Thursday, October 9, 2008

How Do You "Atta Boy" Your Horse?

I see a variety of ways to praise & reward horses in training videos and in real life. Some folks vigorously pat the horse, so much that you can hear it across the arena. Some pull the horse's head around to their leg, and offer up a sugar cube or a small mint cookie treat (I've seen video on a dressage tv show of a high-level Grand Prix rider doing that, and thought it odd). Some folks just release the rein pressure, or the leg cue, or give the horse a walk-break. I'm somewhere in the middle.

I watched a Parelli infomercial one evening (well, they called it a "tv training show", but it's really a few blips of them training overwhelmed with 20 minutes of commercials for the products, videos, and expos they'll be at). Linda Parelli said something that made sense to me, and I've been trying to do it. When she praises a horse, it's with a gentle rub, and a verbal reward. Her reason was something like, "If you want to tell him 'good job', don't hit or pat him. Horses are incredibly sensitive creatures, and when we pat, it feels more like we're hitting them. Why hit him if he just did well? Reward good behavior with a gentle scratch or rub."

I've tried this with Chewie, and Romeo, and had good results. Sometimes, I still pat on the withers or the neck, but it always comes with a verbal, "Good Boy! That was awesome!" Chewie gets the "giddy two year old voice", high-pitched, and "gootchie goo happy". With Romeo, I try to be a bit more serious, as the "gootchie goo" just winds him up & makes him nervous.

Is it particular to each horse? Or is Linda Parelli right, and we should gently rub & reward rather than pat/hit our horses? Is a walk-break on a loose rein really a "reward"? How much do our horses really find walking around with us on their backs? Wouldn't they rather be hand-grazing as a reward?

How do you reward a job well done in the middle of a ride? Do you do anything at all? Does this blog entry make you re-think your reward habits? Will you change anything?


SunnySD said...

You know I think I've seen that episode! It was one of the things I've seen from the newer natural horsemanship school of thought that really made sense - I mean, a critter that can feel a fly land and shudder it off is probably just as happy to be scritched as forcefully patted.

I tend toward the scritching anymore, and the horses do seem to appreciate it. As to the rest - I think the harder they're working, the bigger the effect a walk-break has. If all you're working on is walking... not so much.

I do know that I like to stop on an up note - something they're doing right, if at all possible.

Pony Girl said...

Good post!
I agree w/Linda on this one, I try to rub, or scratch around the whithers. I do think those that reach down and pat their horses hard, well, thats like me getting a super hard slap on the back, I don't like it! I agree w/the commentor above that if a horse can feel a fly land on him...well, they are pretty sensitive. A loose rein is a good reward too, that release that horses crave to learn that they have done well is important!