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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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!