While I believe that some horse owners go overboard in making a fuss over their horses every time they do something right, I do think that, sometimes, some of us forget to reward our horses when they do something right.
For instance, we have one student who is such a perfectionist that she can rarely acknowledge when she and her horse have done an exercise well. Instead, her mind congers up five or six ways she should have done the exercise better, so I often have to remind her to pat her horse, to tell that she, at least, performed well.
Training horses is very much a carrot-and-stick game. You have to reward them for answering your aids or commands correctly (with the figurative or literal carrot), but they also have to know that there is punishment for not answering correctly (the figurative or literal stick).
I always preach to our students that they must be in command of their horses, both on the ground and on their backs. Horses want to have a leader, and if you don’t fill that role, then they will, because nature abhors a vacuum. And part of leadership is telling those in your command when they’ve done something right—rewarding them.
I’ve always found that reward is particularly important with young and green horses, and your reward often needs to be effusive—lots of pats on the neck, repeated “good boy” or “good girl,” or food treats. Why? Because their understanding of proper and improper answers and behavior is limited, so every time they give you a right answer, you need to tell them. As horses get older and become more experienced, they need for effusive reward becomes less because they know when they’ve answered correctly. But you should still confirm, at least in a small way, that they’ve answered correctly.
In the photo you see here, I’m patting my wonderful mare Alba on the neck in the middle of the intermediate cross-country course at the Woodside Horse Trials here in California. This might seem to be in direct contrast to what I just said, but we’d just completed a rather difficult combination at which, in our previous run there, I’d pulled her out at the second jump because I’d made a mistake approaching the first jump, making the stride impossible to make to the second one. I’ll admit that I was probably congratulating myself as much as her, but I wanted make sure she knew that I was proud of her and pleased with her excellent effort.
On course, I would often reward Alba with my voice or a pat, because she galloped around big courses on her heart, because she’s a brave and eager little horse who believed in me and trusted our relationship. So I always wanted to keep adding glue to the bond we had between us.
Similarly, my previous star Merlin was oddly lacking in self-confidence, despite the fact that his physical gifts towered over Alba’s, and I always rewarded him on course for his efforts, especially when he was a young horse. I wanted to be sure that he knew that he’d been brave, and I always felt it was an important ingredient to adding to his trust in me.
On the other hand, my current intermediate horse, Amani, is a different sort. She’s very confident in herself (I often joke that she truly believes the sun rises every morning just to shine on her beautiful back), but when she was young her first answer to new jumps was periodically an emphatic “No!” I literally used the stick to convince her that that was absolutely the wrong answer and that she could jump anything I’d ever point her toward with one leg tied behind her back. After a few months, she decided I was right, and she hasn’t had a cross-country jumping fault since she was 4 (she’s about to turn 8).
Yes, I do quietly reward Amani for answering my aids correctly, but not nearly as effusively as with Alba or Merlin. Just a quiet “good girl” or a scratch on the neck with my pinky finger.
Trailer training is another place where rewards are a good idea, especially if the horse is an anxious or uncertain loader or shipper. In the last few years, I’ve had two horses who would go on the trailer but not back off it. One was an older mare who could be quite stubborn, and the other was a young horse whom we’d bred. With both, I taught them how to back up on my command all around the barn, at first using a chain over their nose and a dressage whip to encourage them to respond by backing up, and then rewarding them with my voice, hand and treats when they did it right. And for awhile I made sure to have a treat when they backed off the trailer correctly.
The bottom line: Be sure you’re in command of your horse, but remember to reward him for obeying you.