At Via Nova: Priority to Positive®, we believe that Positive Reinforcement (R+) is a powerful means of motivating and communicating with horses. We strive to develop positive principles and tools to give traditional equestrians the means to improve performance, fix behavioral problems, and create more heart in their horse(s).

To achieve this goal, we’ve developed 5 Principles of Priority to Positive®. How these principles apply to Hand Feeding Safely is explained below.

Via Nova Priority to Positive Principle 1: Understand Motivation
Food is a strong motivator that naturally creates seeking behavior. Even with something as simple as Hand Feeding Safely, by noting and understanding the horse’s motivation we can shape their seeking behavior into a safe and polite habit of waiting for the food to come to them.

Instead of trying to resist their seeking behavior by swatting their head away, we can use their motivation to teach them that a different behavior will work for them get them the food they desire.

Via Nova Priority to Positive® Principle 2: Know what you want
When a horse is mugging you – pushing at you, or searching your pockets or bucket to get to food – of course you want them to stop.

But take one mental step beyond that: what do you want them to be doing instead? What behavior makes it impossible for them to mug or push you? In the case of Hand Feeding Safely, you want them to hold their head away from your space, stand and wait calmly. We call this behavior “Manners” or sometimes “Calm Head Away.”

Important tip: By holding a mindset of, “I DO WANT to reward a calm, confident, happy horse,” instead of, “I DON’T WANT an aggressive, mouthy, unhappy horse…” you will find it easier to identify the moments you’d like to see more of, and reward them.

Via Nova Priority to Positive® Principle 3: Know your Tools
The tools of Positive Reinforcement (R+) are key to success. The bridge signal (which is often a clicker) is a precision tool drawing attention to and also reinforcing a particular behavior. It tells them, “YES, that’s it!” and the reward (food is the reward) follows. The container that holds the food is also an important tool (see our YouTube video about that).

What you feed is very important (we have a  YouTube video on that, too). For Hand Feeding Safely, as soon as you get a glimpse of what you want, click and reinforce.

hand feeding safely - food falling

Important tip: Reinforce with your arm straight, away from the container. This helps to avoid mugging by teaching the horse to expect food to arrive away from your body.

Via Nova Priority to Positive® Principle 4: Shaping Behavior
Recognize and reinforce small steps to bring clarity as you progress towards your goal. This is the shaping process, and these are the building blocks on which the final behavior is built. In Hand Feeding Safely, the final behavior is Manners (Calm Head Away) – in the stall, in the barn aisle, in the arena… everywhere you ask!

In the beginning, the horse may naturally want to mug you to say, “I want that food.” You may experience a variety of responses as they try to figure it out.

Remember they are motivated to get the food! They can be very persistent, but there will come a moment, however brief, when they withdraw from the seeking. In the beginning, it could be as subtle as the horse glancing aside. This is the moment to bridge and reward.

Via Nova Priority to Positive® Principle 5: Set up for Success
It sounds easy, but it can be challenging! Success comes from making good choices – timing your sessions well, providing positive energy for your horse, as well as keeping your expectations and sessions attainable and reasonable (shaping!). With Hand Feeding Safely, you want to be what you want your horse to be – calm and relaxed. Once Calm Head Away is achieved, which will take time, you’ve got a key success under your positive belt!

Important tip: When you plan your Positive Reinforcement session(s), consider the time of day. For example, is it feeding time, which may make it harder for the horse to be calm around food? Also, consider small successes so the experience is positive – don’t wait for perfect. Learning takes time!

Important tip: Safety is paramount. If your horse is too excited, pinning its ears, or is inclined to nip, teach and practice Manners in Protected Contact, for instance from outside a stall or over a fence until your horse understands that calmness is part of the behavior that will get food. Horses vary greatly in their behavior around food, but they can all learn that waiting calmly with their head away from the food will get them what they want.

Consider the 5 Priority to Positive® Principles when working with any horse on any behavior, and come join us on the journey! Sign up for our newsletter here