Learn To “Reward The Try” When Teaching Your Horse New Skills

Sep 09, 2013 4 Comments by

Imagine you are teaching your horse a new skill, say a turn on the haunches. How many of you would require your horse to take at least 4-5 crossing steps in a row before considering the session a success? The me of five years ago is sitting here raising her hand. But the problem with this approach is that we often end up asking too much of our horses too soon. And the result is that it’s much more difficult for them to understand when they’ve given the correct response.

They get frustrated. We get frustrated. And the lesson goes unlearned.

When I purchased my untrained thoroughbred Ace back in August of 2008 there was one lesson I learned early on that completely revolutionized our ability to understand one another: rewarding the try.

What Does It Mean To Reward the Try?

Simply, “rewarding the try” means to release the pressure the moment your horse makes the slightest effort to do what you are asking. In the case of teaching a turn on the haunches, the pressure is squeezing with your outside leg at or in front of the girth with a slightly opening inside rein.

During Ace’s initial under saddle re-training (re-training because though he had been ridden by a previous owner years before, he pretty forgot and had to be restarted), he often completely refused to move forward. We spent what felt like hours stuck in the middle of the ring, stepping calmly backwards or sideways, but not forwards. I quickly discovered that I needed to reward Ace with copious praise and removing my leg pressure as soon as he took one hesitant step forward – not after we had made one whole trip around the arena.

Depending on what you are teaching your horse, rewarding the try may look different or affect different aids. Here are some examples of rewarding the try:

  • disengaging the hindquarters: remove leg pressure after one good crossing step under.
  • backing: remove leg and seat pressure (don’t rely on your reins for more than to block attempts to go forward!), after one step back.
  • trot poles: start with just one or two, and take a break from the exercise when your horse has gone through calmly even if not perfectly.
  • accepting fly spray/hosing/etc: stop spraying when your horse stops moving his feet.
  • desensitization: stop the exercise/pressure when your horse stands still and doesn’t move away. Removing the rope/blanket/bag whatever is the reward for accepting the object by not moving the feet.

Especially when teaching your horse something new, the important thing to remember is to only continue the exercise for as long as it takes the horse to make the slightest effort in the right direction. Stop giving the aid, release the pressure, remove the object right away, praise your horse like crazy. Do something that is comfortable for your horse, then come back and try it again.

Ask for More As Your Horse Learns Before Rewarding the Try

As your horse begins to understand the new skill or aid, you can start asking him to give more. Three steps instead of two. More animated transitions. Hold the pace for longer. Ten repetitions instead of two.

When Ace was learning to go forward under saddle again, we gradually worked up to longer rides with more trotting and cantering. For a few rides after we finally got unstuck from the middle of the ring, we just walked for 10-15 minutes and called it quits. Then we would add in a few trot steps. Then we’d trot the long side of the ring. Before long, we were able to walk and trot at will.

Know Your Horse’s Limits

I learned very quickly that, if I wasn’t careful in my approach, teaching Ace new skills, aids, or exercises could easily shatter his confidence if I overdid it. Even now, we spend most of our rides on skills and exercises he knows. When I’m asking him to do something new or different, we don’t spend more than 5-10 minutes on it that first ride. If I push it for too long or try to require perfection that first time, I lose Ace’s trust and effort very quickly. Then I have to take things even more slowly.

But once the lightbulb goes off for Ace and he truly understands what I’m asking and gives it willingly, he’s good to go – forever. This horse can have six months off while I grow and birth a baby, and when I manage to get back in the saddle he acts as if we haven’t missed a day. Once he gets it, it’s ingrained in his head forever.

Every horse is different. Some can handle being pushed hard when learning a new skill. Some, like Ace, need to you to go slow and easy so they can truly understand and build confidence. The key is to know your horse and how he learns – and ride that way. 

Remember: reward your horse for trying, don’t wait for perfection.

Weigh In on Rewarding The Try

What does “rewarding the try” look like for you and your horse? How does your horse’s unique personality affect how he or she learns new skills?

Flikr Photo used via Creative Commons License. Photo Credit: Five Furlongs

Featured, Training, Wynsome Ace

4 Responses to “Learn To “Reward The Try” When Teaching Your Horse New Skills”

  1. Dom says:

    On the first effort, I always reward the smallest of correct responses. Depending on the horse, this may be as simple as leaning in the direction of correct movement. I always say, “One step this time, two steps next time, and before you know it, they can do it indefinitely, but they’ll never learn if you don’t release.”

  2. Jackie says:

    What Dom said!

  3. Callie says:

    Good article, I tell my students this all the time, but you did a great job of explaining the how and why!

  4. www.horsesfortrail.com says:

    Nice job explaining the process. For many people, it is really hard to recognize the “try”. As humans, we expect too much as the horse is attempting to learn. The “try” can be so slight that it is overlooked and unseen.

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