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Rewarding A Horse During Training

By Jeffrey Rolo

A vital step during the training process is rewarding your horse for a job well done. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool that not only helps your horse understand when he has successfully accomplished your request, but also ensures your equine partner is happier with the entire process.

If you doubt this fact just place yourself in your horse's shoes for a moment. Would you enjoy working with a stern teacher that scowls throughout a class, spitting venom each time you falter but never complimenting you when you succeed? Of course not, and neither would your horse.

The confusion often arises as to how a handler should reward a horse. Some handlers believe it is best to carry a pocket full of horse treats and provide a treat each time a horse successfully honors a request, while others believe horse treats have no place in the training ring due to the risk of accidentally imbedding bad habits or expectations through their use.

My stance lies somewhere in between the two schools of thought, though my heavy preference is for physical rewards rather than edible ones. Although I do not think bringing treats into a training ring is an abomination to be avoided at all costs, it's extremely rare that I'll incorporate horse treats into my training regimen. There are two main reasons for this:


If you are not careful you can mistakenly cause your horse to become nippy (to bite at your hands or clothing in search for treats) through the heavy use of horse treats. Horses are not stupid animals; they quickly learn that within your pockets lie the treats they seek. They also quickly understand that if they honor your request they will likely receive one.

But that's a good thing, isn't it?

Not for me, no. I don't believe in bribery for two reasons. The first is an expectant horse often progresses to the next stage: a nippy horse. When their expected treat is slow to come, they will take matters into their own "hands" and bite your hands or pockets in search for the treat.

The second reason I don't believe bribery is proper is I want my horse to honor my request because he wishes to please me, rather than because he anticipates food. When my horse behaves because he wishes to please me, he'll work with me cooperatively no matter where we are. When a horse behaves in the sole search for a horse treat, he'll sometimes decide "to heck with good behavior" when he discovers there are no longer any treats to be had.

Natural Methods

I think the most successful human-horse relationships develop when both partners work as one, each adopting the ways of the other. It's a human concept to reward good behavior with a physical item, not a horse concept. When you watch a herd you'll notice their form of socialization and "reward" consists of mutual grooming or nuzzling around the withers and/or haunches. They don't pass each other flakes of hay as a human or bird would.

When I'm in the training ring I'm taking on the role of the alpha horse, rather than the human handler. I expect my partner to treat me as exactly that, which means he's not to approach me unless my body language indicates a silent invitation to do so. Treats can cloud a horse's mind and tempt him to run towards you before the silent invitation is extended. He's anticipating the treat, after all. And by giving him a treat, you've just broken the natural flow of a horse's body language.

So how do I reward my horses?

I reward and reassure my partners the same way a dam would reassure her foal: I gently stroke the horse's shoulder and withers while telling him that he did a great job in a calm, low voice. This is entirely natural and relaxing for horses. It doesn't drag either of us out of our perfect flow or body language.

The side benefit is I can reward my partner as often as I want without worry of ever spoiling him or making him nippy. He'll cooperate with me because he wants to satisfy his alpha leader, rather than have food on the brain.

You'll note I stated that I stroke the horse's shoulder, rather than slap it. I've seen too many handlers slap their horse's shoulder in a congratulatory manner, and although they have the best of intentions and are sincerely happy with their partner, I don't view the slap as being terribly rewarding for the poor horse. It doesn't cause pain, but it often surprises the horses and puts him mentally off-balance.

Once again, you can look towards a herd's normal behavior to understand why a slap is not a natural reward among horses. Horses nuzzle each other gently they don't slap each other on the back and heehaw back and forth boisterously.

The only time you'll see a horse raise his/her leg and prepare to strike is when he/she is angry and/or pushing others away from his/her territory. Quick strikes indicate annoyance or aggression, and the victim is always quick to recoil from such stimuli. While a domesticated horse will eventually learn to "grin and bear" unexpected slaps, it will never be a natural behavior within the horse world.

99% of the time I enter the round pen or riding ring, I do so without a treat on me. This isn't to say I think treats are evil. Sometimes for a nice change of pace or surprise I'll slip a couple into my pocket, but if I ever suspect the horse becomes distracted by the presence of treats I'll immediately withdraw them and go back to pure physical contact.

Most of the time when I give my horses treats, it's after the training session expires. By that point, they no longer need to pay strict attention to my requests. Plus the edible reward is given in one session, rather than multiple sessions throughout a training period. This lesser frequency drastically reduces the chances of my horses becoming spoiled.

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