In beginning the process of writing my articles, I found that I’m always stipulating that a rider reward the horse, so I want to dedicate an entire article to stressing its importance.
If you think about how training must seem to the horse, we’re fairly constantly telling him no, that’s wrong, more of this, not so much of that. We need to balance that out with, yes, that’s right, good effort, you’re on the right track, or the horse has no incentive to try. He’ll just think, no matter what I do, I can’t get it right, so why try? Most horse’s want to please–they’re rather amazing creatures that way–but I’ve had a couple who’ve already written the rider’s opinion off as unimportant. With those horses, reward is especially necessary…not little scratches on the neck or small good boys, but huge pats and loud rewards. I often say love him! Make him feel like a star! Like people, it’s an extremely rare horse who won’t then want to be told he’s a star. I remember riding around Lendon’s ring on one such horse and her saying to her students, “Courtney’s annoying to ride with, but boy do her horses try!”
My rule for my students is to be equally as generous with their rewards as they are strict with their corrections. Most of the time, only really good deserves a reward, but that’s if a horse should know what’s being asked for. For instance, if a horse knows pirouette canter, the rider should demand perfection, but if the horse is just learning pirouette canter, she needs to reward him for trying, to say, yes, you’re on the right track. Then the next time, the horse may try that response more.
In bringing a horse along, reward is important to encourage the horse in the learning process, but it’s equally as important with a trained horse. I often talk about respecting the horse, and this is one way a rider shows respect. It’s like a boss of a company telling a worker good job…it shows that he appreciates the hard work, and that gives the worker a sense of accomplishment and makes him want to do a good job the next time. In the portion of my book this article stems from, I talk about getting Idy, who was already a proven Grand Prix horse, out of a grouchy faze by rewarding him; he got happy and tried again because he appreciated the appreciation.
One thing that often happens when a rider rewards the horse is that they give everything away and lose the quality of their work. This shouldn’t happen. One arm can just reach forward and give a little pat or scratch without loosening the other rein, and when a big reward is needed, the core still remains strong. I normally tell students to pat with the inside hand, which makes the inside rein loose, because I want them to be able to do all work with no inside rein–for the bend to come from the inside leg pushing to the outside rein–but the pat should really come from whichever rein the horse wants to lean on to make him associate carrying himself on that side with reward.
A mistake I often see when I’m teaching is that the reward comes at the wrong time. For instance, the rider gets after the horse for being behind the leg, the horse bolts forward–which is the correct response to the leg or whip–the rider brings them back, then gives the reward. If done in this way, the horse may think he’s being rewarded for coming back when he should be rewarded for the forward response. The reward should be given when the horse is galloping forward. It doesn’t matter if he’s bucking, picks up the wrong lead, cross-canters or is just generally spazzy, the rider should give him several pats and good boys (within safety) when he’s going forward.
A couple things I’m often asked about are 1. is voice ever enough, and 2. should I use sugar cubes. For the first one, voice can be enough if the horse knows the movement he’s being asked for very well and he consistently performs it well. It’s like the example I gave of the boss of a company telling a worker well done: it just says good job; it’s not celebrating how fantastic the horse’s efforts were or congratulating him on figuring something out.
As far as sugar cubes, I’ve only ever used them for two things: to get a horse to stay still at the mounting block or convince him to let me get on, and for piaffe on the ground. For anything on the horse’s back, I feel it takes too long to stop, get a cube out and lean over to give it, and as I said above, I think it’s important to reward the horse immediately after he’s done something special.