All posts by Karen

Effective Rewards

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.

20160909_152843   Izzy getting her cookie

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!

Verbal Rewards & the Chatty Rider

Anyone who has ridden with me for very long knows that I do not understand the neck slap as a reward for a horse. How is a horse to know that being hit is sometimes a punishment and sometimes a reward? I mean you wouldn’t slap a toddler on the back as reward for taking its first steps would you? (and if you would, perhaps you should reconsider becoming a parent).

I am a much bigger fan of the neck/wither scratch, or of just giving the horse a break from any commands. I am even a fan of the occasional treat reward while riding, and Izzy knows that when I tap her shoulder she should turn her head to receive a small cookie. The easiest reward however, is voice. A reward you can give at the precise time without stopping what you are doing. Clicker training is based on the idea of using a unique sound as a way to offer immediate reward, but are WORDS an effective reward for the horse?

(I do not think verbal rewards are the same as a clicker training click, as clicker trainers usually use a unique, non-verbal sound, and use it ONLY when training or reinforcing the sound).

Back when I used to start horses, the first thing I would teach them is a positive association with the word “GOOD” by offering treats or scratches at the same time as I used the word. Next I would teach them “WHOA”, and progress from there with other voice commands such as “STAND”, “WALK ON”, “OVER”, “BACK”, and “TROT ON”. It is typically of most training programs to introduce verbal commands, and verbal commands seem to be quickly processed and understood by horses.

It was eventually an apparent pattern that all the horses I trained would come to think that “GOOD” meant to stop, and I would have to untrain that reaction. The horse was quick to understand that words were cues, and it would seemingly try to figure out what command was wanted with the word “GOOD”, and as this was initially said in conjunction with an enforcing reward at the halt, the horse reasonably thought that “GOOD” meant “WHOA” .

For some reason, for all those years, it didn’t occur to me that the horse thinking that “GOOD” was a command might mean it was not an effective reward, and beyond that it might mean we need to be more careful with how we use our voice around our horses in general.

If horses are taught early that words can be commands, then it is probably stressful for the horse if it has to constantly listen to its rider talk and filter for real commands within the chatter. Voice commands are likely more effective when they are not mixed with random chatter. For this reason you will rarely hear me chat while I am doing more than walking on a loose rein, the exception being when I am talking through what I am doing to help teaching. I am quiet when I ride my horses, so they snap to attention when I do speak and they aren’t constantly trying to pick through my words for commands. (You may hear me humming when I am riding a very tense horse, but that is all for my own nerves.)

Horses are smart enough to recognize tone, so riders typically help the horse pick out commands by using a stronger tone when they issue a verbal command to their horse. Even this comes with issues when rider uses words the horse doesn’t understand in the same command tone such as “STOP PULLING” or “IF YOU WOULD JUST LISTEN” or “WILL YOU GET GOING”. Not only are these words the horse is unlikely to know, but I don’t think anyone has ever found success teaching a horse even simple sentences. The horse however, likely picks up that the tone is a command, but doesn’t understand the meaning, so it would make sense that this would potentially be stressful for the horse.

While horses understand words to be commands, people find words comforting and they find words EASY, so usually when you hear someone giving a horse a complicated command using words, it is unlikely they actually think the horse understands, and far more likely because they have become frustrated, nervous, or have met something that is beyond their skill level. Sometimes it also seems like people try to excuse losing their temper by using words to explain why they have gotten aggressive in their riding…not that they think the horse understands at all.

Verbal reward, and even other forms of praise often seem like it is more the rider congratulating themselves rather than actually wanting the horse to feel the praise. You see this most often when the rider manages to hang on during a buck or a dirty stop.

The best analogy I could think of to explain why I question the benefit of a verbal reward would be to imagine you were captured by aliens and you couldn’t understand their language, but you started to pick up that when they said “BLURG” you got food, and when they said “TRUFF” they pushed you down and you learned that this meant sit. Not obeying meant a correction of some sort. In the same way that horses learn verbal commands, you manage to learn a few words.

Imagine how exhausting it would be to have to listen to the random chatter of the aliens to try to pick up the few words you knew so you could avoid the correction? “ouiuoiubjnbkhounts, xcmboughjghv, vcvtTRUFFpoiopkbbiiysoubky”.

Imagine how stressful it would be if they started saying words you didn’t know, but in the tone you came to understand as being a command tone? “OIIIHGGBBKREEROUGHJBNMERRE”.

This is likely even more of an issue for horses as their species isn’t overly vocal in general: usually adult horses only “talk” to each other in stressful situations. Horses potentially have an inherent instinct to PAY ATTENTION to vocalizations.

Do I think verbally rewarding a horse is wrong? Not at all, but I don’t think it is a very effective reward, and should not replace effective rewards such as a neck rub/scratch, a cookie, or the best reward of all: giving the horse a break. Do I think talking to a horse is a good way to calm a nervous horse? Only in that it can be very effective in calming the rider, and possibly in distracting a looky horse, but only if the rider does not use a commanding tone. With horses though, I think the less you say, the more they hear. And if you are a chatty rider, then I think expecting the horse to respond to verbal commands or verbal praise is unfair to the horse, and might just be causing them undue stress.


But of course, this is just my opinion.


Summer Stuff.

I have updated the Show Schedule to include dates where I am judging (so not available). I am happy to consider other shows as long as I am not already booked! I know a few people want to consider the Harvest horse show this fall at Amberlea for example, and am happy to go as long as I have at least two students to take!

Is there interest in an in barn fun day again this summer? If so, we need to discuss dates!

Looking forward to a great summer!



More Holiday Schedule & Fun

It seems the vote is in, and I will teach lessons during the day on the 24th, but will be taking the 26th off. If you want to ride on the 24th in the morning, or if you want to take any extra lessons on any other day over the holidays, let me know!

During the week after Christmas, I will have a Holiday decorated course…but if anyone wants to design the actual pattern, feel free! Submit the course sometime next week.

I hope to see as many of you as possible on Sunday!



Hillside Holiday Schedule!

The Hillside Christmas party is Sunday the 20th, from 1-3pm! We are doing a Gift Exchange (value $30) and feel free to bring a food item/snack for our potluck. Hillside will provide beverages, plates and cutlery. This is a casual get together and non-horsy family is welcome to come out!

The barn will remain open normal hours during the Holidays, however there will be no lessons the evening of the 24th. I will teach instead either during the day on the 24th OR the morning of the 26th, so please let me know if you would like to ride either day.

If you wish to take additional lessons OR if you are away for your regularly scheduled lesson, please let me know!

As well, on December 24th and 25th, I will be doing afternoon chores at 3:30pm instead of 4pm, so please plan your visit accordingly.

Have a great holiday season!


Updated Schedule

I updated the lesson schedule to be current.

Tuesdays are available as either a flat lesson, OR if people want to work on obstacle training, either in hand (leading) or ridden. Hoping to create some braver horses and riders over the winter!

Starting to think of the barn Christmas party too…thinking of the 13th or 20th (Sundays). Does anybody have ideas of some fun things we can do?


Yay Hay.

Thank you to everyone who helped pick and stack hay the past few days. It was painfully hot for this task, but it feels good to have the hay in storage.  Particular thanks to Janine (and Jeff), Colina and Laureen who helped with multiple loads! Who needs a gym when you have horses.

Between picking/stacking hay, we also went to a show at Fultonvale on Saturday. I judged Western and English dressage in the morning, (while Rob picked more hay…lucky guy), and then Rob brought Beaux and Jack for the jumping in the afternoon.

The show was the first time in the jumpers for both the riders and the horses, and was a big success for both horses. More importantly though, we survived the heat! Lindsay made the decision to skip the 2’3″ division…which was just as well as we wouldn’t have been home until 7 if we had stayed…and of course we had to go get one more load of hay…

Our next show is likely the Hillside Fun show and Bar-b-que on August 2 (weather permitting). Linsday (Jack) has painted some lovely jumps for the occasion. Please let us know if you are coming! I need to start shopping for prizes. Cat wine may be one of them…now that we are an over 18 barn, I figure wine is appropriate!


The past and the future

Mapleleaf Meadows July 4 2015
Mapleleaf Meadows July 4 2015

DSC_2590 Jack Magnus4 Roman5

We had a good time at Mapleleaf Meadows International on the weekend, with Beaux, Jack, Magnus and Roman competing in the hunters on Saturday, and Rohan and Magnus participating in the dressage on Sunday. It was decent weather for a horse show: cool enough that wearing a show coat was comfortable!

Our next show is at Fultonvale this Saturday. I also need to know if anyone wants to go to Killerney on July 26th.

Entries are due for Vegreville on the 23rd of July, so if you want to go to the fair on the 7th (it is a Friday) please let me know soon, and get your entries in soon. I have two spots left in the trailer. I will also be looking for someone to help me with my two girls on the 6th and the 8th.

And we have posted details of the Hillside Fun Show that is on August 2nd! It is a fun jumper show and bar-b-que. Lindsay (Jack’s mom) did a great job on the prize list and sign up sheet in the barn!


So dry…

Please break out the rain dances! We need some serious rain to save the grass pastures.

And on a related note, bring your own beverages to the barn for the next while. The water cooler sprung a leak. Not sure if it needs to be replaced or if I can fix it. In the meantime I will put a jug of water in the barn just in case, but ideally, please bring your own water/drink until I get it resolved!


Jane Stone in June?

Is anybody interested in taking a lesson with Jane Stone in June? She is in town horse shopping for a few days, and could  come to Hillside the afternoon/evening of June 23rd (a Tuesday) and could possibly also teach the morning of the 25th (Thursday).

As we don’t have to cover the cost of her trip, lessons will be her regular at home rate of $50 for a private, and $40 for a semi-private. Jumping or dressage! I assume their is GST on top of that, but not sure.

Let me know ASAP if you are interested. I am for sure!