight.
  5. Fox would immediately go back to eating his hay and visibly relax.
  6. Repeat
Rewarding Eating In Protected Contact

The next steps are just a progression from here…

Eventually I could add more reps, and he stayed calm and relaxed. Then when I was satisfied with the number of reps, I added in hand feeding, and so forth. Until eventually he would eat from my hand, with me in his paddock, with treats in my pocket, and he stayed calm with absolutely no inclination to bite.

The interesting thing about all of this is that each behaviour that had been trained before the calming work had to be redone, and paired with a Calm CER. Without the re-pairing I would begin to see the pre-curser behaviours to the nipping behaviour. This is a long tedious process… but so worth it!!! Don’t be discouraged by the process! It’s extremely rewarding!

All behaviours that have been trained or re-trained with a Positive Conditioned Emotional Response feel almost bullet proof. Fox is so gentle and peaceful with them. He’s also very gentle and much more peaceful around me. I find spending time with him much more enjoyable, and I get the feeling that he feels the same way. Now when we run together it’s a cued behaviour that we both know, and it is done in relaxation. The nipping, and other dangerous behaviours have disappeared.

A quick example of how a exercise trained in relaxation can help the horse find relaxation when he has become a bit stressed.

This is what worked for us. Our horses are individuals so it may be different for you. Figuring it out is the fun part!

All of this being said each horse is an individual. These are the underlying causes of Fox’s food anxiety and resulting behaviours. It may be different for the next horse exhibiting these behaviours. The fun part is figuring it out, working with the science, and getting to apply our creativity as trainers to find the solutions. The hard part is staying consistent. The end result of a happy willing horse is such a great trainer reward that it makes the whole process worth it!    

I hope this helps someone out there who is trying to figure out the same thing! Don’t be afraid to reach out! I love brainstorming solutions, and helping other trainers reach their goals! Also, this isn’t ever perfect. So don’t be too hard on yourself! We are all on our own journeys doing our best for our horses.

Have a lovely day!

Courtney    

P.S. Update 2023: I added a couple of new comments to this. As I continue on my journey and learn new things I make changes, that’s the fun thing about life, there is never a complete answer or right way. There are always new pieces to the puzzle. I love that Fox has really thrown a lot of things at me both behaviourally and physically that have forced me to grow and learn in ways that I never would have without him. I am forever thankful for him.

References:          

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of experimental psychology, 3(1), 1.

Sykes, B.W., Hewetson, M., Hepburn, R. J., Luthersson, N., & Tamzali, Y. (2015). European      College of Equine Internal Medicine Consensus Statement- Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome in Adult Horses. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 29(5)https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jvim.13578

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