Home : Horsemanship Essays by Franklin Levinson : GIVE ‘EM A BREAK: Using 'Rest' as a Reward in Horse Training


Using 'Rest' as a Reward in Horse Training

Perhaps you may have noticed that usually within one minute of stopping a horse after asking for some moderate movement (or almost any movement or input of energy) that the horse will sigh and then lick and chew. This sighing means the same for the horse as it does for us humans. It indicates the individual is relaxing a bit and releasing tension. The licking and chewing shows the horse is thinking and processing what it just did. It also is a display of compliance and acquiescence to the ‘leader.’ These are very important and significant responses by the horse that can be used to the benefit of trainers with their horses.

Horses can only bring their attention to one thing at a time. If they are moving, their attention is only on the movement. It is when they stop moving that they can actually reflect mentally on what they just did and how they are feeling. The physical licking and chewing is an indication of this mental activity. During my years as a trainer I have found the horse will learn more effectively and efficiently when I allowed a very short rest immediately after a horse doing, or even trying to do, what I requested. They invariably sigh fairly quickly and then lick and chew. As horses are naturally lazy (wanting to mostly move about only as much as needed to stay safe) for their own survival, they really do want that rest. This makes the short break right after movement, or any effort at compliance, a terrific, easy and convenient reward for the horse. They will quickly learn that rest and praise will follow their positive effort. This creates what I call a ‘winning cycle’ for the horse. This means when a request is made and complied with, the horse is immediately rewarded with release of all pressure (rest) and the support of a little praise (“Good Boy!”). This winning cycle will become habitual for the horse if used over time with consistency and the horse will become a better learner and a more willing student.

I have seen so many riders and horse owners attempting to train their horses and never providing a break (release of pressure). They push and push the horse without understanding or recognizing when the horse is trying to do as requested. Then they get angry and frustrated with the horse and the innocent horse then becomes fearful from being frustrated by never having its effort be rewarded. This could be called a ‘losing cycle’ and is very undesirable. Another common term for this effective technique I am describing would be ‘positive reinforcement.’ A key factor in the success of this technique is the ability of the human to determine when the horse is attempting to comply. Unless the human is experienced and aware with their horse, this ‘trying’ by the horse often goes unseen and unacknowledged.

Here is an example of a horse trying to comply with a request and it’s attempts are misunderstood: When asking a horse to pick up his foot and the horse lifts the foot for a moment and immediately jams it back down. Many folks think the horse is being stubborn and not wanting to provide the foot for cleaning, shoeing or whatever. This is a big error in interpretation of the animal’s behavior. The reality of that behavior is that the horse is trying to provide the foot but is afraid of surrendering part of its ability to run away or strike if need be. It is a matter of ‘trust’ and feelings of safety within the horse. Here is what I do in that situation. I do not grab at a hoof, attempt to pull it up or any such thing. Sometimes I will attempt to provide a ‘fly bite’ on the horse’s leg with the fingernail of my thumb on the thin skin covering the cannon bone. We see horses picking up their feet and stomping their legs to get rid of flies on their legs all the time. Horses are obviously strong enough to pick up their own feet. I ask for a “foot” verbally, touch the cannon bone of the appropriate leg, sometimes with my thumbnail, and reward the horse with release of all pressure and a very brief bit of praise, even if it leans in the proper direction to provide the foot. If it picks the foot up a little and quickly puts it down, I believe the horse is trying to provide the foot and beginning to feel better about giving it. I praise the horse for that effort. Usually within a few minutes the horse is picking up the foot on its own and will hold it up. I have had great success with this technique with horses that for years had to be sedated in order to have a ferrier work on them. Developing trust with a horse is related to understanding when the animal is attempting to comply with a request and then rewarding that attempt. This is crucial to successfully training horses.

I think it is interesting that this ‘winning cycle’ method of teaching works with children as well as horses. If parents would ask their child to do something easy, some task they know the child can do, the child does it and then gets immediate praise; this creates the beginnings of a winning cycle. The child’s self-esteem goes way up, their confidence increases and they are more likely to try to do what is asked of them the next time. This series of events repeated often; request, trying to comply and then praise (reward) for the ‘try,’ actually helps build character and responsibility in children. In horses it help create a more positive and trusting bond between the animal and the human. To me this is a very important and far-reaching outcome of the technique.