Are you proficient in the art of attaboy? Do you consistently reinforce the behavior and responses you want in your horse, in order to get more of them?
If so, you’re taking advantage of the most powerful training tool there is. But if you’re like many well-meaning riders, you may not be using rewards consciously or often enough to gain their full benefit in shaping your horse’s behavior.
In this article, we’re going to help you understand why you should use rewards to maximum benefit, and how to go about it.
We’ve gathered insights and tips from a range of equine experts. They’ll explain the difference between the various types of behavior reinforcements, and tell you why reinforcement trumps punishment as a behavior modifier.
They’ll also provide specific examples of the kinds of rewards they’ve found most appreciated by horses, including some innovative strategies that may surprise you.
Armed with this information, you can put together your own super-high-gain “equine incentive program.”
Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement
For starters, let’s clear up some confusion. Many people think negative reinforcement means punishment, whereas positive reinforcement means reward.
Not so, explains Robert M. Miller, DVM, in his book Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands. “Both negative reinforcement (the removing of discomfort, such as leg or rein pressure) and positive reinforcement (the adding of comfort, such as pleasurable stroking) are rewards,” notes Dr. Miller.
“Most learned behaviors in horses are the result of reinforcement—a reward that is given consistently after a behavior occurs until the behavior becomes a conditioned response.”
Both positive reinforcement (adding a good thing) and negative reinforcement (removing an unpleasant one) are more effective in molding your horse’s behavior than punishment is. That’s because training horses is much like raising children: It’s better to explain clearly what you want, then reward the tiniest positive effort, than to demand obedience and then punish resistance.
Though punishment has a place (as when your horse shows aggressive behavior toward you), it’s not a good training tool in general (see “The Carrot vs. The Stick,” below).
THE CARROT VS. THE STICK
Punishment as a training tool “should become obsolete,” says clinician John Lyons. “It’s unnecessary and counter-productive. Your horse wants peace with you, and he’ll adapt his life to achieve it. When he isn’t ‘getting’ something you’re trying to teach him, he’s already unhappy. Punishing him at this point is backward thinking, and just causes anxiety.
“Instead, show him again—more clearly—what you want, and when he responds even a little, give him instantaneous, positive feedback. This is much preferable to concentrating on what you don’t want (the lack of or wrong response), and making your horse more miserable in the process.
“Think of it another way: If your boss only yelled at you whenever you made a mistake, and never praised you for doing something correctly, pretty soon you wouldn’t want to go to work at all.
“It’s the same for your horse.”
Some traditional trainers use negative reinforcement exclusively and get good results, though it might be argued that the best traditional trainers use both negative and positive reinforcement. Most natural-horsemanship-oriented trainers routinely use a combination of both types of rewards.
In negative reinforcement, the “reward” is usually the cessation of the pressure you applied to ask for a response. For it to be effective, however, the cessation must come immediately after your horse responds. When your horse takes that first step backward in response to rein pressure, a brief, instantaneous softening of the reins tells him, “That’s right—that's what I want!”
But if you keep the pressure on all the way through the back-up, releasing it only after your horse has stopped, he won’t get a clear association between his response and the reward. That means he’ll never learn to be light to your rein cue.
Clinician John Lyons says timing is indeed the key to specificity.
“If I said to you, ‘That was a phenomenal paragraph you wrote awhile back,’ without being more specific, you wouldn’t know what I was praising you for,” he explains. “Similarly, your release of rein or leg pressure must be perfectly timed. When it is, it’s a clear ‘yes!’ to a specific thing your horse has done.”
Reining champion and clinician Stacy Westfall says it’s the sensitive, multiple, well-timed releases of pressure that make it OK to seek top performance from your horse.
“So many people are afraid to apply the pressure needed to ask their horses to do something,” she observes. “But there should be a ‘conversation’ of pressure and release during any maneuver—a spin, for example. Ask, horse responds, release a little...then ask, horse responds, release a little.
"You’ll have varying degrees of pressure throughout a maneuver, and it all works if your softenings and releases are properly timed to reinforce the responses you want,” she explains.
Ac-cen-tuate the Positive
That’s how to make negative reinforcement work, and the caveat regarding timing applies equally to positive reinforcement. You must deliver the desirable thing immediately after the correct response if you want your horse to get the connection.
In addition, it’s best if the reward is brief. If it lasts too long, explains Miller, “the reason for the reward may be forgotten.”
What sort of things can be used as rewards? Miller describes several in his book, noting that it often depends on what the horse wants/needs in the moment.
His list includes a brief rest break if the horse is tired or winded; edible treats (which most horses appreciate anytime); and praise, stroking, and scratching.
There are other potential rewards (such as turnout with buddies for a horse that wants to socialize), but these are less practical to use as positive reinforcement because they can’t be provided quickly enough. (You can, however, use these types of incentives as nonspecific rewards to boost your horse’s overall positive attitude; more on that in a moment.)
But a quick rest break makes a highly effective reinforcer.
“If your horse has given you a great stop, for example, just sit there for a moment and let him relax,” suggests Miller. In this way, he adds, you’re combining both negative and positive reinforcement—releasing all your stopping cues, plus allowing the break.”
Then, he adds, giving a rub or scratch on the withers—a place where a horse can’t reach to scratch himself and thus a favorite mutual-grooming spot—enhances the “incentive package” even further.
Because mutual grooming is in fact a highly valued equine activity, stroking that mimics this grooming is one of the most appreciated rewards you can give. As a bonus, it strengthens the bond between you and your horse.
Note that horses do not pat or slap one another, though. So a firm, steady stroke or a scratch with bunched fingers is the preferred form of touch when you reward your horse this way.
When using your voice to provide praise as an incentive, try to maintain the same low, encouraging tone each time you do so, so your horse can come to recognize this as your “official” signal of approval. As Miller points out, horses crave acceptance, so just knowing that you’re pleased with them can be a significant reward.
Your voice is always handy, and that makes it convenient to use. But, as both Miller and Bonnie Beaver, DVM, point out, it’s not as good as a clicker.
“Your voice can vary too much,” explains Dr. Beaver, a certified animal behaviorist at Texas A&M University. “A clicker is precise.”
In other words, you can click the plastic clicker-training device exactly at the moment of response, and the sound serves as a “bridging stimulus” to close the gap between the action being rewarded and the actual reward.
In clicker training, you condition your horse to associate the click to a highly desired outcome, such as receiving a food treat (though other rewards, such as a rub, may also work).
Once that association is solid, you can then deliver the click at the instant of correct response, and your horse will know exactly what you’re rewarding him for, even if he receives the food treat a few moments later. It’s the precision and unambiguousness of the click that makes this method so effective.
Miller notes that clicker training is widely used in the training of other species, too—such as dogs, primates, and marine mammals—and is now even being used to enhance the performance of juvenile human athletes.
Food Fights—or Whether or Not to Treat
But, as you likely already know, providing food treats as rewards is a matter of unending debate among experts. Because it can be problematic (careless “treating” causes horses to become pushy, nippy, and potentially dangerous), some trainers advise categorically against it.
Others swear by it—but only when done properly.
Stacy Westfall is in the latter group. “If you look closely at my freestyle video, you can see white all around the mouth of the mare I’m riding,” she says, referring to the YouTube clip of her riding a reining pattern without a saddle or bridle.
“That mare loves peppermints, and I’d been feeding them to her during warm-up. The bit got all sticky, and when we took the bridle off before I went into the arena, the ‘sticky’ stayed.”
The trainer says she doesn’t use the mints as a direct positive reinforcement, but rather as a general mood-enhancer of sorts.
“It’s not as if the horses spin harder to get a peppermint,” she explains. “But they do start perking up whenever they see you. It helps them think there’s more to life than work all the time, and encourages them to have a happy feeling about me—and if a horse feels more positive about you in general, it can only enhance your training goals.”
She does caution that you must be scrupulously careful to avoid spoiling your horse with treats.
“Your groundwork has to be in place and very strong before you even begin feeding treats,” she maintains. “My 2-year-olds don’t get treats at all. I need to make sure they’re completely respectful, first.
“With my older horses, I never let them ‘strip-search’ me for treats,” she adds. “If they start frisking or demanding, it’s back to the groundwork to get them to respect my personal space. I withhold treats until they’re behaving properly.”
TO TREAT, OR NOT TO TREAT?
There is no unified consensus on this topic. In his book, Dr. Miller offers this information on treats:
“Traditionally, most horse trainers spurn the use of food rewards to positively reinforce desired behaviors. They believe that it spoils horses, makes them ‘mouthy,’ and encourages biting and disrespect. Yet, some of the best trainers in the world use food rewards extensively, including many of the best circus and trick-horse trainers, plus the best classical trainers, such as those in Vienna’s Spanish Riding School.
“What this tells us is that the use of food rewards, as with any other training method, requires expertise and experience.”
Dr. Miller elaborated on this topic when we contacted him for this article.
“Food rewards are one of the quickest ways to get all kinds of behaviors changed or developed in a horse,” he explained. “One safety strategy I’ve used successfully on the ground is to teach the horse to turn his nose away from me before I give him the treat. Horses learn this quickly if you just always wait until they turn their head before giving them the treat.
“But because I’ve found that the majority of people ultimately don’t feed treats properly, I don’t recommend it. I know someone who routinely fed treats and had two middle fingers bitten off—people don’t realize how hard horses can bite.”
Be forewarned, then, and if you do elect to use food as rewards, always do it properly.
About Those 'Nonspecific Rewards'
So food treats—properly given, of course—can be used both as a specific positive reinforcement (best with the “bridging” of a clicker) or as a nonspecific reward to improve the quality of your horse’s life in general. What other rewards fall into this latter, mood-enhancing category?
Stacy Westfall uses “mental breaks”—that is, interruptions in the training session where she might walk the horse at ease for a bit or even drop the bridle and let him graze. This takes advantage of the fact that horses are what she calls “next-day learners.” They may start to get a glimmer of what you’re asking for on the first day you introduce something to them, but the next day—after they’ve “slept on it,” so to speak—is when they really seem to get it.
By providing an extended mental break, she maintains, you can get some of the benefits of the next-day effect.
“You have a work cycle and a recovery cycle,” she explains. “So, especially if it’s hot out, I might ride for 15 minutes, then just hang out with my horse for a little while—maybe take a short, pleasant walk down the trail, or let him graze a bit—then do another 15 minutes of focused work.
"During the break, the horse seems to recover almost to the point that, at the end of the break, it’s now the ‘second day.’ It’s like you or I taking a coffee break—you get tense and irritable, but then get out of the work environment for a bit, and come back feeling so refreshed.
“It’s the reason a lot of our reining horses are more general-broke as opposed to just reining-broke,” she adds. “We might go ride the trails at any time.”
California-based clinician Ray Berta, who learned natural horsemanship from the legendary Tom Dorrance, is also keen on allowing significant rest breaks.
“It gives horses a chance to connect to what it is you’re wanting,” he says. "Then, the next time you present him with the same request, he’s much more likely to find the desired response again.”
During his breaks, Berta allows his horse to walk around and stretch his head down and relax. He sometimes even allows him freedom to explore on his own.
“Or, I may just stop and sit for a while as I rub or scratch on him. Either way, it allows him to absorb what he is learning and make it his own.”
Other nonspecific rewards can include play and/or turnout.
“The chance to chase a ball or fuss with another toy can be a reward, as can free time to run and buck in a paddock or pasture,” notes Dr. Beaver. “Running at will and interacting with other horses can clear a horse’s mind and help keep his overall attitude positive.
"Horses do appreciate it, so why not provide this sort of environmental enrichment?”
Berta adds that an extended, post-ride rubdown can serve as an excellent nonspecific reward, as well.
“Stay with your horse as he’s coming back to equilibrium,” he suggests, “and make it a time for developing your bond. Tom Dorrance was big on this. As you’re cooling your horse out and grooming him, he’s still connected to you and tuned in to what you’re doing, plus absorbing what you’ve just taught him.
"Linger there. He carried you and did a lot of work; now be there for him.”
The editors wish to Laurie Cooper of Latrobe, California, and her Quarter Horse mare Somebodys Lil Babe for serving as models for this article.
REWARDS AT A GLANCE - A CONCISE SUMMARY
Negative reinforcement = removal of discomfort, such as rein pressure, leg pressure, halter pressure, etc. (Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment.)
Positive reinforcement = addition of something comfortable or pleasant at the moment of compliance, such as:
• verbal praise;
• stroking, scratching;
• a brief rest break;
• a food treat (can spoil horse if not done systematically, as in clicker training; see “To Treat, Or Not To Treat”).
Nonspecific reward = provision of something comfortable or pleasant anytime, such as:
• a mental break—a period of “downtime” during a work session, during which the horse might rest, walk at leisure, or even graze;
• turnout or playtime, especially with other horses;
• an extended grooming session or rubdown, especially after a work session.
To be effective, both positive and negative reinforcement must occur immediately after the behavior or response you’re trying to reinforce. Keep positive reinforcements brief, and mix them up for best effect.
A nonspecific reward can be given anytime; its effect will be to brighten your horse’s outlook on life and work, plus strengthen his bond to you.
Punishment is not reinforcement and is less effective as a training tool than reinforcement is (see “The Carrot vs. The Stick,” above).