Musings on Horses

„The Sweetest of all Sounds is Praise“ – Xenophon


These words by Xenophon should be one of our guiding principles when being around horses.


Often the opposite is true and the importance of giving praise and providing rewards are neglected in traditional training. Instead horses are pushed for us to achieve our goals with little understanding and consideration of their true nature. And if they do not understand what we ask of them and do not behave as we expect them to behave – often because we asked a wrong or not so clear question – they are pushed even further because we “have to be assertive” and “show them who is boss”.


It is not very surprising that we will not find connection and harmony on such basis because: what really is in it for the horse?


I regularly find myself wondering why we are making life so hard – for ourselves and for horses.


Our interactions could be far easier and more enjoyable if we supported horses in becoming a fearless, confident, content, attentive and willing partner.


By rewarding generously, we are making an essential contribution to achieving this. Even if they show only an attempt that goes into the “right” direction, if we offer praise and reward for such try we encourage the horse to move forward and to take the next step.


As a nice side effect, we also build and strengthen trust because being with us becomes safe and provides comfort.


This does not mean that there are never situations which involve a certain degree of stress or pressure but it means that we predominantly are the source of reassurance, not conflict, and that it is safe to tackle, go through and cooperate with us in such situations.


Of course, we want to make sure that we do not reward “unwanted” behaviour or mistakes:


  • Good timing: Make sure that the horse is able to connect the praise or reward with his action. The closer the reward in time to the desired behaviour the stronger the association between the behaviour and the reward.


  • Reward attempts: Break tasks down into easily achievable steps. Through creating success for the horse you will eventually arrive faster at your end goal.


  • Clarity: Be clear in what you ask for and equally clear and accurate when it comes to the behaviour or action you are rewarding for to avoid the creation of confusion for the horse.


And last but not least: Always end a session on a good note. It is better to finish early than too late.



Picture: (c) leszekglasner- Fotolia #172106910