Training Rewards that Work

Do you think patting and praising your horse (and even treats) are really effective as a training tool? You might be surprised.

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By: Hazel Plumbley |

Show season is looming, the clippers are oiled, you’ve got new training goals for your horse and you’re ready to hit the schooling ring. Before you begin where you left off last fall, give some thought to your training routine and how you reward your horse under saddle to ensure your training is most effective.

As humans, we see the world largely from our own perspective. When the rewards we’ve come to rely on miss the equine benchmark, you and your horse may become frustrated, leading you to incorrectly assume that your horse is missing the point. But if your horse seems edgy or the behaviour you are training doesn’t occur more reliably as a result of your rewards, it may be time to change your training routine and find rewards your horse thinks are relevant.

The field of equitation science has provided us with insight into when and how horses learn most quickly, as well as what they value and find rewarding. Combining these important concepts can help accelerate your horse’s learning. While negative reinforcement – the well-timed release of pressure from light seat, leg, and hand aids – remains a pivotal concept in equine training, knowing how to set the stage for learning and to evaluate if your habituated training rewards are actually working may help you reach your training goals faster.

Everybody Stay Calm

Riding a horse can be a magical experience; that’s what keeps riders riding. However, from the horse’s perspective, being ridden can be stressful and not necessarily as positive as we would like to think. New environments, obscure aids, and poorly-timed rewards can create an anxious horse and riding can quickly become somewhat less enchanting.

“We really want to keep animals in a positive emotional state,” Dr. Paul McGreevy, author of Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, said in reference to the frame of mind in which horses learn most readily. Relaxation is the key to learning. What can you do to reliably keep tension at bay and maximize the learning environment for your horse during a training session?

Two words: wither scratching. In his book, McGreevy lists primary resources that are reinforcers for horses as “food, water, sex, play, liberty, sanctuary, and companionship.” Wither scratching closely mimics allogrooming, a social behaviour observed among horses that relaxes them and has been shown to reduce their heart rate. He notes that “a scratch on the correct part of the withers can represent a primary reinforcer.”

McGreevy’s occasional writing partner, leading equine scientist and clinician Dr. Andrew McLean uses wither scratching liberally in both groundwork and under-saddle training. McLean suggests it’s a means to bond with the horse as well as reward him for giving the “good try” that precedes the eventual correct response to a rider’s aids.

Patting vs. Scratching

Beware neck patting – a reward more commonly used by riders, which doesn’t have the same appeal to the horse. As McLean is quick to point out at his clinics, we are primates and primates pat. Horses don’t pat one another. In fact, under saddle, neck patting as a reward has been shown to result in more unaided movement and behaviour indicative of agitation than the use of wither scratching.

BC researcher and rider Zoë Thorbergson’s recent study titled Physiological and Behavioral Responses of Horses to Wither Scratching and Patting the Neck When Under Saddle catalogued equine behaviours in an effort to understand if wither scratching was useful as a way to relax and ready the horse to learn. Thorbergson’s model used an interval of ‘down time’ immediately after horses were ridden through a short training circuit. For one minute, horses stood on a loose rein while the rider sat quietly and either scratched the wither, patted the neck gently, or had no contact with the horse.

Wither scratching at the base of the mane between the shoulder blades consistently produced “more relaxed and less agitated behaviours” than the ubiquitous loose rein and the oft-used neck patting. Neck patting and no contact more frequently produced behaviours such as an open mouth, reefing on the reins, and tail swishing that may indicate an aroused and negative state in the horse that is not ideal for learning.

“A brief rest and a good wither scratching is a really good tool to use to watch for those relaxed behaviours,” says Thorbergson. “If we afford the horse the minute to relax, it will be easier to learn and it gives the rider a break to regroup as well.”

The beauty of Thorbergson’s research is it also provided riders with reliable indicators that their horse is relaxed and back in the learning zone. No need for heart-rate monitors; she emphasizes that riders should watch for two behaviours that will tell them their horse has relaxed: ‘neutral,’ outward-facing ears and a head carriage below the withers.

Lost in Translation?

Used as a powerful primary reinforcer, food rewards can accelerate learning and ensure its retention. Practically, delay in delivery makes the use of food rewards under saddle problematic – take too long and the horse does not associate the food with the behaviour you want to reward. However, if you take the time to train your horse that a distinctive sound reliably precedes delivery of a food reward, the sound becomes a secondary reinforcer. Clicker training, now widely used with horses, is an example of creating a secondary reinforcer using food rewards. Writing about clicker training in Equitation Science, McGreevy and McLean note, “Essentially, the clicker comes to mean ‘Yes, that’s good – a reward is coming.’”

What about using your voice instead of a ‘click’ to reward your horse? Riders frequently use their voice (e.g. “good boy!”) in what they imagine is a rewarding way. Sadly, your horse is not naturally encouraged by your vocalizations and could even be confused by them. If you’ve used “Good boy” ad nauseam with your horse, you may need to let it go as your reward phrase. Without being paired with a primary reinforcer in the past, it may have become white noise to your horse and it could take you longer to train that phrase as a secondary reinforcer.

Is all lost in translation? Not quite; using your voice as positive reinforcement from the ground and under saddle, particularly for training new or complex behaviours, works if you take the time to pair that “Good boy” (or ideally a less tired phrase) with a food reward or primary reinforcer. This is the critical link to making your voice useful as a secondary training reward.

Your first step is to determine what your food reward will be. Make it something your horse really likes, but does not regularly ingest. If he gets apple chunks daily in his beet pulp, try carrots as your reward. Make no assumptions here; test your hypothesis that the reward is something your horse loves as much as you think he ought to. And don’t be lavish; it’s not about volume. McGreevy and McLean explain “once the horse starts to expect large reinforcers in a given context, small reinforcers may start to lose their effectiveness.”

The second step is to perfect your timing; the phrase you choose must be used before or up to the point you reward with the food treat. In that way, your voice becomes a reliable predictor that a food reward will follow that last leg yield. Saying your reward phrase at the same time or after the food reward is given does not allow the horse to associate his behaviour with the reward; his attention has shifted from your voice to the more reinforcing food.

Once the horse has learned that your phrase reliably precedes an edible treat, your voice becomes rewarding; the phrase tells the horse he had the correct response and a reward is coming. But don’t let your magic phrase lose its rewarding value. You can gradually lengthen the period of time between use of your trained voice reward and delivery of the food reward, but you can’t forget the carrots entirely.

The Ultimate Rewards

By keeping your horse calm in the schooling ring at home, and using the same strategies to reduce stress on the show circuit, you create the best opportunity for your horse to learn, as well as recall, your training when it matters most. Using horse-approved positive reinforcement for new learning and to keep your horse attentive through more difficult concepts can make training more rewarding for both of you.

But remember that negative reinforcement remains an integral tool in the horse trainer’s kit. McLean writes, “Getting our training right by using the correct tools at the time and having regard for the horse’s arousal, affective state and attachment (social bonding) needs, sums up perfect training.”