Rewarding a Horse

The principles of many ‘natural’ and ‘honest’ horsemanship approaches say that we are not to punish a horse, because he doesn’t understand punishment. This I agree with, except on occasion. When a horse tries to bite me or kick me, this is absolutely unacceptable and I will slap him. However, when a horse gives me a wrong answer because he doesn’t understand what I asked him for, that is no cause for punishment. Instead, I should look at how I asked him, and try to help him understand my request. But how are we to reward our horses? Not many people tell us this, but reward is the most important thing you can do to help a horse learn.

The simplest form of reward is a release of pressure. Let’s say you asked your horse to walk forward by applying a light pressure to the lead rope. When the horse takes a step forward, immediately there is slack in the lead rope. The pressure was released because the horse did the right thing. This rewards him, because horses, by nature, seek comfort. Pressure is not comfortable, so they try and find a way to release the pressure. If the horse backs up, however, the trainer endeavours to keep the same amount of pressure on the horse until he stops and walks forward. We use pressure and release in training by relaxing any pressure on a horse when he does what is right.

Another form of reward with which many people are familiar is giving treats. I am not a fan of offering a horse a treat as a reward, except under very special circumstances. When I am teaching a horse to come towards me when he is off the lead line, for example, I cannot release any pressure, so then I will offer a treat. But, the treat will be given in the horse’s space, not mine! If I give my horse a treat in my space, say, near my pocket, the horse will realize that if he sticks his head into your pocket, you might give him a treat. This is not what we want to teach a horse, because it demolishes any of the respect we have worked hard to build.

The last form of reward I want to look at is rubbing, or patting. Horses much prefer rubbing, it seems. Some horses hate being touched at all, and it is good to respect this and use a different form of reward, but most will enjoy a nice rub on their withers. I tend to discourage patting, because when a rider is very enthusiastic, the patting may end up being more like a slap to the horse, and he won’t know what you meant – that he did a good job, or a bad one.

Whichever form of reward works best for you and your horse, it should be administered directly after the good behaviour, e.g. less than three seconds after he did what you want. For best results, it would be immediate, because a horse will learn faster that way. Pressure and release is the form of reward that I use the most for training, because the message I convey to the horse is simple and easy for him to understand.

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