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.