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The role of reward in horse training

Most of the people I work with are not very keen on the idea of causing a horse discomfort, even temporarily in the pursuit of a goal. As horse lovers, we like to be a source of pleasure for our horses and whenever possible provide to them fewer punishments and more rewards, especially if rewarding them can lead to having a better, more trained animal who loves its job and its handlers.

While it is noble to strive to be a constant source of comfort and reward for our animals, I find that it can also be a bit naïve to assume that we can have a working relationship with a horse and never be a source of discomfort, however minimal it may be. To believe that this is possible is to be ignorant of what exactly constitutes a reward to our horses and what causes discomfort. This blog post will attempt to shed some light on what makes horses tick, what they find pleasurable, what things they find uncomfortable, and how we can use this knowledge to our advantage as trainers and as conscientious horse-people.


The question I often pose to my students to get them thinking about an effective way to reward a horse instantly for appropriate behavior or correct responses to aids is, what is the one thing that horses have always wanted most from us? The answer is not food (although, this can also be a very powerful tool for reward), water, shelter, or love, and it's certainly not an aggressive pat on the neck or endless repetition of mind-numbing exercises; rather, all the horse ever wanted was to be left the hell alone! That's all their species has ever asked of our species--just to leave them alone and nothing else.

That's a pretty discouraging realization to come to for someone who loves horses and riding and can't think of anything better than being in the presence of these beasts, but before we decide that we should just let our horses go into the wild where they'll never have to see us again, we need to realize that this doesn't mean that horses don't enjoy our presence or that it's cruel to own a horse. What it means is that we have an extremely effective tool for training our horses that when managed correctly can make them look forward to our sessions and time together.

Very simply, what this means is that the less we mess with our animals at any given moment, the happier they are. Trainer, judge and respected practitioner of the classical art of horsemanship Charles De Kunffy further illuminates this concept by identifying the two "attitudes" that we can adopt when we are in the saddle (or handling horses in general): "harmonizing" or "interfering."

Harmonizing is characterized by an implicit acceptance of what the horse is currently doing. When we harmonize we are just going with the flow, staying out of the horse's way and not asking him to do anything different. We harmonize because we approve of the horse's current actions (or in some instances, non-actions).

On the other hand, when we interfere it is with the goal of somehow changing what the horse is doing, whether we are asking him to speed up or slow down or turn or further engage his hindquarters, etc. Interference is characterized by our own discontentment with what the horse is currently doing and a desire to change it.

If you were to look at these two different "attitudes" that the rider can adopt from the horse's point of view, which sounds more appealing? Of course, the harmonizing is what the horse would pick! Viewed this way, it's easy to see how "harmonizing" with our horses constitutes a sort of reward, while any sort of interference is a form of discomfort, or at the very least an inconvenience.

To be an effective rider, however, interference is necessary. Just picture a rider who never interferes with what his horse is doing. What does this look like? The horse is either wandering around with his buddies, eating grass, and just generally looking lost and without direction. Eventually, this horse may even lie down and take a nap or try to enjoy a good roll, at which point the rider would obviously interfere with his agenda whether trying to or not! Few people watching this scene would identify the person on the horse's back as a "rider," but rather he would seem to be more of a passenger.

If we go to the other extreme and imagine a rider who only interferes with what his horse is doing and never harmonizes, we see a picture of a rider who is like a permanently discontent micromanager on a sour horse who either gives up trying entirely or becomes dangerous, eventually doing everything in his power to get the rider off of his back because he never gets any reprieve.

So, to be an effective rider on a happy horse, we need to execute a balance of interference and harmonizing. Knowing that interfering makes our horse less-than-comfortable, but without it, we can't get him to do anything other than what he's currently doing, a wise rule to apply to interference is to only do it when absolutely necessary for as long as needed to get the desired response. If our horses know that we will return to the state of harmony as soon as they comply with our request, they will begin to seek out those moments of harmony by quickly and willingly responding to our aids.

Two tips to keep in mind are: 1.) avoid interfering when you don't have a purpose for that interference and, 2.) don't harmonize when you should be interfering. To be sure we aren't interfering when we shouldn't be, it's paramount to remain as still and quiet and in-balance in the saddle as possible. A rider with bouncing hands, flopping legs, and poor balance is not going to be capable of harmonizing with the horse and will remain a source of constant interference and discomfort. If you feel that you are unable to control your own body in the saddle, seek the help of a qualified instructor who can help you improve for your horse's sake.

As important as it is to avoid interfering when you should harmonize, it’s equally as important that the rider doesn't begin to harmonize until the horse is behaving the way he's expected to; otherwise, we'll be telling him that he doesn't need to comply with our requests and we'll just return to a state of harmony regardless of whether or not he listens. This means we need to continue to be a source of mild discomfort (or at least annoyance) and not stop aiding until the horse correctly responds to our requests. (For more on the topic of correct aiding, please see my previous blog post titled “Understanding Pressure.")


Another thing that horses (and indeed, all creatures) appreciate is the opportunity to rest. Rest is a powerful training tool because it's such a coveted treat by any living, breathing mammal whose DNA has a touch of laziness written into it as a means for survival when sources of energy may not be abundant.

Does this mean we shouldn't ever get our horses out and work them in order to stay on their good side? Not at all, because in our modern, first-world existence, a lack of energy sources doesn't even appear on the list of top 1,000 problems, and a healthy animal is a well-exercised animal (this goes for us, too).

But when we're working with our horses, it's good to be aware that stopping to take a breather is sometimes just what the horse is craving, so try time your rest sessions wisely to maximize their training potential. For example, after he performs a difficult maneuver that was previously eluding him, a powerful reward can be just to let him take a one-minute break (or longer) from work and allow him walk out and relax on a long rein or stand still for a bit.

Unfortunately, many people inadvertently reward their horse in this way for no good reason at all (maybe the rider feels tired and wants a break, or needs to answer a phone call and can't continue to work the horse while talking on the phone, among other reasons); or worse, they give their horse a break when the he has done something unsatisfactorily.

For example, if you are asking your horse to cross through water and he refuses, that is not the time to let him stop for a break and a bite of grass, although this is precisely what I see too many people doing without thinking about it. Instead keep his focus on the task at hand and as long as he refuses to go where you point him, keep him busy doing other tasks that you know you can succeed in making him do, only letting him relax once he's headed the right way again. Now, once across the water you have the perfect time to reward him with a snack break and a breather!


Given that horses only want to be left alone, in the company of their herd mates to eat and relax, it makes sense that one of the most effective rewards we ever give our horse is to get off and return him to his home with his friends and his lunch waiting. This is such a powerful reward that many riders inadvertently train their horses to be barn sour and dangerous when they are out on the trail by positively reinforcing the horse's natural instinct to return to his "comfort zone".

Consider the following two anecdotes from the horses’ point of view. The first horse we’ll call Estrella. Estrella is notoriously nervous and difficult to handle when she’s away from her home base. While she does fine with a confident rider, under an inexperienced handler she always becomes extra flighty and homebound. One of her riders, Jeanie, is not very experienced but likes to try to take Estrella out for short trail rides. Lately, it’s been getting more and more difficult to get Estrella to leave the ranch as she will whirl around when faced with walking off the property and try to run back to her stall. When Estrella acts in this way, Jeanie gets very nervous and her instinct is to get off of the horse and put her away, thinking that if Estrella is so anxious this will help to calm her down. Jeanie has inadvertently “trained” Estrella to act dangerously when a rider tries to take her off the property by rewarding her misbehavior in a very powerful way.

The next horse we’ll call Al. Al’s owner likes to go on weekend trail rides with her friends, but the way home is always a bit harrowing as Al takes the bit in his teeth and books it back to the barn as quickly as he can. Since Al’s owner is getting older and not as strong as she used to be, this is becoming a dangerous problem for her. Her regimen upon arriving to the barn, however, does little to discourage Al from behaving this way—she always immediately puts Al in his stall with a bucket of his favorite sweet feed when they return from these rides. If one thinks about this from Al’s point of view, it makes sense that he would be in a hurry to return home to get his VIP star treatment and hang out and rest rather than be out for a pesky trail ride!

The take-home message from these two stories is never (NEVER) put your horse back in his comfortable home where his dinner is waiting when he’s behaving in a less-than-ideal way unless you want to perpetuate that sort of behavior. Since getting to go home and rest is one of the best rewards we can give our animals, it should be reserved for when they are on their best, most desirable behavior.


To summarize, we should always be aware of how even our most insignificant actions (or lack of actions) are anything but insignificant to our horses and can have a dramatic effect on their training and behavior. Being aware of what constitutes a reward and how to time it for the most desirable outcome is an important step in becoming an effective horse trainer and rider.

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