A recipe for success: Praising your horse

A successful training is difficult. In the end however riders are more than happy if there is a learning progress. But often they forget to praise the horse for the great job. Sometimes you can see how a horse jumps through a whole course and the praise is nothing more but a gentile and short tap on his neck- and that is definitely not enough! On the other hand there are riders who praisse their horse too much and even if the horse just behaved in a terrible way. No extreme is effective and in the end the wrong behavior will disturb the whole learning process.

The right timing of rewards

In most cases horses offer a great willingness to learn. Praises support the learning process and are a great motivation for the horse to give his best. The most important aspect of praises is the right timing. A praise can only be effective if it comes directly after the right behavior or reaction of the horse. Contrary is it very inefficient and actually irritates the horse if the rider praises the horse too much and even after a wrong behavior.

There is a variety of options to praise the horse. You can simply use your voice, make a short pause from the training, give a treat or just caress the neck. In any case the praise is only efficient when it comes at the right time. Referring to my own experiences I recommend to avoid the short tap on the neck of the horse. It is no kind way of praising and due to the rough movement it is very similar to a rebuke (some riders tap their horse when they want him to stop nibble). The horse may interpret it in a wrong way and think that his behavior was wrong. Referring to this the rider should make clear distinctions between praise and rebukes to avoid any kind of confusion.

As already mentioned an effective praise mostly is dependent on the right timing. Especially at the beginning of a new training unit the rider needs to praise every tendency which leads to the wished behavior. To give an example: You are training to lower the head of your horse. For this exercise you stand next to the horse and pull the robe towards the ground. As soon as you can feel the first movement of the head towards the ground you immediately stop the pressure and praise. The horse will understand quite quickly what you expect him to do. The praise can be short but effective. Some simple voice praise like “great” or “good” are already enough. The importance here is only the use of the right tone. The wrong behavior is to pull the robe until the neck of the horse is completely lowered. This behavior is too forcing and will effect nothing but the simple resistance of the horse.

Rewards are important and a motivation for the horse.

Rewards are important and a motivation for the horse.

The right dose of praising- sometimes less is more

Too much praising can simply confuse the horse. In any case he has to understand which behavior was right (praise) and wrong (no certain reaction of the rider). Example: you lunge the horse but in one corner it always reacts in a frightened way and jumps to the side. Then the rider should only praise the horse when it behaves better in that certain corner. During the rest of the circle the horse does not need any further praising because it already behaves correctly.

Praising is no recipe against a frightened behavior

If your horse is easily frightened and nervous the rider should try to avoid any praising. Even if the rider just intends to calm down the horse the horse can understand it as a praise for his nervous behavior. Therefore the next time he will behave in the same way. Instead the best way is to use your own body language. If the rider is relaxed and calm this will have calm effects on the horse. The animal can learn to trust you and see you as a partner who leads him through apparently dangerous situations. Again you can use your voice. It is crucial to speak clearly and to use other words than you use for praising.

In the course of the training with the animal the relationship between rider and horse becomes closer and the rider needs less praises. During a training unit you and your horse already did many times you do not need to praise every single approach the horse offers towards the right behavior. Nevertheless praising always is an instrument of motivation and should therefore always be part of the daily training.

The “super” praising for extraordinaire behavior

You can try to distinguish between praising for the right and for the extraordinary behavior. If your horse manages very difficult training units you invent the “super” praising. This can be a new word (“good boy”, “superman” or “merci beaucoup”) and a special treat like a piece of apple or a carrot. This “super” praising will motivate your horse to behave in the same way he did before getting it.

Following these simple rules about praising you will quickly have a first learning success. You can simple combine the three variables of timing, dose and kind of reward to influence the behavior of the horse during the learning process. The right combination will support the right behavior of the horse and additionally motivate him. Then horse and rider can enjoy together the successful training.