As riders, we need to look for any excuse to celebrate our horse's achievements. Good riders are forever thankful for their equine's efforts as they push further stronger deeper and reach new heights. A happy horse is a willing partner, and many horses will give everything they have if they feel your acknowledgement and generosity of spirit.
Don't fool yourself.
Your horse knows exactly how you're feeling during the ride. They can "mind read" (more like body read) and know precisely when you are frustrated, upset, angry and conversely, when you are relaxed, forgiving, joyful and ecstatic. We all know that positive reinforcement is as powerful a way to communicate as any other, and likely more appreciated by your four-legged friend.
Rewarding your horse doesn't have to be done on the ground with a treat in hand. In fact, encouragement received under saddle is more immediate and fulfilling than anything that is done on the ground after you ride. The key is to identify the right time to communicate your approval, and to know how to do it in movement.
So, without further discourse, here are ten simple ways to let your horse know he is on the right track.
10. Think, "Yay/Wow/Great/Fantastic" or whatever you feel at that moment, and be convinced that your horse can read your mind. Even though horses can't read minds, they can definitely read the involuntary messages your body sends through your seat, legs and hands - and they know if the thought was positive or negative. So yes, just thinking something nice will transfer seamlessly into your horse's mind.
9. Say a soft, low "good" under your breath so only he can hear it. You don't have to share your thank-you with the whole world; just say it loud enough for the horse's ears to flick back in your direction.
8. Pet your horse, but DON'T smack him! Somewhere along the line, people thought smacking a horse was a good thing, and would be interpreted as such by the horse - it must be, since the horse is so big and strong, right? Well, now we know that the horse's skin is even more sensitive than human skin. It stands to reason that a smack feels like a smack, and a pat or rub is a much more appreciated method.
7. Better yet, slightly release your inside rein while you pet your horse with your inside hand, in rhythm with the stride. Can you rub your belly and chew gum at the same time? Then this one is for you!
While your horse is in motion, reach down lightly (but don't lean too far forward as you will change the horse's balance), and move your hand along the horse's neck in a forward/back movement, preferably in rhythm with the horse's head bob. Keep holding the same rein length through the petting action. In canter, this will release the inside rein while the neck is reaching forward/down, and then the contact will be gently taken up again by the time the neck comes back/up again.
The idea is not to interfere with the horse's movement, but to give a gentle inside rein release while petting the horse.
6. Gently (very small movements) open and close your elbows in synch with the horse's body movements - blend in with him so that he has freedom to swing his head and neck into the movement. You can give through both your elbows in order to move the hands and bit along with the horse. This will create a moment of harmony - no restriction, no instruction, no comment. Just follow along and encourage the horse to take a bolder forward stride thanks to less "stop" from the bit.
5. Move a little bigger into the movement of the horse. You always have the option of "releasing" with your seat: let your lower back become loose and supple and follow along in an encouraging, enthusiastic manner - your horse will love the freedom in his back and just might reach further underneath himself with the hind legs in response.
4. Hold your rein length but give a gentle half halt with an ending forward release so your horse can stretch forward into the contact. In this manner, you can create a small space ahead of the horse that he can reach toward. If done diplomatically, a horse always appreciates feeling the slight freedom of extra space to move forward into.
3. Stop asking for anything. Sometimes, it is good enough to stop everything and just let the horse go along for a few strides. Beware - "stopping" doesn't mean that you suddenly drop everything and become a lumpy bumpy bag of jelly that causes the horse to fall to his knees! You can "stop" while maintaining the status quo - keep doing what you were doing, hold yourself strong and fluid, but just refrain from asking for anything more for the time being.
2. Accept his idea. Often, a horse will take initiative and offer something that you didn't ask for. Instead of correcting or changing what he did, enjoy the "freebie" and just ride along for a moment. You can get back to your topic in a few strides, but teaching the horse to take initiative, especially in the early stages or when the horse is young, can go far to developing a great rider/horse rapport in the long run.
1. Do your horse's favourite movement. All horses have preferred movements that get them all excited! For example, my gelding loves the stretchy trot or canter - he snorts and reaches and the ears flick forward. My mare gets jazzed up with the flying change - again, rambunctious snorts, perky ears, and expression in her face and overall body outline. Find out what your horse's favourite movement is, and then do it at the end of a session or after something difficult!
The sooner you can reinforce your horse's actions, the sooner he will connect the reward to the desired behaviour. Be light, quick and to the point. Then, go onto the next part of your ride. Look for more to celebrate as you transition into the next movement.
Most importantly, reward quickly and often.
Do you use any other methods of positive reinforcement to your horse?
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