trainer using treats to teach pony tricks

The Trick to Treats: How to Retrain Your Cookie Monster

October 25, 2020

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Hi there, human. TRICK OR TREAT!

In case you can’t tell, Halloween is my favorite holiday. Every year I dress up as a Nightmare, which looks just like a regular mare, but sneaks up behind you and mugs you for all your cookies.

pushy pony attempts to grab treats
Death to cookie!

I see a lot of horses out there in the world behaving pretty monstrously about treats

I’m sure you’ve seen them, too. They push, they bite, they knock you down. They demonstrate all their tricks without being asked, including the tricks you wish they hadn’t learned.

When this happens, people usually decide that the horse can’t be trusted with treats, and take them away for good.

This makes me really sad!

See, Cookie Monsters don’t actually know that they’re behaving badly

They just learned the wrong set of rules about treats.

Which is a shame, because food rewards have been scientifically proven to accelerate a horse’s learning and increase motivation.

cookie monster from Sesame Workshop
photo source: Sesame Workshop

Imagine that you are sitting in math class, even though you’d rather be anywhere else...

You have to learn a new formula and you find it difficult and confusing.

One teacher tells you that he’s going to make you run laps every time you get a wrong answer. Sometimes you’re sure you have the right answer and you have to run laps anyway.

The other teacher tells you that you don’t have to run. Instead, you get a cookie for every question you solve correctly — and he’s even researched your favorite kind of cookie.

You can learn the formula from both teachers. But which one are you going to like better? Which one will actually get you excited to go to class, and to puzzle through the new math?

Horses face this situation all the time.

We can learn from uncomfortable pressure, sure: this is called negative reinforcement. Even though negative reinforcement sounds like a bad thing, it’s a part of most horse/human interaction; you use this technique every time you use a leg or rein aid when you ride. But trainers who use reward-based training — often referred to as R+ or positive reinforcement — are a lot more fun to be around, and usually inspire a bigger effort.

trick training - horse steps in time with trainer
I'm happy to report that Queen Bossypants has been updated.

Don’t tell my Girl I said this, but in her early days of “training,” I didn’t like her very much

Do this, do that, back up, go sideways, do it faster! Blah blah blah.

I called her Queen Bossypants, and half the time I didn’t understand what she was talking about, so I just stopped listening.

She could shake that rope so hard my halter would hit me in the face, and I still wouldn’t back up.

What was in it for me — a quick break from the assault?

Better just to shut down and let her get frustrated and quit.

However, once she learned how to make training a game, I was ALL about it

The treats motivated me to use my brain, and the more puzzles I solved, the more confident I got in my ability to try new things.

Backwards? Lift one finger and I’ll back up for days! Sideways? Let’s dance. Suddenly, instead of the Girl trying to make me do things FOR her, we were learning to do new things TOGETHER. And I was getting paid well for it!

trick-trained pony gives trainer high-five in pasture
Now I even come up to her in the pasture.
Shhh, don’t tell anyone, or my reputation will be ruined!

I was lucky that the Girl got some early lessons in using R+ effectively, so my Cookie Monster habits were reformed early on.

The trick to using treats safely is to set rules - and follow them

My rules:

How can you get started taming your Cookie Monster?

First, make sure you aren’t a random treater. Every time you slip your horse a treat without established rules and signals, you’re making him think that he can get free food out of the machine.

Second, learn everything you can about R+ from experienced trainers! Ideally, you’ll want to take a few lessons from a local trainer to get started. I’ll link my favorite resources below so you can read more about the method on your own.

trick training - pony kisses for treat

Confession time: I used to be the WORST Nightmare in the barn, and not just on Halloween, either

I dove into pockets and nipped for treats. I even had a big sign on my stall that said “CAUTION – BITES – DO NOT FEED.”

Luckily, a little practice with positive reinforcement went a long way toward changing my attitude. Now the Girl trusts me — a former biter — enough to let me give her a great big sloppy kiss on the face.

Just goes to show, if you continue to learn new things, you and your horse can both experience a change for the better!

Books on Amazon* we recommend:

* These affiliate links share a tiny percentage of your purchase with us – at no extra cost to you. Helps with the hay bill so I have more time to blog!

It's All About Me

Heaven's Fire avatar

Fun facts about me: I’m a mounted games ambassador, part-time Dragon, and accomplished artist. Half Arabian, half Quarter Horse, with a whole lot of heart. I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.

And most importantly, I’m a veteran school pony – which means I have plenty of horsey wisdom to share with YOU.

I’ve been the star lesson horse at HorseSense Riding Academy for over a decade, beloved by many, even those who’ve tried and failed to catch me. I’m the kind of girl that prefers a little gallop and sass, so it took me a while to realize that teaching horsemanship is a special job. The way I figure it, if I can help even one student learn to think like a horse and become a good partner, I’ve made the world a better place for horses… and the humans who love them.

You can check out the video of me training my Girl on the archives page.

I hope you enjoy my blog and use the links below to share it with your friends – because horsey friends are THE BEST.

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