How your horse perceives rewards and motivation (and how to to use it)

What really is a reward in your horses’ eyes and how should you use it? (also what is actually not a reward)

Do you believe that it is possible to motivate your horse? Or do you think that motivation is beyond his understanding?

Do you reward your horse while working with him, from the ground or from the saddle? How do you motivate him to keep doing what you are asking? Do you believe that giving your horse a treat after he does something well is the right way to go?

I actually don’t think it is, let me explain why.

Why don’t horses see food as a reward?

When horses try to gain dominance over one another and better position in their own social hierarchy of their herd, they often do it by kicking and biting.

Have you noticed what the horses that have a higher status in the hierarchy do when they see that some other horse respects them?

They just leave them alone and stop “bullying” them. As soon as the “weaker” horse starts acting like he is bellow the “stronger” one, the stronger one, who won the fight leaves him alone.

You can reward your horse in a similar way. Just leave your horse alone and give him a short break or move on to a different exercise after he does something well. Or you can just reward him by going on a loose rein.

What horses never do between each other

You know what the “stronger” horse that is higher in the hierarchy never does, however?

He will never “tell” the other horse “Come over here and eat some of my food”

Horses don’t perceive food as much of a reward. They often have access to food at all times, some of them only some parts of the day. But food is just so common for them that they don’t perceive it as much of a reward.

How to reward your horse

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Treats as a reward usually don’t work very well. However, there is an even bigger problem about them.

If you give away your food, your horse will likely perceive it as if you were showing that your social status is bellow him. Your horse is likely getting a very different message than you think he is getting…

There is a but to all this

Not all things are however always black and white. I also tried to motivate my horses by using treats. Now I know that it didn’t help me. But it also didn’t cause me problems.

When I was giving my horse the treat I also gave him that little break.

It is also true that your horse constantly evaluates your behavior, not just whether you are giving him a treat from time to time. So if you otherwise do everything regarding respect correctly and you are consistent, treats will do no harm, but most likely they will not help either. (at least they didn’t work for me)

What did help me, and what I believe horses perceive as a reward is when you just let them relax for a little bit. After your horse does something well, reward him by doing something different, riding on a loose rein for some time or by having a short break.

There is one moment when I still use food as part of the training. That is when I am teaching my horses to walk with me into the trailer. I don’t give it to them from my hand in those cases. But that is for another article.

If you would like to learn more about respect and about simple exercises that will help you to get it, click here to claim my free training series!

How your horse perceives rewards and motivation (and how to to use it)
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