How safety, reward and joy play a role in your horse’s choices, and why catering to these basic desires can encourage her to say “yes” to what you ask of her.
Does your horse ever say “no” to your requests? Our equine partners say “no” in a variety of ways – the helicopter tail swish, the expressive neck swoosh, or the bouncy crow hop, as well as planted feet, spinning and scooting, and other crafty techniques. Just like us, horses care about safety, food and happiness. In fact, what often drives us to say “yes” or “no” to something depends on these most basic desires — to feel safe, receive food or some other reward, and experience pleasure or happiness. Think about it – when you say “yes” to something, it’s usually because you feel you can do it (it’s safe), there’s a reward of some kind, or you know you will enjoy it. The same is true for our horses.
3 things that drive a horse to say “yes”
When we think of safety, we usually consider it in relation to its opposite – death or danger. I want you to think more broadly than that. Safety also has to do with confidence (yours and your horse’s), both mentally and physically.
If you think you will hurt yourself trying to jump a fence, you aren’t likely to try it because physically you don’t think it’s safe. If you get nervous in front of crowds, you might experience performance anxiety because mentally you don’t feel safe. Horses experience these instinctual emotions as well, and often rely on them to make decisions.
Have you ever weighed the pros and cons of a decision? We often spend a lot of time deciding if something is “worth it” or not. The “it” could be time, money or discomfort – and a big part of how we make a decision is based on the payoff or reward we’ll receive as a result of that decision.
For horses, the universal currency is food. Horses spend their lives determining how much they want the food – are they willing to fight off that other horse, or travel the distance to look for grass? Research in animal training illustrates the power of this drive — if you use food rewards, you significantly speed training and increase motivation. Not really a surprise there, because if you pay people bonuses or tips for a job well done, they also usually try harder.
What brings you joy? Is it playing, relaxing, being entertained, or trying new things? Since we’re all different, what brings us joy is going to vary a lot – and it’s also going to change depending on factors like the weather and our mood.
Horses aren’t too different. One day your horse might enjoy playing with you, and the next he might not want to do much of anything. It all depends on how he feels and what he thinks will make him happy in the moment.
How to use “the big 3” to improve responsiveness
You have a responsibility to make sure your horse feels both mentally and physically safe. This doesn’t just mean preventing her from dying, but also preventing her from getting hurt, and helping her build confidence so she feels she can do what you ask of her.
Physical safety starts with conditioning. It simply isn’t fair to ask a horse to hold a collected posture for 30 minutes if you haven’t conditioned her to carry you like that. Nor is it fair to practice a sitting trot or canter for multiple laps if you are still bouncing. This will cause her pain, and eventually she might refuse to go on rides altogether.
Once you’re both properly trained, you can make your horse feel even safer and more comfortable by riding with an impact protection saddle pad. Going bitless is also an option, and boots can help protect your horse’s legs.
Mental safety starts with building confidence. There are many types of confidence and many different exercises to help your horse gain that confidence. When training, start with simple tasks and gradually build up to harder tasks, being careful not to ask for too much.
Confidence is like filling a bucket of water. It takes time to fill the bucket, but if you knock it over the water spills out quickly. With time, you’ll see your horse slowly gain confidence as she successfully completes tasks. But if she gets hurt or has a scare, it can knock her confidence level right back down again. Be wary of this, and take steps to keep her both mentally and physically safe.
When using rewards, many different factors have to be considered. Here are a few basics to keep in mind:
- Rewards need to be meaningful to your horse. For example, if she doesn’t like her neck being scratched, then it won’t work as a reward. Find something that has more value to her.
- Rewards need to be earned, not expected. Only give a reward if your horse does something:
- exceptionally well
- of high value to you.
- Manners are key! It’s important to teach your horse healthy boundaries so she doesn’t become pushy when seeking rewards. When she starts demanding praise or treats, this training tactic loses its influence.
I’m a big believer in asking horses to do jobs they enjoy. Partnerships can be so much better if you and your horse enjoy the same things, whether it’s jumping, flat work, liberty play, trail riding, or anything else you like to do. However, sometimes a horse doesn’t find joy in what you want her to do because she doesn’t feel safe, or because her fitness level isn’t high enough for her to enjoy being active.
A couple of things you can do to increase her enjoyment of physical activity is engage her in strength training (riding uphill) and cardio training (interactive lunging – see sidebar below). When she’s stronger and fitter, training will be easier and therefore more enjoyable.
It’s also important to take note of your horse’s mood. When she’s nervous or stressed, she’ll probably keep her feet moving. Walking her in a square or “S” pattern can be really helpful in these cases. If she’s feeling tired and sluggish, taking some rest breaks or playing a few games can help engage her.
Putting it all together
To help your horse move from being resistant to responsive, try thinking about what will encourage her to say yes. Pay attention to her energy and what type of reward may work. During sessions, I use different types of rewards – treats, scratches, rest and free time.
Spend time observing your horse’s behavior and learn the subtle signs of what is making her tick before she says “no”. Start with smaller tasks she can say yes to, and pretty soon you’ll be accomplishing bigger goals.
Remember that we all had to learn how to read and write, and for some of us it was challenging. We didn’t like it, and there were many times we thought we’d never get it – but here we are now. You’ve made it to the end of this article, and it’s got you thinking: did I read it because it offered me safety, reward, or joy?