Rewards are a common tool when training/riding a horse. The technical name for rewards used for training is Positive Reinforcement, meaning you are adding a stimulus to create a positive association with an action so the horse wants to remember and repeat the action.
For a reward to be effective, it has to be understood and appreciated by the recipient. Saying “Good Boy” if the horse hasn’t yet been taught what it means, offering it a treat it doesn’t like, or giving it a big neck slap, might not be understood to be a reward to the horse, making it ineffective as a positive reinforcement tool. It doesn’t matter that you MEAN to reward the horse, it only matters that the horse interprets the action as a reward.
Imagine you are on a horse you have never ridden and you give the horse a neck slap as a reward. If the horse hasn’t been taught that a neck slap is a reward then the horse might misinterpret the slap as a punishment. In this case your INTENT means nothing to the horse: you may have meant to reward the horse, but did so in a way that this horse found uncomfortable.
A reward could be a trained reward such as a verbal “Good Boy” or clicker sound, or an inherently understood reward such as a neck rub/scratch or a food reward.
Unlike Negative Reinforcement which should be used with each command to keep a horse from getting dull, rewards lose their effectiveness if used for responses that are already well established, or if the reward is given so much it is no longer special. The most effective way to use rewards is to offer them consistently when first training a new behaviour, but then to taper them off as the new behaviour becomes consistent.
Keep in mind that when training a horse Positive Reinforcement isn’t a required training method, but if you wish to use it, use it sparingly enough that the horse feels motivated to try for the reward. If the horse knows it will get a carrot for letting you pick up its left front foot for the hundredth time, the carrot will become an EXPECTATION rather than a reward!
For a nervous horse, or a horse that has a poor work ethic (sour)however, I will reward smaller moments to help create a more positive association with work, keeping bigger rewards for bigger progress.
A reward also has to be given in a timely manner so that the reward is associated with the action you want the equine to remember and recreate.
I am trying to teach Izzy to do a quiet flying lead change. She already knows what “Good Girl” means, so when she achieves a good lead change I immediately remove aids (negative reinforcement) say “GOOD GIRL” (positive reinforcement) and then “WHOA” and then she gets a cookie (stronger positive reinforcement) and a break. Even though the big reward is after the WHOA command, because Izzy does not get a reward after a typical whoa, and because she received the “Good Girl” reward immediately, I feel she is able to make the connection between the last big command (the lead change) and the reward.
Another key with rewards is to only use them to reward moments you want the horse to remember and to recreate. All too often I see a rider using positive reinforcement as a way to try to calm a horse or to thank it for getting past its fear response without dumping its rider. Unfortunately the bigger a deal you make about a traumatic event, the more the horse will remember it, and if you create a positive association with a spook, then you run the risk that the horse will think you are rewarding the spook! Really, the best response I find to be to a traumatic event is as little a response as possible: help the horse refocus and do something well so neither horse nor rider dwell on the exciting moment.
It’s like with little kids: if a little kid swears and everyone laughs, that kid is going to keep swearing at all sorts of awkward moments as it was positively inforced to swear. If everyone had just ignored the child, it would be less likely to repeat the behaviour.
- Rewards need to be UNDERSTOOD and ENJOYED by the recipient. It isn’t just the thought that counts!
- Rewards need to be used in a TIMELY manner, and SPARINGLY enough that they have meaning and importance.
-Rewards are used to encourage the horse to REMEMBER and RECREATE the response.
I do like using Positive Reinforcement as rewards tend to make both the giver and the recipient feel good, but because they are quite effective, rewards need to be used carefully to ensure they don’t teach the wrong thing!