Monday, June 9, 2008


Can you tell me what you mean by rewards in this case that the owners should have provided? What should they have done in this case? And why would the horses rebel? How can you make it so they are happy and don't rebel?

I had a different plan for today, but this question is so good, I'm going to cover it in today's post.
My training method is a fairly common one, I've developed it in bits and pieces from the clinicians I've seen, the trainers I've worked with, and the horses I ride.
I'm sure that many, if not most of you, will recognize things I say and do as methods that come from other trainers.
I never will claim to have invented any of this stuff, so if I sound like I have, understand I am continually learning and trying new and old things. It's all mixed up in a jumble of what works for me, and I have made it my own. But I sure as hell had to learn it somewhere.

When I start a horse the first thing I set up is a reward system.
To my mind, the horse doesn't really care if I pet it or praise it. Horses spend their life looking for the big four, none of which have anything to do with me. I like to pet horses, but that's for my benefit, not theirs.
To them, a reward is to leave them be.
When I step to them, that creates pressure.
When I step away, it relieves pressure. Stepping away is a reward.
The first time I saddle I step to them with the pad, then away with the pad when they tolerate it.
So the reward is to have the pressure of me and the pad taken away.
And so on.
The horse learns that if it does what I ask, I'll relieve their pressure.
After the first ride I step off and loosen the cinch, then I put them up. The reward is the release of the cinch, and quitting for the day.
In the beginning I release them by putting them up for every positive step they take.
They really start looking for that positive step.
As I get farther along I increase what I ask for.
I want more and more from them before I give them the big release.
In the middle they get small rewards for being good.
After each properly executed maneuver I let them stand for a few minutes on a loose rein.
All my horses will stand rock still with the reins hanging after the first 10 rides or so. They know if they are quiet I'll let them stand. If they move I don't pull them down, we just go back to work. With enthusiasm.
I rest them often.
I try to make a clear decision with each horse, for each ride. I will either ride them past their comfort zone, and deal with the fall out, or I'll quit before they get to the point of arguing with me.
If a horse starts to fade or misbehave because I've pushed them, I make them mind, and we work until I have their focus again. Then I quit.
This builds a try into them that's really satisfying.
If I have to ask for more, they'll always give it.
Not because they love me.
Not because I give them carrots.
Because they trust me.
They trust my consistency.
They trust my leadership.
They know for a fact that if they try, I will get off, and leave them be.
I'll let them continue their equine quest for the big four.
So based on the give and take I establish with these horses, here's how it must have gone for the mustang.
She went home. Reward.
She was loaded and hauled to a new area within days of getting home. No reward.
She stood quietly while being saddled. No reward.
She was mounted and headed out into the hills without any longing or round pen warm up. No reward.
She walked and trotted without trying to bolt once. No reward.
She was tired and getting worried but still chugging along by mile 5. No reward.
She was back sore and distracted by mile 10.
They stopped and rested for lunch. Reward.
They continued their loop.
The mustang held in there, but was beginning to jig and wring her tail. They pulled on her face to try to slow her. No reward.
Her anxiety was high by mile 15 but they figured if she still had that much gas they would trot the rest of the way in. They let go of her face. Reward.
She was unsaddled. Reward.
She was too back sore to ride for the next few days. Reward?
So she was never rewarded when she was focused and trying. The harder she tried the farther they rode.
She was rewarded with the lunch break when she was losing her focus.
When she really started falling apart they answered that by hanging on her reins. When she couldn't quit jigging, they released the pressure. They rewarded her for pulling on the bit, by letting her speed up towards home.
Her concept is this.
Being good gets me nowhere.
If I get spacey and worried I get a rest.
If I pull at the bit and jump around long enough they will let me head for home as fast as I want.
Trail riding makes me sore and worried.
Next time I'll start fussing a lot sooner.
All of this could have been circumvented if they had done a five mile loop like they should have.
They are joining NATRC. My hope is that learning to competitive trail ride will teach those bozos how to care for that brave little horse.

The second horse was taken from home and away from her pasture mates for the first time.
She was ridden through not one, but three pattern classes the next day.
All of those entail being alone in the arena with a rider she was unfamiliar with.
No matter how hard she tried, she never got a physical or mental rest.
Her rewards should have come like this.
A few days to acclimate to her new surroundings with plenty of good hay and water. Reward.
Light riding without a lot of pressure during that time. Reward.
Lessons with trainer to learn how to cue pretty fancy horse. Reward and knowledge.
Take your young horse to the next show. Ride in one class. Get out of the arena, loosen your cinch, and take her the hell home! Reward.
Repeat step one and two. Reward.
Instead her concept is this.
I don't know who this kid is, but she won't get off me.
She is pulling and thumping on me every time I go in that scary, empty arena.
I think I hate that arena.
I'm not sure yet, but I might hate this kid.

All the hugs, kisses, pats on the nose, or whispering sweet nothings in their ear, will never replace being fair.
If you're not sure how, start reading.

And now it's time to get riding. Later.


  1. Good informative post! Than-you for sharing.

  2. I absolutly love they way you think Lady. I train a lot like you do, and since compaired to me your "Big Time" that actually makes me feel better about myself!

    As far as sending outside horses home with less then knowledageble owners, I couldn't agree with you more.

    I spent 6 months with a stallion who was an absolute a$$ when he first came, I sent him home a gentleman who knew his manners...less then 2 weeks later his old habits started coming back and now almost 1 year later they can hardly control the animal.

    As much as I've told them to geld him they think that their Quarter x with lord only knows what is "Gods gift to horses"

    *bangs head on desk*

  3. makes sense to me, could food also be used as a reward? For like lifting a foot or something?

  4. Agree, this is a very important topic.
    The reward (release) is the cornerstone of horsemanship. Everything else is second after knowing when to release pressure.

    It's also easier said than done.

    I find it easy to recognize a try when first introducing a new skill. I find it much harder to determine when to release when asking for more finesse on the new skill.
    I also rest the horse in the arena after a successful maneuver. The dividends have paid off big time on the trail. When we stop on the trail, our horses are the quiet, well behaved ones.

  5. Excellent resource, this one. I bet you could go to Cali and push your Big Four (R) Horsemanship methods. xD I feel for those horses, but it is just so common practice I almost feel a bit numb to the concept by now. Which is a shame given my age.

  6. THANK-YOU!!!

    I have read and re-read your post several times to let it sink in and will continue to do so.

    Everything you said makes so much sense. I will definitely keep reading your blog and learning.

    I know that sharing this information must take alot of time effort and thought on your part. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. My horse and many horses owned by others will benefit from the increased knowledge of their owners gained by reading your blog -- thanks again!

  7. About food and training . . . I wondered about this, too. Two months ago I brought a carrot with me in the arena. The work outs don’t last that long, 40 minutes is average. When the horse responded well, we stopped and I bit off a part of the carrot. The horse reaches around and takes it from my hand. Depending on what we were doing, we keep standing if the horse needs to catch his breath. After we are through, I dismount in the arena, give the last bite of carrot to the horse, then untack at the barn. My ex-barrel horse was more relaxed. He stopped and stood quietly better. After the stop the try is really good for any of my horses.

    So, is it because horses like to stop and eat carrots, or is it because I had the carrot and I was more focused on seeing the try to reward the horse? I don’t ride with a carrot every time, but the results are still there, a more relaxed performance.

  8. Wow, awesome post, I'll have to keep all that in mind next time I go riding! :D

  9. Have you ever considered writing a book? In all seriousness, you should.

  10. Excellent post!

    It's good confirmation to me that I'm on the right track, too.

    Lately I've been doing a lot more bareback riding. Good for my seat, plus it's easier than grooming and saddling. I've noticed some really interesting things about myself, though, from this simple change.

    When I ride with a saddle, I spend FAR less time sitting and doing nothing. I always seem to need to do something. When I'm bareback, however, I am much more likely to spend time on the release. Trot a while (without me falling off!) - rest. Get a good sidepass - rest. Amazing back up - rest. Canter a few laps in the RP - rest.

    And I'm realizing that my horse is WAY calmer when I am riding bareback. His trot is slow and even - not jagged and fast. He doesn't feel the need to duck out or bolt or buck. I get much better sideways and backwards from him. He's so much more OK with just stopping and waiting.

    It's really interesting.

    So, like I said, great post!!

  11. Enlightening as always.

    Last fall I was really having a time with my mare. She can be so full of herself and opinionated. Reading this reminded me again of what I was doing wrong *whapstupidhumanwhap...good horse!*

    I think it's appropriate to say here that horses learn from the release of pressure, not the application of it.

    Same thing goes for rewards. The horse learns that he did something right when you reward him, not wile hes performing what you were asking.

  12. cowgirlsenvy- I am so not big time, I just sniff around the edges....:)
    skint-I don't use food rewards ever. They just cause me whoas.
    love to ride-if it works for you I'm not going to be critical, but I need my horses to respond to me, not the food.
    fssunnysd-I would love to write a book, but I don't really know how to go about it. To be honest, I started this blog so I could write.
    You guys were just a fantastic bonus!
    loneplainsman-I'd be all over the bareback if I were you.If you're getting that much out of your horse I'd spend my rest time trying to figure how to make the same things work under saddle.

  13. Okay, I am getting so much out of your blog, mugwump, I think I need to send you a check. Seriously.

    I can give you a suggestion about a publishing company that is interested in horses and training subject matter. Johnson Books is in Boulder, CO. (Google for their info.) I'd call them and ask for a list of agents they work with. Hope that helps.

    I'm really just starting to learn to ride and how to "be" around horses. I'm hoping that as I develop some basic skills, I can also be more aware of pressure and release. I am in awe of you and the other posters who train. Lots and lots to think about all the time.

  14. livedtotell-
    thanks, the thing about horses is, you never stop learning, every time you think you've got it figured out, the horses let you know you aren't even close...

  15. I've always allowed my mare a break when she properly executes something we are learning, I've just never quite thought of it the way you put it. I think to myself often how well my mare is doing but I don't think I let her know as much as I should. More breaks for Maybe .BTW I love reading you blog, your sensible and real. Excellent post.

  16. You reminded me of something with this post. I talked to a guy who used to re-train horses that had flunked out of top training programs. They did dressage and hunters. (He said he only sold a horse once it was jumping 2'6 and schooling second level dressage, if he couldn't do that it became a lesson horse)

    He said something that is both the same and the opposite of what you said. He said that when he was training a horse in dressage he would ask them to do something, then when they tried he would relax the rein and let them move forward at their own pace. That was their reward, forward movement on a relaxed rein. Then he'd pick it back up again and they'd work and then reward. Repeat.

    He said "always reward with forward movement" and that judges always commented on how forward his horses were. Reward with stop and rest seems like the same concept but with the opposite goal. He wanted a very forward horse, you want a very quiet relaxed horse. Certainly for me, the rider, reward is when we stop and rest!

  17. Great post! After trying to find my own way, I'm a little overwhelmed by the sheer multitude of books and theories out there. I know that you probably use bits and pieces of many theories and add your own experience. Would you put a little thought into a "reading list" for those of us trying to do a better job communicating with our horses?

  18. texasmissy- I will start thinking about that.
    I'll combine it with my "What does a trainer want" post...