I reward too often. I reward when I shouldn't. I reward behavior that doesn't deserve it (anymore). How, some may ask. You cannot reward often enough! Reward fuels motivation, without reward no learning!
Wrong (at least in my opinion).
To understand the most important lessons, horses need no reward.
I don't know about the situation in UK and the US, but here in Germany, people currently knock themselves out with rewarding and praising their horses. They damn negative reinforcement and promote positive reinforcement (unaware that negative does not mean bad in this context but simply taking something away).
Well, that's going to far, let's get back to why I think reward is overrated.
First Example: I am in the arena with a very insecure mare (the readers of my newsletter will already know her).
She thinks her last hour has come: The barn manager has watered the sand and the fencing is full of (horse eating) water spots. Her head is in the air, her eyes are wide, tail up, back hollow. She would love to run as she is a very reactive horse. But she cannot as running would bring her closer to the scary spots. So we start working her emotions.
Approach and retreat, I let her explore her thresholds. If she can't stand it any longer, if she's too close to the spots and the pressure becomes too big, we withdraw again and bring some distance between us and the spots. Within half an hour the mare is relaxing more and more, at the end she's cool. I praised her verbally quite a lot, but that was not for her. It was for me, because I needed to express my joy over her development. For the mare my rewards didn't matter. She didn't want to please me or solve a puzzle the human presented her. For her, her life was at stake. Reward was of no importance. What really meant something to her was safety, calmness, relaxation - not exuberant praising or cuddling on my part.
To reward effectively, we need to know
Second Example: I am again in the arena, this time with a rather dominant mare. She doesn't obey. I want her to back up, she pushes into my space. I want more room, she tries to crowd me. We discuss.
This is no motivation issue. It's about respect. Again, reward from me, for yielding a few steps and giving me some air, does not interest the mare. I am not in the position to praise. I am not important enough, I don't have enough influence (yet). She doesn't want to please me. She wants to show me who's in charge.
Imagine you have a big discussion with a friend, but in the end you manage to agree at least partially. Then your friend says: "Well done that you finally accept my point of view." How would you feel about that?
You cannot reward somebody if you are at eye level. There is a decent between the one rewarding and the one rewarded. As long as the mare doesn't accept me as higher in the hierarchy, she cannot take reward from me seriously. She needs to take me seriously first. I don't gain respect through reward.
Us humans are very focused on reward and recognition. I am convinced that both of it is of far lesser importance to horses than we tend to assume. I usually work with release to show the horse that he is on the right track. When safety and respect are no issues anymore in our relationship with the horse, we then can think about ways to motivate him. But even then, just leaving them at peace is often reward enough.
What do you think about reward?