Positive Reinforcement

It’s common knowledge that most managers are stingy with their praise, but as the managing partner of your equine team, do you praise often enough? Lately, I’ve been stumbling on numerous forum posts and articles related to “lazy” horses. In my experience, most so called “lazy” horses are created by riders teaching the horse to ignore the aids. However, a rider with more refined aids (on the less than energetic horse) needs to be conscientious in praising the horse’s effort to give us what we want (even if the horse has no clue why we care about some of this stuff). Using positive reinforcement to solidify the horse’s desire to work goes much farther than negatively reinforcing the “lazy” horse.

To illustrate this point I’ll give a totally hypothetical, entirely made up situation. Let’s say “my friend” (Okay, fine.. it’s me.) feels her horse’s canter departs need improvement and sets out to work on them during a training session. On that day, “my friend” asks her horse for several walk to canter transitions. However, after getting a good transition, “my friend” decides to solidify this exercise by asking for additional walk to canter departs (yes, I did this). She continues the exercise three more times, getting two good departs before her horse bombs the third. You see where this is going, right? I missed my window to praise my horse for the effort, even if it wasn’t a consistently good depart, at this stage of the game all I really care about is that my mare tried to give me the answer she thought I wanted. By not rewarding for that effort immediately, I told her that there’s no positive enforcement for putting that kind of energy into it. Her goal then becomes simply to avoid a negative response from me (bop with the whip or leg). My mare has explained to me, in no uncertain terms, that negative reinforcement will cause her to shut down.  What I want to foster is the willingness to try her hardest even if she doesn’t understand. The only way I can create that mentality is to praise and reward her for that effort immediately.

It’s a fine line to know when to reward for effort, yet still demand perfection. Understanding your horse’s abilities, and not asking for more than they are physically capable of, requires that the rider know the horse inside and out. There will always be times where we misjudge, ask for too much, but if the majority of the time we can positively reinforce that willingness in the horse to try their hardest, then we can stop negatively labeling the horse as “lazy” and instead focus on creating a much stronger partnership.

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3 thoughts on “Positive Reinforcement

  1. So very true 🙂 I've always hear the sayning "A horse can feel a fly." and thought… Well more leg ought to do it then hahahaha… I get the expression now to mean… You shouldn't need that much leg 😉 Well said !

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  2. Good insight into yourself and your horse! I try my best to praise at just the right time. My guy is uber insecure and he needs positive reinforcement to build his confidence. It works!

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