In order to teach any horse what you’d like it to do, you need to have a motivator. Horses won’t learn or perform without good motivation. And, the motivation that you provide must be a greater motivator that others that your horse is also exposed to. For example, if your horse is “buddy sour”, your motivator must be a better one than his buddies who are calling him from the barn or from a nearby pasture. Otherwise, all of his performance and attention are taken off of you and placed on his buddies, and you lose control.
Whatever type of motivation you decide to use when handling and riding your horse, you should at least learn what that type of motivation can do, and also it’s bad points. The most common motivators that are used today are: food, pain, praise, and pressure. Below, I will outline what each motivator is good for, and also what’s bad about it.
Reward your horse: Food
Food is a great motivator/reward when used following a good behavior or good response. Most horses are more than eager to do what you ask for a food reward. The downside to this type of motivator is that you cannot always be consistent when using it. The horse soon begins to expect that when they perform certain movements or tasks, they will recieve a food treat. The horse will become confused and sometimes hesitant to perform if you have not given him a food reward for a task that you used to.
It is hard to expect the horse to continue doing a good job, while reducing the rewards that he gets. If you got paid a lower salary each year that you worked, you would eventually learn to not care about the reward (your salary). You will not always have food readily available to give to your horse as a reward. Another downside to using this type of motivator is that show judges definitely don’t want to see you reaching in your breeches to pull out a treat for your horse when he picks up the proper lead, or when he stands still nicely.
Worst Horse Motivator: Pain
Pain is the worst motivator there is to use. It is used in many forms from harsh bits and spurs to whips and physical contact. I cannot list any good reasons for using the pain motivator except that it may work that one time that you use it. The only thing that pain trains the horse to do is have a sour attitude towards humans. You will not get consistent results from a horse who is trained using pain as a motivator. Using pain as a motivator may also create fear in the horse.
The more that pain is used on a horse, the more he becomes numb to that pain. He learns to deal with it and carry-on with whatever he is doing. Horses who “require” harsher bits, spurs or whips to be ridden are only victims of trainers who use pain motivators. The horse that is handled by someone using pain as a motivator will always find a motivator that is greater than that pain (such as fear or food) that render the horse in control at that moment. In these situations, the horse ignores any requests made by the rider and dangerous for everyone around.
Good Equine Motivator: Praise
Praise is a very good motivator. It is usually a great reward to give your horse when he gives you a good response. Praise is given in the form of soft, kind words, petting and rubbing. Praise alone is sometimes not a good enough motivator for the horse to repeat an action. However, when used in conjuction with one of the other methods of motivation, you can achieve wonderful results. Most horses love the attention!
Other Horse Motivation: Pressure
This type of motivation can also be referred to as Sensitizing and Desensitizing. You can find out more about it by clicking that link.
This method of motivation is used by applying pressure (such as a downward pull on the horse’s halter), and the pressure is held consistently on that spot until the horse responds as desired. Once the horse responds correctly, he is rewarded by you instantly releasing the pressure.
Pressure is said to be the best type of motivator to use when training a horse. The reward is always available (unlike food rewards), it does not create fear or pain in the horse (unlike pain motivators), and it sends a clear, positive signal to the horse when he has done something correctly. It encourages the horse to repeat the action more eagerly the next time you ask.
The reason the pressure motivator works so well is because you can hold the same pressure as long as you need to without hurting the horse. Let’s say, for example, you picked up the rein and put pressure on the bit). As you hold that pressure, the horse may become a little aggrivated by it, and all he wants at that given moment is for you to release the pressure.
Best type of motivator: Pressure
The horse then begins to go on a search and starts exploring his options. He raises his head, he pulls against your pressure, he lowers his head, he shakes his head, he takes a step backwards or forwards…and you are still holding the pressure on the bit during all these attempts. The horse learns that the options he is using just aren’t working. So, he finally gives to the bit and you release the rein. He is then rewarded (all he wanted was for you to release the rein), and therefore, learns faster.
When you repeat that same process many times (usually 100-300 times), the horse will begin to learn that cue to a degree where it is almost instinct to give to the bit every time you put pressure on it.
The only downsides to using this type of motivator is that it demands more from the handler (concentration, consistency and patience). Many horse-people have never learned to have these qualities, or sometimes they just refuse to possess such qualities.
It is our responsibility to our much loved horses that we work hard at improving these qualities in ourselves. We can begin to communicate more clearly and precisely our requests and rewards. When this happens, our horses begin learning much faster, and what they learn is retained more permanently.