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January 25, 2022 7 Comments
1. Safety and Trust
When a horse is afraid, they value safety. They seek an environment where all the pressures come off, allowing space to do what naturally comes next - eating and play. It’s difficult to offer safety as a reward for behavior but it does work as a prerequisite to learning rather than a reward. In other words, if you make your horse feel safe upfront, he/she will find it easier to follow your lead and learn. Providing safety often requires the leadership to plan ahead or often it requires the leadership to shut down unwanted behavior, so the horse begins to see you taking control in unsafe situations. Regardless of when and how you provide safety and trust, rest assured it's one of the foundation pieces to good horsemanship.
2. Release from Pressure
When a horse is learning, we know that pressure motivates a horse and it’s the release from pressure teaches. In other words, horses value relief. This just happens to be another fundamental part of leadership related to teaching horses. If the horse does what you want, you stop asking. Many trainers rely solely on this method for teaching. If you mess it up and inadvertently hold the pressure on the horse, he/she will assume he didn't get it right and keep looking for answers. Example: You might tap with your heels to go. If your horse responds, you release the tapping and the horse learns. If you continue tapping, he/she may become dull and uninterested because the release never came and no reward seemed present.
When a horse is no longer afraid, eating is the most natural thing to do next. Some horses value food more than anything, while others may put it further down the list. Generally, it’s ranked high in the hierarchy of useable rewards in a learning situation. However, food probably shouldn’t be used heavily in a safety or trust situation because it can trigger heightened, excited emotions. Some trainers like to avoid using food to reward horses. I can understand their reasons. Some horses become overbearing with food. But don't forget. Food is something horses value and if you're clever you can use it and achieve extraordinary results. Plus... you'll find out, it's not always about results and sometimes it's about giving back to the horse and making sure their experience is as good as ours.
4. Touching and Grooming
When a horse is not afraid, they tend to value touch and grooming. In a learning state of mind, touching and scratching can be as rewarding as any food treat, depending on the horse. Horses are tactile creatures. They get itchy and dirty, and dry. Simply brushing your horse can be rewarding. Digging a little under the surface, especially in his/her sensitive areas like ears, underbelly, tail, etc. can really light up your horse in a fun, positive way.
When a horse is does something you like, the most natural thing to do is give praise. Although horses don’t value praise the same way a dog does, or at least, to a lesser degree, they do respond to the positive expressions we deliver. Praise should generally be the first level of reward from a trainer, backed up by release from pressure, grooming and food treats. To be clear, your horse may never understand your words, but he/she will certainly respond to your intention. When you speak praise to your horse, your intention toward him shifts and you find yourself embracing a true partner. Horses read intention to survive. It's how a zebra can tell if the lion is traveling through, or on the hunt.
6. Fun and Play
When a horse is no longer afraid, playing and having fun are great activities. However, these are the hardest to implement as rewards for learning and act more as a connection tool for bonding. Horses are herd animals, and they love companionship, so offering lighthearted companionship is often a big plus. Occasionally however, you can use fun as a reward too. Let's say you do something challenging, like flying lead changes and it all goes to plan, then for a reward, you do something simple, something you know your horse loves, like pushing the ball, or standing on the pedestal. You are allowed to be creative with your horse and you should also have fun. After all, why did we get into horses in the first place, right?
Comment below, thanks for reading. See you soon.