Rewards that Make Sense to Your Horse

Hilda Gurney shares insight on rewards and communicating clearly with your horse.

I wish I’d known how important the reward is. Unlike punishment, the reward explains to the horse what to do and ensures that he stays content and cooperative throughout the levels. Rewards come in all forms–a pat on the neck or using the voice to say, “Good boy.” A reward can be riding straight and forward after a lateral exercise or letting the horse stretch. The ceasing of an aid, such as a yielding rein or a neutral leg, can also be a reward. For example, if the horse is alert and going forward, he will be rewarded when the rider lightens her leg at the very moment he starts to go nicely. Then the horse will learn that when he feels the pressure of the leg and goes forward, he gets the reward immediately.

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Punishment does not tell a horse what to do. It extinguishes a certain misconduct or behavior. For example, it tells the horse that he can’t buck, rear or bite. But it does not explain how to use his body to go more balanced. For example, you see a lot of riders punishing their horses for hanging on the left rein. But they don’t tell the horse in a constructive way what to do, such as showing him that he should soften to the contact or accept the right rein, something the horse will only understand through a reward.

Another way I can reward my horse when first teaching a movement is to only do a step or two and not maintain it. If I want to teach my horse to move sideways from my right leg, for example, and he responds to my leg by moving his haunches left and moving a step to the left, I reward him right away by ceasing my leg aid, petting him and riding straight and forward. Then you do the same thing again. Step-by-step rewarding will ensure that you create a solid understanding of the aids on which you can build. If you insist that your horse continue to do more steps at a time or try to maintain the movement, he will get confused. It will not be clear to him what you want.

Once you get a solid, immediate response to your aid, you can delay the reward and ask for a few more steps. After those additional good steps, in which you have lessened the pressure of the leg, you may reward him by going straight. If you insist without making sure the horse really understands what you want, he will become cranky and unresponsive. Sometimes you can see this at shows: The horse has spur marks in his sides, the rider is pushing and pushing, and the horse is swishing his tail and is tense in his back and unwilling to go forward. The horse and rider are not speaking the same language.

Blind repetition acts like punishment and makes a horse dull. It does not make the horse understand the exercise better. Also, muscles get tired. If the horse does something well, I may do it once again but then I go on to something else.

The principle of rewarding after a good response is just as important when you ride at the highest level, where the demands on the horse reach the limits of his physical ability. If the horse is trained by punishment, drill or repetition, he’ll soon learn to hate his job, and you’ll have a horse that’s not going to work for you. The overall picture won’t be harmonious. On the other hand, if you consistently reward, the horse will stay positive. Look at [Olympic bronze medalist] Debbie McDonald and Brentina. The fact that the horse is doing the most difficult and strenuous exercises so willingly means that there’s a lot of good rewarding work done.

An FEI “I” judge, Hilda Gurney is a pioneer of American dressage. With her Thoroughbred, Keen, she led the United States to the team bronze medal in dressage at the 1976 Olympic Games–the first U.S. dressage medal since 1948. She has competed twice in the Olympics and has won three gold and two silver medals at the Pan American Games. She trains and breeds horses at Keenridge Farm, Calif.

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