Throughout the training process we are constantly correcting and managing our horses in order to teach them what it is we are asking when we apply a certain pressure, or an aid. It can be easy to forget to reward your horse in the moments that he suddenly clicks and offers the desired response, however it is an important part of the training process so next time you are in the saddle remember to praise your four-legged friend.
Horses are amazing creatures in what they will do for us that sometimes we take it for granted that what we are asking them to do is totally normal- when really most of the time what we are doing isn’t natural for a horse. Take loading on a float for example, it goes against everything a horses instinct tells it to do. Think about how training must seem like to the horse; put yourself in his shoes for a minute. In our training and sport we are constantly putting them under physical exertion, this exertion causes some degree of discomfort and even pain for our horses, just like when we exercise. In dressage and jumping he will feel some degree of discomfort in his muscles when we ask him to collect more and sit on his hind legs. When we ask them to gallop their lungs burn like ours do when we go for a run. The difference is when we embark on exercise, we know what our goals are, we know the outcome but our horses don’t understand the point of their training. They are simply doing what we ask because we are asking them to work for us. That is remarkable in itself and deserves our respect just for that alone.
When you think about the training process we are always asking for our horses to learn and understand new aids, until they can do it easily like they always knew how! We are constantly saying “no, not that”, “yes, that’s it”, “more of this”, “more of that”. We need to reward our horses so that they know what response has been correct and what isn’t. That is why it is so important to reward the slightest hint of a correct response when training a new thing and sit quiet when it’s not quite right. When we apply pressure in the form of a leg, rein or seat aid and the horse gives the wrong response but we reward it then he learns that is the correct response for that particular pressure, instead we should only reward the right response but reward him often. This can be in the form of a walk break and a nice big pat or a simple “good boy” in a friendly tone.
They genuinely want to please us and do the right thing. They all have different personalities and quirks so this determines what sort of training they should receive. Some horses are rowdy and love to be in charge so when these types really listen to their rider a big reward, big pats and praise is great in this situation. There are other times when you want to continue training and a simple neck scratch while you continue your training is sufficient. The most important thing is that you reward him and tell him how much you love him! The more fun he thinks you are having, the harder he will try to please you! Make him feel like he is the superstar that he is- tell him he’s the best and he will offer you his best.
Try to be as generous with your rewards as you are disciplined with correcting him. Tailor your rewards to his level. If the horse is learning a new movement then a try and the correct response deserves a big reward, if the horse knows a certain movement and is established then you can train harder and demand perfection but still remember to reward his efforts and give him a big reward when he has done it really well!
Don’t expect big leaps in your training every day, if he is working even 5% better on something that was a struggle or problem a few days ago then that is plenty! It might not be perfect yet but it is a big improvement on yesterday. Reward should be an emphasis to encourage the horse to learn more and stay motivated, remember he is working for your dream- not his! Teach him to be a worker and motivate him to stay interested every day. Let them know you appreciate them every day, it is meant to be fun for both of you.
Be careful not to lose the quality in the work because of the reward however, dressage riders often will give their inside rein forward for a pat on the neck, keeping the outside rein or the submission rein steady. This also serves as a great test to see how he is in the contact. However giving the rein away may not be the best reward for an unbalanced horse so a simple vocal praise would be enough. It also is great to make sure that you aren’t riding with the handbrake on all the time!
Think about your timing always and reward the correct response, this will make for a happy, responsive and motivated horse that wants to make every work day count for you.