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Horse Praise and Rewards
 By Winniefield Park   •   14th Mar 2019   •   440 views   •   0 comments
There are a few different ways to describe praise. You may have heard of positive reinforcement or positive operant conditioning. These terms describe the act of giving the animal a desirable experience, whether it be food, a neck scratch, or encouraging words when it does something you want it to. Make the horse associate the good feels it gets with the reward or praise, and it will want to do that thing again. Research has shown that most horses respond the best to food rewards rather than words of praise or scratches. And, many horses actually dislike being patted.

Even negative reinforcement can be a form of praise and reward. If tap your horse with your heels to make it go faster, and stop when it complies, youíve rewarded it by removing the discomfort of your taping heels. Negative reinforcement isnít punishment. I find the use of the word Ďnegativeí makes me think something bad is happening. But often, itís quite the opposite.



Timing
When it comes to horse training, timing is incredibly important and whether your reinforcement is positive or negative, it needs to be done with split second accuracy. Praise in itself doesnít mean anything to a horse. Your parents might tell you how proud they are that you got good grades weeks after youíve actually earned those grades, and youíll probably feel good about it. But, if you go to your horse and praise it about something it did last week itís not going to have any effect on it. Your horse doesnít have much concept of doing a job well. They are more likely to think in terms of what is easier or more comfortable compared to more difficult or uncomfortable.

Praising a horse even a minute or two after it does something well probably isnít going to be much use. Horses live in the present, so any praise or reward has to be instantaneous, not in a few minutes or next Friday. You have to use praise quickly enough that it makes the connection between the praiseworthy action and the praise. This is one of the reasons why animal trainers use clickers or whistles. These create a bridge between the desired behaviour and the actual reward or praise - usually food. Itís thought to work better because itís faster. It takes less time for your hand to click the clicker than it does for you to think the thought ďgood boyĒ and vocalize it.

Consistency
In addition to timing, consistency is essential for praise and rewards to be effective. If the cue to go faster is a tap from your heels, then you need to stop tapping as soon as the horse has done what you want. If you continue tapping sometimes, or stop before the horse has done its job, it will only make your horse confused. Soon, your tapping heels will become an annoyance or something to ignore. And, if youíre going to feed treats when your horse does something like pick up its hoof, you need to do it each and every time, in the same way, until the habit is set. Only then can you stop using treats every time.

When Praise Doesnít Work
Sometimes praise doesnít work and may even backfire. If your horse is scared, praise probably wonít be helpful. At best, a scared horse will ignore your kind words, and at worst, you might reinforce the fear response. For example, if youíre using clicker training and treats to get your horse to load on a trailer its afraid of, the reward has to come when the horse has done something right, say put two feet on the ramp, rather than a second later, when the horse backs off again.

Thereís a difference between a bribe and praise too. Bribes only work sometimes, and they might not work a second time. Bribes entice a horse to do something we want it to do, like get on a trailer. With kids, bribes are often a way to distract them from doing something bad - like Iíll buy you candy if youíre quiet while I grocery shop. But, that can turn them into mini-extortionists, demanding candy in exchange for good behavior. Itís possible you might end up with a horse that wonít load without a bucket of grain, but itís also likely they wonít let you trick them again.

So praise and reward, ideally work as each positive step is taken towards the goal. Eventually, the good behavior becomes habit and only needs to be reinforced with praise sporadically if at all, not each and every time. Or, in the case of negative reinforcement, the horse will learn to go faster at the first tap of your heels, and not the fiftieth. Praise and rewards can be used effectively, but like some many other aspects of horse handling and riding, timing, consistency and a clear vision of the goal is required.

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