Teach the Horse to Seek the Reward

You cannot praise your horse enough.

The more you reward him–appropriately– the more he’ll learn to seek your praise. It is always a win-win.

One of the biggest mistakes I see riders make is being stingy with their praise. Maybe  they are unobservant to the moment that they should offer praise or just plain ol’ afraid to praise their horse– but the result is the same: horses that receive little praise progress slower.

As a rider, it is YOUR job to provide opportunities for the horse to earn your praise– and to follow through with it.

Uncertain about when to reward him?

Praise him when he tries for you.

Praise him when he takes a takes a risk and successfully does something new for you.

Praise him when he finally connects all of the dots on his own and learns.

Praise him when he shows improvement.

Reward him in the moment– as soon as he gives you what you want. This cannot be stated enough. In order for the horse to pair his behavior with your desire, you HAVE TO praise him as SOON AS he gives you what you want.

Praise can take various forms:

  1. “Good boy”
  2. Wither scratch with a finger
  3. Quick walk break
  4. Pat on the neck/Make a big fuss
  5. Sugar cube/treat

If you reward him for doing the norm or the expected, you lower your standards– and with it– his performance level.

If you praise him for making a mistake, you’ve taught him that mistake is what you want & you will get more of the same mistake.

Once you have praised him for doing something, drop the subject and move on. Otherwise the horse will became confused and resentful– and your praise will be cheapened as a motivational tool.

Reward often because you teach him new things often. Praise him because you teach him to improve often. Reward him because he takes a risk for you.

Praise often because you want a willing partner who tries his heart out for you.

Do you frequently give the horse the opportunity to seek reward?

Riding Sloppy…or Not?

Art emerges when we accept the horse as he is and begin to work from there.

Creativity begins when we take the training work and make it into a little game for the horse.

Someone once told me I was a fun rider to watch. For a few minutes there, I stood there, not understanding where the compliment came from. The horse I was on was a lower level horse, just starting to play with Second Level lateral work– so it couldn’t have been from riding the “exciting” moves or from all of the power and precision that upper level horses have. Then it dawned on me– that particular ride I had ridden like a little kid on their pony at a gymkhana.

As I juggled trying to have a productive ride while navigating the arena traffic and around the jumps in the small arena, there were many unexpected maneuvers. Instead of simply staying on the same circle, I made the most of the situation by adding in serpentines, leg-yields, lengthenings, all the while trying to add in travers and shoulders-in. It almost became a game.

Fun is infectious.

That ride might have appeared sloppy to an onlooker because nothing was percise.  To me, I did my best to make the most of an otherwise aggravating situation. To my horse, the ride was a game, not work.

Mixed in the spontaneity, our turns became smaller, collected gaits more confirmed and balance refined.

By having fun–and a sense of humor– I accomplished more through the chaos than if I had been the only rider in the arena.

What situations can you take advantage of to infuse your ride with fun? How can you make training be like a game to your horse?

There’s More Than One Way…

There is more than one way to skin a cat. Or, more aptly put: there is more than one way to achieve something with a horse.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that only methods x, y, z can be used to achieve the desired result/feeling. Or worse yet, that only 2-3 exercises are needed to train a movement.

The reality is that every horse is different. If you confine your methods and exercises, you may stifle progress– not to mention your own learning.

A horse I tried to introduce collection to recently delivered this humbling lesson. He knew most of the lateral movements, but had a hard time figuring out how to take weight behind, transforming his normal working gaits into collected ones. I tried teaching him using the lateral movements…nope. Couldn’t put the pieces together. I tried teaching him the concept more directly via transitions. As soon as I asked, he became like an angry teenager– all rebellion, no reasoning. Then one day, to break up the monotony of arena work, I set out a series of trot poles. DING! The light went on.

Without directly asking him to transfer the weight, he naturally figured out how to shift his weight back. It wasn’t just the collected trot he figured out for himself, but also the canter.  Although humbled, I now have one more method I can use to teach collection to another horse in the future.

Your horse is your greatest teacher– if you are humble and open-minded enough to learn from him.

How large is your arsenal of exercises for your most challenging training obstacles? What beliefs about how horses must be trained do you hold as absolute truth? Have they ever been challenged by a horse? What was the outcome?

Everyone Has an End Game– What’s Yours?

There are always end games.

Most of the time they are less glamorous and a bit more truthful than your goals. In the startup tech world, your goal may be to change the world. But the end game? To go IPO and make millions. Like I said– a bit more truthful. Frequently the end game has the bigger say in setting company strategy, rather than its mission.

We don’t talk a lot about end games in the horse world.

Your goal may be to become an Olympic rider, but what is your end game? Is it:

  • To become well-known? (Prestige/fame)
  • To make a livelihood from horses? (Money)
  • To see how far you and your horse can go? (Personal fulfillment)

How you answer the question guides your decision making in key moments.

On a broader level, it guides your choices of horses, trainers and which opportunities you pursue. It also shapes how you make decisions such as when to keep a horse vs. sell them and why you do so. For instance, if my end game is to be well-known through the horses, I would select shows, judges and tests around which ones I thought I had the best change at winning and getting high scores at, and would go to as many shows as I could. In comparison, if personal fulfillment was my end goal, I might opt to go to fewer shows and spend more time and money on clinicians and lessons.

On a minute level, it shapes how you ride daily.

Your end game will determine the strategies you use, how much you push the horse each ride, and if/when you use force. If my end game was to make money, I might push harder and be more open to training shortcuts than if my end game was something else. In comparison, if personal fulfillment was my end goal, I might take my time solidifying the basics before moving up to the next level.

What is YOUR end game in dressage? No, seriously– what do you want to get out of your horse? Out of your riding? Do you actions align with what you WANT your end goal to be?


You Choose Your Influences

Every time you ride, you choose what type of rider you will be.

Whether you will be a rider who frequently uses force (and to what degree), whether you have quiet hands or loud ones, whether you will be a rider whose highest value is power and expression or one that most values harmony and obedience– the choice is yours to make– every ride, every stride.

Whether you are cognizant or not, you make a choice to train like your influences. For better or worse, every instructor and rider has a unique stamp that they imprint their students and their horses with. When you opt to train with someone, you make an active choice to be like them and bear their imprint.

When you are just learning to ride, a nearby stable with a knowledgeable, supportive instructor who can explain to you the basic mechanics of riding suffices. As you progress, your needs and decision making process evolves. You then choose between reputations and accolades, and at a later stage in your riding journey, from someone who rides and works with the horses as you wish to do. This progression is simply one from a knowledge transfer –> experience transfer–> value transfer. By the time you’ve reached the third stage, you own your art.

In my experience, some of the best instructors have low profiles, so don’t let their own personal show record be a deterrent.

When evaluating new instructors or clinicians, let these questions guide your decision making:

  • Who do you admire and want to ride like?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Who do you work well with? (Or: who works well with your horse, if you have a tricky one.)

Remember, you choose who gets to influence you. You actively choose who you ride like. You choose daily what type of rider you want to be.

Choose these things wisely. Make them good ones.