Instant Gratification is Instant

Equestrian tact is not only the subtlety of the aids but also the feeling for the choice of the aids that have to be applied, and it is the velvet softness in the coordination.  ~Nuno Oliveira

The other day I was teaching a student the basics of dressage and we were working on walk-halt-walk transitions. I was teaching her how to halt the horse from the seat and when she finally got it, I enthusiastically said, “Yes, good!” In response, she dropped her reins and leaned forward over the Big Red Horse’s shoulders so she could stroke his entire neck and tell him how wonderful he was. Then I asked her to walk on. First she had to sit back up in the saddle, then adjust her seat properly, then pick up the reins and establish the correct contact with the Big Red Horse, get his attention and ask him to focus, and finally she could ask for walk. Time elapsed: 20 seconds. That may not seem like a long time, but remember, we were working on walk-halt-walk transitions. The point of the exercise was to remain ready for a command from the halt and then be able to smartly execute it. The exercise was also about maintaining rider body control so that the primary goal–remaining ready for the next command–could be executed promptly. Not only was my student not ready to execute, the horse wasn’t either. When she dropped the reins and praised him so lavishly, he dropped his head, lost his focus, and assumed we were taking a break. To boot, he was miffed when she interrupted his leg-scratch and told him it was time to go back to work.

What is my point? Well, I think it is important to think more actively about how and when we reward our horses as we interact with them and train them.

I have witnessed the above more times than I can count while teaching lessons. I usually remind my students that they do not need to praise the horse so lavishly for every little thing he does well, and then I suggest just a small pat on the neck. But this particular student has come to me not only for a desire to learn dressage, but also for a desire to be able to teach her students dressage. That changed my comment to her a bit, and it dawned on me: I should be explaining it this way to everyone! So what did I say to her? I asked her if it was productive to take away all of the horse’s support systems to reward him for a job well done and then expect him to be able to execute the next command in a timely manner. She agreed that it wasn’t. Since this lesson, I have been giving rewards a lot of thought in preparation to present it here in a clear, concise, and progressive fashion. Here is what I’ve put together…

Instant Gratification is Instant

I am sure that everyone out there has heard that it is of utmost importance to reward the horse instantly when a desired behavior or action has been performed. But do you really understand the nature of “instant”? Instant does not mean stopping the action and then telling the horse what a good job he did. It may seem rewarding to let the horse stop performing the work, task, or behavior he is being asked to perform, but then ask yourself: from the horse’s point of view, was he rewarded for the behavior, or was he rewarded for stopping? I believe the horse is *capable* of making the connection between the absence of the work–the reward–and the behavior. However, I think the horse would learn much more quickly if we rewarded him while he was still performing the behavior, task, or action. In other words, if you want the horse to canter on the left lead, it would be more productive to reward him for this action as he begins–and then maintains–cantering on the left lead.

That may seem like a rather obvious observation, but let’s think about how we often teach our horses about self carriage. We work diligently to get the horse moving forward, in front of our leg, and reaching over the topline. We create a positive connection and ask the horse to compact his body enough to lighten in our hands and engage his hindquarters and topline. We help the horse maintain this position, understanding that it is, at first, physically difficult for him to maintain. Suddenly, it all comes together perfectly and in that moment we move to instantly reward the horse…by dropping the contact, dropping the support, and often stalling out all the aids as we exuberantly exclaim, “Good boy!” with a big pat on the neck as we collapse over his withers to better stroke his whole neck. Will the horse understand what he’s just done? I argue no. It will take him a while to establish the connection between what he’s done and the sudden and complete lack of support he experiences from us. Further more, I think he is likely to be confused by the sudden and very drastic shift in balance on his back, especially if he’s still moving forward. I think he would learn much faster if we maintained our support, contact, and aids through that light-bulb-moment and told him “Good Boy!” while maintaining the very thing we are rewarding. Instant gratification really is instant.

I don’t want to imply that we should never reward the horse by taking a break. I’m just saying that a break as a reward must be properly timed, and that continuing work with a proper and understood affirmation can facilitate much faster and better results.

Rewarding the Horse as You Work

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A student showing Doc in a Novice dressage test at a horse trial

In order to reward the horse as you work, you need to develop a method to do so. I like to use a single word (Good) or a quick scritch at the withers (so that I don’t have to let go of the reins). As I’m working on something new or difficult that I want the horse to maintain, I will tell him, “Good!” when he’s done it right but I just keep on riding and working and asking for the thing we’re working on. This maintains the work flow much better and allows the lesson to solidify for the horse. It also does one more crucial thing: it does not remove the horse’s support system when he needs it most! Think of it this way: if you were teaching a child to ride a bike, you would probably put one hand on the bike and one hand on the child. The first time you told the child, “Good job! You’re getting it!” you probably wouldn’t take away your hands, would you? No. You probably wouldn’t remove your hands until the child was more confident in her abilities to balance, steer, and peddle the bike. The same is true for the horse. He is performing the task correctly, but may not yet be confident in the ability to maintain that. Rather than remove his support system and let him fall to pieces, maintain those supports, tell him good, and keep on working. You can give him a bigger release at a better timed moment when it is time for a micro-break or the end of the ride. But don’t remove his support system just as he’s learning how to use it!

Every rider who shows or who has aspirations to show should develop a method like this anyway. Once you are in the ring, you cannot stop what you are doing and tell the horse how wonderful he is for doing something well. Instead, if you really want to reward him in the show ring, having a method like those described above is the perfect way to do it.

Rewarding the Horse through Release

Of course there is a time and a place for rewarding the horse through release of pressure. The horse naturally seeks to move away from pressure, so it makes sense to use this method. However, it does not have to be this huge thing where you drop the reins on his neck or allow the horse to pull the reins through your fingers to his desired length. The horse can detect even the smallest amounts of release, and…he appreciates it, no matter how small it is! For instance, if you are riding around in contact and you want to reward the horse for softening his jaw by softening your own contact, you can do so by simply opening your fingers a little bit so that the contact becomes more elastic (of course, this can only be achieved if you ride with your fingers closed in the first place). By making such a small adjustment, you are able to continue working but you have rewarded your horse through release, albeit a small one.

Other methods of release can include release of leg pressure, release of bit pressure by giving up through the elbow, release of pressure on the lead rope when the horse gives, or release of the whole horse if working in a round pen or at liberty.

Rewarding the Horse through a Break

It is also important to reward the horse through well-timed breaks where the horse is allowed to stretch and walk freely on a long rein. Not only does this give his muscles a nice break, but it gives the horse some mental space to relax as well. But for these rewards to have the maximum benefit, they must be correctly timed! If, like my student did in the opening story, you halt then drop your reins and tell the horse what a good job he has done of halting, but then ask him to immediately come back to work, the horse will be confused, off balance, and is likely to also be somewhat irritated. After all, you had just signaled to him it was time for a break! Instead, I recommend saving these big rewards for when the horse needs a physical or mental break. Or both! For instance, I have been working on the counter-canter with Doc. This is mentally very challenging for the Big Red Horse, so when we practice this I ask for a series of counter-canters and transitions. I reward him with, “Good” when he’s doing things right and we keep working. Once he has performed a series of correct counter-canters and transitions–and has become physically and mentally tired from the exercise–I halt squarely and maintain the halt for a moment so that Doc remains ready for the next cue if it should come. Then I release the reins and reward him lavishly. He in turn licks and chews–the horse’s way of signaling that he is processing the information–and walks out contentedly. When the break is over, he is not only ready to pick back up where we left off, but he understands what the task is and is better able to perform it because he was rewarded progressively and systematically.

Give this method a try and see if it improves your relationship with your horse and the time needed to learn an individual task. Let me know what it did for you!

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Doc and I walking out after completing the XC phase of a horse trial.

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2 responses to “Instant Gratification is Instant

  1. I have done the exact thing your student did many times before. Last week I realized my mistake when the first couple of lavish rewards did not seem to help my mare connect her actions with the rewards. She just wanted to take the easy way out, and thought that is what I was letting her get away with.

    I changed my approach by giving smaller rewards with my voice and only slightly with my hands. The result was a 180! Her focus and concentration were not hindered but she knew she was doing things right. It was a much more productive ride than it started out as, and I was pleased to find out two days later after her other rider had a lesson that she was repeating what I had worked with her on without having to be prodded endlessly. Success!! 🙂

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