Many cookies shall be yours, my good pony.
I am not one to give many treats by hand. Having owned a fair number of ponies along the way, I’m familiar with their swift and compelling obsession with the hand in the pocket: GIVE IT TO ME NOW, NOW, NOW!!! Or I take the hand, too.
And yet, I’ve noted that the use of an occasional treat really sweetens Finn’s demeanor and motivates him to work harder. It reinforces training.
Finn would probably make an excellent circus pony. Cute, highly trainable, very motivated by treats.
So I keep that in mind as we do our dressage training. The occasional carrot or cookie reinforcement is not a bad thing.
When Finn first came to me, he was perfect in almost every respect except that he expected a cookie to stand at the mounting block. This is common, many people train their horses this way. However, I believe a horse needs to just stand for mounting with no treat, because what if I don’t have one some day? I might be on the trail and have to get off and on for some reason, or be at a show and not have anything in my pocket. I don’t want to run around looking for a treat at that moment.
So we began mounting block training. The first four days, Finn threw a fit at the mounting block each day. WHAT? NO TREAT??? He fidgeted and wouldn’t stand still. I mounted rapidly (this is the dangerous moment), and then he would throw himself backwards and have a temper tantrum. “Where is my TREAT??? I want my mommy!!! You’re not a nice mommy, you’re not doing things the right way!” He even reared a little (naughty pony). The tantrum only lasted 20 seconds each day, but it was impressive and dramatic.
Then we would be on our way and everything was fine. I’ll say this for Finn: he can let it go and move on.
For four days, Finn threw bigger and bigger tantrums, trying to intimidate me into his way of thinking, but I am made of sterner stuff. I would win the battle of the mounting block! On the fifth day, he stood quietly (if a bit sullenly). He realized it was a new day, a new deal, and he wasn’t going to win this one. I praised him copiously but did NOT give him a treat.
Nowadays Finn often get treats from me for good work, and sometimes just for being cute, but never anywhere around the mounting block. If someone else rides him and gives him a mounting block treat, it resurrects that behavior (oh no!) although I’m able to pretty quickly re-establish the right behavior again. He knows what I expect at the block and he’s perfect now.
“I worked hard, mom. I need a cookie.”
Treats given judiciously and with the right timing are a useful training tool, and we enjoy giving them, so why not?
Extra effort, or some new training, should be rewarded with verbal praise, a soft pat, and sometimes a treat. Studies have shown that intermittent reinforcement is more effective than rewarding on a schedule, so it’s best not to give a treat EVERY time your horse does something well. Vary your rewards, but do reward your horse. She appreciates it! And sometimes it just feels good to give your horse a carrot, because it makes him SO happy. Of course, if your horse is insulin resistant, give low sugar treats or stick to pats and verbal praise.