Rewards and Reprimands

There are many different ways to train a horse. Some trainers talk about making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. This is easily interpreted as wait until the horse does something wrong and punish it. My interpretation is to help them do things correctly in the first place and there will be no need to punish.
A reward based training program can be very effective. By reward I do not mean a food treat, rather a release of pressure. I am inclined to help the horse out as much as he needs me to although there is still a need for well timed reprimands.
It is important to be aware of how your horse learns. Horses are highly intelligent animals that are capable of making informed decisions. They can analyze information that is presented to them. The more clearly a request is made the more chance the horse has in making the correct movement. If they do things correctly they need to be rewarded. It is when they do things incorrectly that we run into trouble. Instead of punishing the horse for being confused it is more beneficial to change the way we asked to help him figure things out.
I think that initially how hard your horse tries to be correct, even if they are not, is more important than how well they perform the maneuver requested. If the horse is putting in a genuine effort and can’t quite figure things out you must reward his effort. By rewarding his effort he will be encouraged to continue trying. Eventually he will be correct and then you can really make a big deal over how well he performed.
As intelligent animals horses are prone to anticipate things. This can often hinder us but there are times when we can use it to our advantage. If your horse is rewarded for trying to do something for you he will anticipate that if he tries he will get a release of some kind. The amount of release or reward he gets depends on how hard he tries. He will learn that the harder he tries the faster he is rewarded. Soon the horse is gaining confidence because he knows that you noticed his effort and praised him for it.
On the other hand if you are not prepared to help him out he will also anticipate being punished. If you ask him to do something and he does it wrong if he is punished he will learn that his efforts are not appreciated. The next time you ask for the same thing he already knows he is in trouble so he will be wrong again so he will be punished again. This cycle can be hard to break. If and when he finally does it correctly he has done it because he is afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t do it. He is reacting out of fear of punishment. He is not responding out of a willingness to do things because he is encouraged to try.
There are certainly times when a reprimand is necessary. When you do encourage small efforts some horses will start to take advantage of that. So he will try only enough that you reward his small effort. He will not try harder because he does not need to. These horses need reminded from time to time that there must be genuine effort to improve.
If there is to be a reprimand it is important that the horse dictate the intensity of the correction. If he is only mildly misbehaving then a mild correction is all that is called for. The worse he gets the more intense the reprimand becomes. You must meet the horses’ level of resistance and exceed it slightly when scolding him. You must also offer to get softer than he is when he starts to accept the things you ask of him.
A reward should be comfortable and encouraging. You do not have to lavish attention on your horse, a simple bow of your head or a pat on his neck is enough. He just needs to know that you noticed.
A reprimand on the other hand should just cause discomfort and not pain. It is important to note that the reprimand can be intense but the duration must be short. Scold him like you mean it but only scold him once for an offence. Do not pick on him, or he will resent your behavior. At that point you have lost his respect and in his mind you have become a domineering bully.
Horses need time to think. When asking something from your horse give him time to figure out what you want. Watch your horses’ expression and you will often see him thinking. If you notice him being indecisive do not scold him or reward him until he commits to making a decision about what to do. He will do one of three things when he is deep in thought. He will make a decision to do things incorrectly and get a correction. He will do things correctly and get a reward. Or he will continue to think which will buy him time.
In order to be a reliable leader to your horse you must be many things. You must be mentally stronger, more aware, more sensitive, more comforting, more disciplined and more patient than he is. If you take the time to help your horse out he will notice the change in your attitude. You in turn will see a change in his. He needs to know that you noticed that he noticed that you are trying to help. Whether he takes what you are offering is up to him. Make the right thing easy.

© 2004 Will Clinging