Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Motivation is an important but sometimes forgotten part of horse training. Being mindful about what training method you use, and how it motivates your horse, can make a huge difference in the training progress and your relationship with your horse.
“There are many ways to motivate horses. I am not to say that one motivator is better than another. My point with this summary of methods is that we, as horse trainers, have many options when it comes to motivating our equine partners. Mix and match, use whatever is appropriate, and if your horse has done really well, give a big reward."
1. Negative Reinforcement
The most commonly used training method is to use pressure to get a horse to do something, and then take the pressure away when the horse does it. This works very well. Horses always seek towards the least amount of pressure, and have a good memory of what makes the pressure go away. But it is very important to release the pressure in the right moment.
Simply told, every time you let go, you push the save button on the horse. This applies to lifting legs, giving dewormer, leading or riding. It is when you release the pressure that the horse realizes it has done the right thing, not when you apply it.
Negative reinforcement is sometimes combined or confused with positive punishment. Positive punishment is when you punish a horse for doing wrong, or when pressure becomes punishment. There is a fine line between pressure and punishment. Crossing that line often occurs when the horse wants to go somewhere the rider does not. Or when the rider wants to go somewhere the horse does not. If we as riders focus more on teaching our horses to respond to subtle cues than getting our will, pressure is less likely to escalate to positive punishment. It is also important to keep in mind that when pressure becomes constant nagging, horses will ignore it.
2. Approach and Retreat
Horses are less afraid of objects retreating from them than objects that are approaching them. They are also less afraid of things they initiate to touch themselves, than things that are forced upon them. They also like to chase stuff.
When desensitizing horses to, for instance, plastic bags, approach and retreat can be used to reward and motivate the horse to be brave. By removing the plastic bag when the horse is calm, the horse is rewarded and motivated to stay calm, because being calm makes the plastic go away. Approach and retreat motivates horses to be brave and makes them feel like they are in control, as opposed to flooding where the horse has no choice but to accept the circumstances.
3. Positive Reinforcement
To ignore unwanted behavior and reward wanted behavior when training a horse is called positive reinforcement. When the horse does something you think is good, it is rewarded with a positive stimulus such as a treat. Positive reinforcement is effective when teaching new things and can be highly motivating for the horse. It also inspires horses to be creative and try different behaviors to receive the reward.
When using treats, most horses will figure out where the treats come from and try to grab them by nibbling or biting, simply ignore it and make sure you do not reward this behavior. Also, make sure that your horse is not pushy or anxious when receiving treats or other rewards. When practicing positive reinforcement, you can just as easily teach your horse to be anxious and aggressive as to be brave, willing, and polite.
4. Counter Conditioning
You can also use rewards to motivate a horse to be less afraid of something, it may or may not have bad memories of. This is done to swap bad associations with good ones. Counter conditioning can be very useful when training horses that haves had trauma of some kind or horses that are frightened or shut down.
5. Time and Play
Most riders have experienced a horse that stops eating when left alone in the stable, or seen horses being so caught up in play that food is of less importance. This is because horses value being in a herd, more than they value food. Horses are highly social animals. Spending time with your horse just hanging out or to play with your horse strengthens your friendship and is very motivating for your horse. If you give your time and your unconditional presence, your horse will give the same in return.
Varying the training by putting up obstacles, playing music or doing unusual tasks like herding, racing other horses, ponying and trail riding builds physical as well as mental strength and motivates horses to become more positive towards other work.
So simple but often forgotten, remember to praise your horse for doing good. Even the elementary stuff we tend to take for granted. Not all horses are that keen on being petted or have positive words shouted at them, but some praising words in a kind tone, relaxed breathing or good vibes will tell your horse that you are happy and content. Horses read our body language and our mood better than anyone. Keeping a balanced and good mood when being around horses is crucial for their wellbeing.
8. Stop when the Going Gets Good
Fairly obvious, but if you train or ride for so long that your horse experiences exhaustion or pain, it will not be motivated for the next session. Also make sure that the equipment is fitting and that your horse is not experiencing any discomfort due to lameness, sharp teeth, unbalanced hooves etc.
A good rule of thumbs is to always end a session when the going gets good. We have all been there, thinking just one more lap of this fabulous canter and we call it a day. Next thing you know the fabulous canter is gone, and you end up trying to squeeze a few canter strides out of a not- so- motivated horse. If your horse does something really well, jump off and praise it. Untighten the girth, hang out and be pleased with yourself for keeping the horse motivated. You have just given a big reward and increased the probability of more of the good stuff to come.
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