How to Reward Your Horse and Reinforce his Behaviors
With so many horse training methods being promoted out there, it’s hard to know which one is the best for you and your horse. Here’s what I know – there are some training methods that make me cringe, and then there are others that don’t make me cringe. What’s the difference for me? It’s how much stress is placed on your horse, and if the training is based on fear or learning.
Some horse training techniques.
For example, there’s a training technique called flooding.
- This is when you are
askingtelling, your horse in bold shouty capital letters that this new thing is going to be a part of his life. You may recognize this as the unbroken horse that is saddled up and left to “buck it out”. Or the horse that’s scared of balls, so he’s placed in a stall that is filling with balls. He’s essentially being asked to panic until he can come to terms with it.
- And by coming to terms with something, the horse will shut down, give up, and submit. This is learned helplessness. There’s been loads of research on this in animals and humans, with unpleasant outcomes. Horses can start to self-mutilate, develop vices, and even have physiological problems such as ulcers and a reduced immune response. This is fear-based training.
Compare to the horse that is afraid of balls or hasn’t been saddled and he’s taught confidence over time.
- On day one, he gets to approach a single ball and only go do far as he’s comfortable. And over time, things gradually escalate until he is actually confident around balls and will approach them on his own. For the horse that hasn’t been saddled, this might look like letting him sniff a saddle on the fence. Then being touched all over the saddle area. Then wearing a saddle pad for a millisecond. Taking small steps until he knows, because he trusts you, that the saddle area on his body and things there are not going to hurt him. Does this take infinitely longer? YES. This is often referred to as desensitization or habituation.
- Habituation is also something that horses can do on their own. There may be something in their environment, like a stack of buckets, that is startling at first. If you wanted to flood him, you would put the buckets in his stall and let him panic it out. Perhaps with a vet bill?
- If you wanted to habituate or desensitize, he could pass the buckets daily for a few moments each day until he gets used to them.
- This paper from some smarty-pants scientists explains a lot about fear and how horses learn, in detail, and also with some very clever cartoons.
A kind hand or soft words teach. Scare tactics create fear and unsafe horses.
Which technique is “better”?
- I clearly believe that flooding is an antiquated and misleading training technique. Flooding creates a big divide between you and your horse, and leads to a relationship based on bullying and power games designed to keep your horse in fear. A fearful horse is not safe.
- Conversely, a horse that is allowed to take his time while being rewarded by you, will be a much more eager, confident, and safe partner. It’s extremely easy for a horse to learn that your words and actions mean something, and he will change his way of looking at the world as trust and experiences grow.
- To be *mostly* brief, I had a horse that I almost euthanized because of his fearful behavior. I found a way to re-wire his brain so that he learned confidence, and over time, he became an amazing partner. Even riding bridleless in huge fields. I did this with a clicker and tons and tons of praise and rewards, letting him learn instead of forcing him to panic into submission. You can read more detail about his story here.
- I also didn’t spend tons of money on carrots or apples or horse treats. Only in the beginning, for a few months, did I pair his reward with something edible like a sugar cube or a piece of hay or even a handful of grass. He learned that the clicker was the reward, a sign he was on the right track, and doing something good.
Which finally gets me to my point. About the rewards. Which are best for horses?
The two types of reward systems for horses.
- The positive reinforcement reward is given as a way to say “thank you, that was right”.
- The negative reinforcement reward is NOT punishment, it’s a way to take the pressure off as a way to say “thank you, that was right”. For example, a negative reinforcement reward would be taking your leg off after your horse successfully side passes away from it.
- And let me be clear about what a reward really is. It’s simply a way to reinforce a behavior. AFTER the behavior has been done. Giving your horse peppermints before you put the bridle on is a bribe, and a great example of your horse training you.
- Give your horse a nice wither scratch and some kind words for standing quietly at the mounting block? He learns to stand quietly. Give your horse his dinner for banging his stall door or paddock gate? He will forever bang the door or gate.
Sugar cubes make great rewards, you can even use them when your horse has a bit in. They dissolve and create a soft and supple jaw, encouraging relaxation.
Food treats as rewards.
- I’ll preface this with two pearls of wisdom that I know to be true about horses. Horses love food, and SOME horses will not ever get pushy or nippy or rude about treats. You don’t have to spend tons of time baking your own cookies or buying fancy things in the produce department. Hay cubes and pellets are handy if you have some at the barn already. Sugar cubes, for the non-metabolically challenged horse, are great too, inexpensive and easy to jam into your pockets. Even bits of hay are fine as a treat.
- You may also want to find some great words to share with your horse. You could call him a total Jerky McJerkyface, but if you say it with the right tone and enthusiasm, it’s a reward. Verbal rewards need to convey positivity.
- Physical rewards. These types of rewards are your hands touching your horse. Most horses prefer a rub or scratch to a pat. And tah-dah, science has backed this up preliminarily. In a study in the UK, horses were observed having more accepting body language of the scratches on the withers than a pat on the neck. Perhaps as it mimics horses mutually grooming each other?
- Here’s more science on the wither scratching benefits to your horse.
- Other physical rewards include taking a walk break during exercise, or even leaving the ring to cool out. My friend’s horse ultimate reward is splashing in the creek after a workout.
Treats vs. rewards
When should you reward your horse?
- This is the very tricky part! You need to deploy the reward at the very instant that your horse’s behavior needs to be reinforced. You can basically kiss your efforts goodbye if you reward with a cookie and you need to dig through your pockets, or you need to futz with your reins to get a free hand, or you need to truck your horse over to the pond for a splash around.
- This is why clickers and vocal praise are so important – your horse can know he’s on the right track immediately. You don’t have to fumble around and the reward is instantaneous.
- However – you can always randomly scratch, praise, or rest your horse, this is just plain nice to do. You may have heard the phrase non-specific reward, which means rewarding at any time. It’s a useful tool to work on the relationship you have.
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This book explains everything so well.