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. 

reward, release, respect, beingwithorses blog

To reward effectively, we need to know
 where our horse is at.  Photo: Marko

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?


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Comment by Nadja Mueller on January 30, 2015 at 7:12am

Thanks for your opinion! I too think it strongly depends on the horse how reward is delivered most effectively. As you wrote Jackie, my project horse is absolutely the "whatever type" while another one (a frisian) is crazy about being rewarded verbally. What I wanted to point out is that we sometimes reward in situations where reward is not helpful. But of course, we need reward in general to help the horse understand. 

It's an interesting twist to assume that we reward the horse not for obedience but for the mental process of figuring something out. I'll try to wrap my brain around it. 

Comment by MagsNMe on January 23, 2015 at 3:31pm

I think it depends on the horse.  Havoc's mother is a very dominant mare, she is submissive ONLY to my mother, who must reinforce it on a regular basis.  However, she was also clicker trained when she was young.  To this day, give her a cube of sugar and she'll ask what she needs to do to get another!  She will twist herself inside out to figure out what will get her the reward.

Havoc, my little darling, also is a happy food motivated child.  He now gets the odd sugar reward when he's being ridden, to reinforce the good, and, to some degree, keep him focused on figuring out what he needs to do to get the NEXT one.  The sugar is paired with the verbal reward.  Verbal reward becomes the bridge for him.

However, Miss Mo, a dominant, excessively hot horse in her own right... she is dealt with differently.  When she's relaxed and thinking and working with me, I can praise her and it's received as such.  When she's frantic, freaking out and just plain nutso, it's completely irrelevant, probably doesn't even reach her brain.  Much like horse number 1.  

I'm sure if Havoc's brain went to mush, he'd be the same, but, touch wood, it doesn't.  He's been raised as a very people focused horse, he is not hot, and he does want to please.  Mo, well, she's going to be a trail horse, her brain is not conducive to being a dressage horse (for the record, what stresses her out is the collected work, can't take it, she's quite at ease out and about).

Comment by Jackie Cochran on January 20, 2015 at 8:47am

Very good post.

I discovered a partial solution to my problem of wanting to praise the horse. This is based on knowledge I got on the internet from horsemen who ride/train Western horses.

When I train a horse to an aid, I give the aid, I release the aid. If the horse does not give me the response I want I apply the aid again at the proper point of the horse's stride.  If the horse obeys I just sit there, passive, while I count to 10.  Then I praise the horse, not for obeying my aid, but for being smart enough to figure out what my aid meant.

Since I am a handicapped rider I often end up on older horses, ones that are arthritic and creaky.  These are the horses when I give an aid, I give immediate release, praise when they obey, and I often give them a good scratch on the neck.  Hey, they are creaky, if a good scratch gives them an endorphin rush, then they will feel better physically after obeying me instead of worse.  I ride two Arabs and a Arab-Welsh, I have found that the Arabs often enjoy the praise, while the Arab-Welsh goes "whatever."  Surprisingly a half to three-quarters draft horse I once rode was a bigger verbal praise "junkie" then any Arab I've ridden (he had some minor physical problems.)

I make really sure not to reward disobedience.  But, if after applying the aid three times and the horse does not obey, either the horse is hurting somewhere or the fault lies with ME.  I move onto something I think the horse will obey willingly, release, and move on.

With this method I still get to praise the horse.  It is based on the hypothesis that it usually takes a horse around 4 seconds to mentally process the aid-release.  If the horse thinks in any way it is getting rewarded when I praise, it is being rewarded for using its brain to understand what just happened, since that will be the most recent "activity" of the horse.

By using this method I find I can cut the time I use to train a new aid down by two-thirds.  By the third time the horse usually gets it, and if the horse does not "get it", well, its my fault, I'm doing something wrong.

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