reward
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

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.



 

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34 Comments

  1. Slightly pedantic, but quite a number of these are not positive reinforcments in the scientific (correct) sense of the term. GIving the rein, releasing aids etc are all negative reinforcements.

    A positive reinforcer ‘adds’ something to increase the behaviour (reinforce it’s occurence). A negative reinforcer takes away something to increase the behaviour.

    And some of the others are arguable, every reinforcer will only increase behaviours IF the horse finds them reinforcing not if you the owner think they will. Even telling him he’s ‘good’ in any voice, only equates to a reinforcer if the horse has equated the word or the tone to something that they find pleasing…. often this is something else entirely from what you think it is, and equally as often its not the word but the subconscious actions of the rider that accompanies it… a release of pressure (a negative reinforcer)

    1. Thank you for the corrections. It is so true that most of our “reinforcement” in riding is negative. Can you describe any (by correct definition) positive reinforcements that could be used while riding? And in my defense, all the reinforcements (however negative) on the list are of course based on my interpretation of the horse’s responses to the actions, which I am interpreting as being positive – i.e. I’m not wondering off on cloud nine just deciding that it would be positive for the horse!

  2. When I see horses rewarded with great slaps on the neck, shoulder, etc,, I can’t help but the horses feel like they’re being hit, not rewarded. I’m sure they know their riders mean well, but yes, their skins are sensitive and no doubt they’d appreciate a kinder-feeling approach. During training and lessons, as well as other riding, after my horse has done as requested, I reward him with a scratch on the withers, with my index finger, not interfering with rein tension, and I say, “Good” at the same time I give him his withers-scratch. In my mind I am Requesting rather than Commanding, though I definitely expect him to do as asked. (When raising my children, I did the same. When they got a request to do something, they knew I meant it. “Would you do ——-, please,” not “Do (the chore)’, made us all feel right, and they did as I asked. The same with my horse.)

  3. To NZ Horse Recreation: Slightly pedantic, but the article title is “Ten Ways to Reward Your Horse.” Both positive and negative reinforcements are rewards to the horse!

    1. Reinforcement is not the same as reward. You may find google helpful here, as understanding the difference can vastly improve horsemanship. 🙂

  4. They can read you for sure. A little story– 35 years ago, or so.. I was given the opportunity to ride a CanAm Games horse in a local hunter class. We arrived very late, no chance to walk the course, no chance to warm up.. just in line to go over the jumps. I was worried does not cut it. I watched the riders and memorized the jumps from afar.. my turn… greeted the judges, collected my horse at the sound of the bell, and headed for the small jump at the start of the course. We were off!!! Opps, no we weren’t off… we were stopped. Do you think I could get this experienced famous horse over the first jump? No way, no how… [and, that’s what is meant by the horse picking up your vibes. He wasn’t going to work if I wasn’t confident.] Personally, I think he kept me from making a mess out of the whole thing. As they say, practice makes perfect… smart horse.

    1. Yes, but only simple feelings. They can’t tell what’s your favourite food, they don’t know about your work or personal dramas etc. Just trying to correct some possible confusion.

  5. Great article 🙂
    I agree with NZ Horse Recreation – your ideas are all reinforcements of the behaviour you want, but only number 8 (and depending on how you taught your horse the meaning of “good”, number 9) are positive reinforcements. Positive simply means you add a reward that your horse values (so positive is a “plus” sign – you added something). Negative reinforcement means you removed something the horse wants to avoid (negative is a “minus” sign”). So you remove e.g. pressure of the rein for an instant, or pressure of the legs for an instant, or your seat moves with the horse instead of resisting his movement. A reinforcement is not the same thing as a reward – for a human, taking off tight shoes is a reinforcement, if it was a reward you’d put them straight back on to experience the relief again 😉
    Horses certainly value many kinds of physical contact, including strokes and scratches around the withers, which have been shown in some situations to lower the heart rate. The value of these may be overshadowed if you’re in a riding situation (where pressure from bit, spurs and threat of touch with whip make them less valuable to the horse). In these situations, a pat acts as a signal that there will be a brief period without some of the pressures, making the pat technically what us behaviour bods call a Discriminative Stimulus ;D
    Howzat for pedantic 🙂

    1. Thanks for the information! It’s always so great to learn more about what we “think” we already know.

      Just wanted to add that while you ride, the horse can find “relief” from pressure often – not because you pat or release the aids or use the voice to say “goood”, but because the horse knows how to carry himself so he doesn’t HAVE to pull/push/lean on the aids. Therefore, a highly educated and willing horse might be able to ride regularly with minimal pressure although he’s on the aids. Does that make sense??!!

  6. These are all good suggestions, but at the very end of the article the writer asked, “do you use positive reinforcement with your horse?” I think that this question implies that these are all positive reinforcements–they aren’t. About half of them are actually negative reinforcements. Negative reinforcement does not mean something bad, It just means that the method of increasing the behavior is by the removal of the stimulus. In other words every time you release pressure as a reward, That removal is the reinforcement. Negative just means “take away something,” and reinforcement means “in order to increase the behavior.” To simplify even further, anything that you do to increase the behavior is a reinforcement, and anything that you do to decrease the behavior is a punishment. Reinforcements and punishments can both be modified with positive and negative, with the positive being an addition of something and the negative being the removal of something.

  7. In my opinion (after thirty odd years of training and teaching) the greatest reward you can give your horse is to get off. I wonder if that would be consider a positive or a negative reinforcement??? If you have reached the goal of your training session, even if it has only been twenty minutes, pat your horse and put him away. Happy horse, happy rider.

    1. Love it! I do that too – when I`m riding myself, or with my students. Sometimes I startle the rider – why should they get off? Because your horse is done, I say!

      I suppose it is negative reinforcement.

    2. I got my first flying lead change yesterday on a horse that is enormosly lazy. I got off and made a big deal about it, would have bought him a beer if he was allowed in the local pub.

  8. Take that metal out of their mouth and ride bitless, all horses will benefit from that and will your reward will be abundantly shown from your buddy/budette

  9. At my barn, sometimes we ride to music just for fun (not to practice freestyles). It feels so happy and free and fun, and my horse responds to that joyous feeling in me with increased lightness and impulsion. It’s amazing.

  10. Great advice! I have a horse that will almost try anything I ask for– even when lacking good judgement! He’s never stopped at a jump even when it scares him to walk by it. He’s taking off from distances so long, because I asked, that I heard the crowd around the ring gasp! Haha! This horse has more heart and trust in me than I’ve ever felt and will surely use these tips to reward him. He is a treasure! Thank you.

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