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To cookie or not to cookie, that is the question?

Some say giving cookies is a great way to speed up training and works well. While others say it’s a big taboo and think it will turn their horse into a Cookie Monster.

An interesting thing happened the other day; a student of mine went to an obstacle schooling practice and was getting pointers from someone against using cookies. However, it was interesting to find out that they liked the expression of the horse and how willing they were to try different obstacles the first time through but weren’t a fan of how the horse was trained to get to that point. This was all funny to me because they liked the result but not how they got there.

The equestrian community seems to be divided into two groups. One group doesn’t believe in using horse food/treats to train. And the other newer age group believes in using positive reinforcement with cookies or something else the horse enjoys. It is not about one method being better than the other it is just another option, and I think people think it has to be one or the other.

Normally, food rewards are very effective in virtually every other form of animal training, whether dogs, dolphins, whales, cats, etc. Many studies and data have been released on different types of animals, including horses. They have found that if you use positive reinforcement, food specifically can train a skill on average four times faster than using pressure and release methods. This is also true in zoos; they will use positive reinforcement and food to train the zoo animals. I read a story about some giraffes that needed to be moved from one pen to another for cleaning. They found that if they put peanut butter on the pen walls, the keepers needed them to move into the giraffes would move quickly to that pen instead of very slowly and gingerly.

The positive reinforcement method is more friendly and helps the horse learn quicker and is more direct. When you start using pressure and release, there is a tendency that at some point, the horse will act negatively before you can give it the release. And most times, these negative reactions are unsafe for the horse and human.

The main issue people have with treat training is that the horse will become the monster and start getting nippy and grabby, which can definitely happen. What I say to that is, if you teach your horse to canter under saddle. Do you not worry about your horse just taking off and going cantering whenever they feel like it? The answer is always “no,” because you will have had to set boundaries, rules and expectations when your horse is allowed to canter under saddle. This is the same when feeding your horse treats as a reward.

I notice that people tend to get out of the horse’s space when the horse comes in to get a cookie. You must set boundaries to teach the horse that this space is yours and not to enter unless asked. Setting boundaries also relates to children; for example, some children will be better at walking down the candy aisle than others. If you are clear on your boundaries and expectations before entering the candy aisle, you will have a better chance the child will quietly walk down the aisle without throwing a tantrum or grabby at the candy. The same thing is true with horses; the more the horse is grabbing or persistent, the more patience and consistency you need to get them to be polite about how they take a cookie.

Teaching this; will also help in other areas, like if you have a horse that bites, or makes it easier for the vet to work with its mouth, etc. On the other hand, if you have a horse that is very possessive over food or very demanding, that can sometimes lead to safety issues with horses. In the herd, we know that they will use passive leadership most of the time to establish dominance and a leader in the herd. But when they are protecting their friends or are around food, that’s when we see a sort of leadership and can result in kicking, biting, and chasing behaviors which we would like to avoid.

So, teaching manners, right off the bat, with the cookies for positive reinforcement is a great way to help ensure that we were going to be safer. Passive leadership is key with horses and standing your ground and making sure that you’re not going to move out of your horse’s way is important. If you are going to give a cookie, make sure you establish strict boundaries by shaking/waving your hand in their direction and make sure that you’re not stepping backwards. You want to think like you are a tree and you’re growing roots; when you stop and stand, you plant your roots like a tree. And then that way, if the horse is trying to come into your space for treats, you’re standing still and expecting them to leave your space alone, rather than you getting away from them.

Having a super motivated horse that is a bit of a Cookie Monster can be frustrating, but it also comes with the flip side. Like in police dogs, the officers won’t take the dog for training unless they are food motivated or toy motivated because it can be hard to motivate the dog if it doesn’t feel there is a reward at the end or doesn’t know it has done something right. The same is true for horses. A horse that isn’t motivated by food may become much more challenging to train and convince, and that’s when we’ll usually resort to crops and more forceful ways of riding or working with them because the horse doesn’t have a strong motivation. This is why food can be a great motivator and help speed up the learning process and encourage more try.

If you are consistent with expecting good manners and offering something they enjoy as a reward, you will create a horse eager and happy to work with you. As somebody who started horses without any food reinforcement and hadn’t built a relationship with them. I struggled with certain things, and tasks would take a long time to teach. Now that I use food as a motivator as a positive reinforcement tool, I can train horses significantly faster, and it’s a lot more fun. It gives a feeling like the horse wants to try and learn and figure things out. It gets them to start licking and chewing, which helps them to relax and connect a little bit more as well. Lots of perks are associated with using food for positive reinforcement. You can use them for riding or groundwork; you can use them to help get your horse to bend, stretch and soften from side to side.

No matter how you choose to train your horse, we want to be respectful of each other’s opinions, but it is important to ask the question, to understand the why. If you are on the side of the fence of not liking cookies as a training method, hopefully, you’ve gained some insight into some reasons why positive reinforcement and using food specifically are a good idea. And if you are on the side of the fence that already does use food for rewards, hopefully, this has given you some examples that you can tell people if they do not understand the why.

We would love to hear from both sides, so share your comments and opinions below or on our Facebook page.

Remember, you can always check out more great free resources and other information at https://harmonyhorsemanship.com/ or check me out on my personal website https://www.lindseypartridge.com/.

Thanks so much, bye for now.