Skip to content

One of the things that my dog agili­ty instruc­tor often says is “Reward your dog,” most often when the dog has done what the han­dler asked for, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly what the han­dler wanted.

There are many ways in which dog agili­ty and rid­ing are dif­fer­ent. Dogs are not hors­es, in agili­ty you’re expect­ed to not be in con­stant con­tact with your dog, and seri­ous injury is less com­mon in agility.

But there are some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. In both sports, novices overuse voice and hands to direct the ani­mal, while experts use tor­so and legs. Both are often faster-​paced than novices appre­ci­ate. Both require mus­cle mem­o­ry. And in both sports, an activ­i­ty that should ulti­mate­ly be reward­ing for the dog or horse can ini­tial­ly be scary.

Horse in a pastoral setting with a spaniel and a setter
Paint­ing by George Stubbs

Any time the dog or horse is doing what you ask, that’s praise­wor­thy, even if it wasn’t what you intend­ed. The reward is earned, and you should give it. Most dogs like food treats, or tug toys, or items they can chase, or that com­bine two or three of these attrib­ut­es. None of these work well for a rid­den horse—even food treats can only be giv­en at the halt, and the horse reach­ing for them dis­tracts from bal­ance and straight­ness and turns the halt into a stop. But the one thing almost every dog and horse (and human stu­dent) wants is reassurance—“You’re doing good!”

One way that hors­es bond with each oth­er is mutu­al groom­ing, and a com­mon groom­ing des­ti­na­tion is right in front of the rider’s hand: the area along side and in front of the with­ers. Because you’re the leader, when you scratch your horse there, you’re  telling him “I’ve got your back,” and when you’re rid­ing, you lit­er­al­ly do.

Relax­ing a rein to scratch is some­times coun­ter­pro­duc­tive when you’re being pre­cise with the aids, and that’s where the voice comes in. Hors­es reas­sure each oth­er by voice all the time, and while we can’t dupli­cate the details of what they’re say­ing to each oth­er, we can reas­sure by voice in a way they under­stand. Reas­sur­ing vocal­iza­tions gen­er­al­ly drop in pitch and vol­ume: “GOOD boy” (this is dif­fer­ent from dogs, where ris­ing pitch can elic­it excitement).

You might be think­ing that reward is impor­tant for train­ing, but is super­flu­ous for les­son hors­es and espe­cial­ly school­mas­ters, because they already know what to do. But they need rewards more than ever, not because you’re teach­ing them what to do, rather because they’re teach­ing you, and that’s how you let them know you appre­ci­ate the les­son. I’m not very good at that, because I often feel inept. But when your teacher is a horse, that’s real­ly the only way you can show gratitude.

So now you have the tools. Reward your horse. Good boy!

Not all the time; that would be silly.

There’s a dog­ma among rid­ers and train­ers that a horse should move at the gait and speed that you choose, all the time, every time, and that any devi­a­tion is dis­obe­di­ence or “dis­re­spect”. Allow­ing the horse to rou­tine­ly choose gait, speed, or path is def­i­nite­ly dan­ger­ous, and a skilled rid­er should be able to clear­ly com­mu­ni­cate expec­ta­tions to the horse. But by being absolute and unyield­ing in your expec­ta­tions of the horse, you are cut­ting off one of the most use­ful ways your horse has of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to you.

At lib­er­ty, hors­es almost always choose their own gait and speed. Even a horse  run­ning with a herd is choos­ing the safe­ty of that herd. About the only excep­tions are a horse being chased by a real or imag­ined preda­tor, and a horse stuck in quick­sand. Stud­ies have shown that hors­es often choose gaits and speeds that are most effi­cient; this is hard­ly surprising.

Adding a rid­er to the mix changes every­thing. When a horse deals with the weight and bal­ance of the rid­er, dif­fer­ent gait/​speed com­bi­na­tions become more effi­cient. Com­bi­na­tions that are not effi­cient have to be trained. Clas­si­cal west­ern hors­es have to be trained to the jog, which is slow­er than the trot they might choose them­selves, and to the lope, which is slow­er than their pre­ferred can­ter. Upper-​level com­pet­i­tive dres­sage hors­es are trained not only to slow­er speeds, such as the can­ter pirou­ette, pas­sage, and piaffe, but also extend­ed trots. It’s true that some hors­es and even breeds have con­for­ma­tion that makes these com­bi­na­tions eas­i­er, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any way effortless.

So what might a horse be com­mu­ni­cat­ing by choos­ing a gait and speed that you didn’t ask for? The stock answer is “I’m the boss of you!” Some rid­ers and even train­ers are so inse­cure in their con­nec­tion with hors­es that they always seize that expla­na­tion. Some­times it’s even cor­rect. But what if the horse had no incli­na­tion to be the boss of you yes­ter­day, and is per­fect­ly coop­er­a­tive tomorrow?

Some oth­er things your horse might be telling you:

  • I hurt. I’m devel­op­ing an abscess, or my arthri­tis is act­ing up.
  • I’m not strong enough to do this for an extend­ed period.
  • I’m scared. If you weren’t on my back, I’d run away, but I’m doing this dis­place­ment activ­i­ty instead.
  • I’m grumpy, my ovaries hurt, and I’m doing every­thing I can not to buck you off, which I’d nev­er do anyway.
  • I feel great! I want to run in the sun, pow­er through the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • I feel great! I want to nap in the sun, munch on the flow­ers, and I real­ly don’t under­stand why you’re not down with that.
  • You’re crazy! You’re ask­ing me to risk los­ing my foot­ing and killing us both.
  • You’re throw­ing me off-​balance! I hear there are these things called “lessons”.
  • I’m sick. If you took my tem­per­a­ture, or even looked at my eyes, you’d real­ize that.

If my horse were try­ing to tell me any of these things, I’d want to know about it. Var­i­ous hors­es at var­i­ous times have told me most of these things. If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t mat­ter.” That’s not a good basis for a trust relationship.

If I passed it all off as dis­obe­di­ence, I’d be telling my horse “You don’t matter.”

One of the trails Bud­dy and I take away from the sta­ble has a gen­tle incline right as we leave the prop­er­ty. He always wants to trot it. If I ask him to walk, he will, but I don’t, because I can learn enough from the speed of that trot, the way his body moves, and the way his head moves to know whether there are any issues that I should address, or that might mean we shouldn’t go out at all. And the time he vol­un­teered a walk, I could tell he wasn’t well, and we turned around and went back.

And then there’s the stop.

It’s true that hors­es can stop because they are lazy. Or exhaust­ed. Or wor­ried. Or con­fused. It’s hard to imag­ine a response that use­ful­ly address­es all those things (and more) with­out know­ing (or even car­ing about) the reason.

When I first rode Bud­dy in what I like to call “con­trived obsta­cle cours­es”, he would some­times stop dead before an obsta­cle. I was green, and there was peer pres­sure, and I even thought about get­ting spurs. But I learned that if I kept him fac­ing the obsta­cle with­out push­ing him to go for­ward, he would even­tu­al­ly fig­ure it out and go for­ward on his own, because he knew that’s what I expect­ed. And once he real­ized that he wouldn’t be kicked at every obsta­cle, he calmed down and took them more easily.

So if your horse insists on a dif­fer­ent gait or speed from the one you request­ed, think about let­ting him take it for a few strides until you fig­ure out why. Remem­ber that hors­es live in the present. Your horse doesn’t plot dis­obe­di­ence based on your past weak­ness­es. Give him the chance to tell you what’s on his mind, now.

A num­ber of years ago, I worked for a time with a graph­ic design­er, Gun­nar Swan­son. He also taught graph­ic design stu­dents, and he told me that when a stu­dent was con­cerned that a design ele­ment was too big, he told the stu­dent to make it big­ger. The idea was that some ele­ments just “want” to be big, and they need to be released from “big, but not quite big enough”, and that in oth­er cas­es, mak­ing the ele­ment big­ger would cause the design­er to see the design in a whole new light, and come up with dif­fer­ent solutions.

Maybe a decade ago, I applied this idea to bits: If a bit isn’t giv­ing you enough con­trol, switch to a milder bit. For my part, it led to rid­ing in a rope hal­ter (more about that in a lat­er post). The basic idea is that, although bits are for con­trol, they are nev­er for more  con­trol, and that if a bit seems inad­e­quate in that regard, the rid­er should return to the basics of horse­man­ship and for­get about met­al gadgets.

A sec­ond exam­ple of “make it big­ger” occurred to me recent­ly. If your horse is going too fast, ask him to go faster. “Too fast” gaits are often the result of ner­vous­ness or pain. If you ask the horse to slow down, it may very well increase the ner­vous­ness, even if it relieves the pain, because restraint nev­er made a horse less ner­vous. If you ask the horse to go faster, that can some­times relieve the ner­vous­ness, and then the horse will be able to slow down more calm­ly to the speed you want­ed in the first place.

Restraint nev­er makes a horse less nervous

Of course, you should only do this if you’re ordi­nar­i­ly com­fort­able rid­ing the faster speed. Many rid­ers get ner­vous when a horse speeds up, and this feeds the horse’s ner­vous­ness, but when you ask the horse to go faster, you’re not react­ing, you’re doing some­thing, and that should calm you down, as well.

1

In 1963, the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Mil­gram pub­lished the results of a study he did to mea­sure the will­ing­ness of par­tic­i­pants to obey an author­i­ty fig­ure and per­form actions that con­flict­ed with their con­science. Par­tic­i­pants were led to believe that they were tak­ing the role of Teacher in a learn­ing exper­i­ment. Actors took the roles of Exper­i­menter and Learn­er. The Exper­i­menter instruct­ed the Teacher to ask the Learn­er ques­tions, and if the answers were incor­rect, press a but­ton to admin­is­ter an elec­tric shock to the Learn­er. The Learn­er, an actor, inten­tion­al­ly answered ques­tions incor­rect­ly, and respond­ed as if to a real shock. As the exper­i­ment pro­gressed, the Exper­i­menter asked the Teacher to increase the lev­el of shocks, even though the reac­tions of the Learn­er sug­gest­ed that he was in great dis­tress. In the first set of exper­i­ments, 65% of the par­tic­i­pants admin­is­tered the high­est lev­el of shock, which they were told was 450 volts.

Mil­gram devised his psy­cho­log­i­cal study to answer the pop­u­lar ques­tion at that par­tic­u­lar time: “Could it be that Eich­mann and his mil­lion accom­plices in the Holo­caust were just fol­low­ing orders? Could we call them all accom­plices?”   —Wikipedia

Oth­ers have repeat­ed the exper­i­ment in the years since; I was remind­ed of it by read­ing about a recent rep­e­ti­tion in Poland. And I thought of the ear­ly edu­ca­tion of many riders.

Kick, kick, kick!” The stac­ca­to music of a les­son barn.

There are rea­sons to kick a horse. There are many more rea­sons not to. Most kicks admin­is­tered by rid­ers to hors­es are giv­en out of frus­tra­tion, and almost always before oth­er meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion have been exhaust­ed. For­tu­nate­ly the kicks of an eight-​year-​old don’t do much dam­age to a horse, and most les­son hors­es have expe­ri­enced worse. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the stu­dent is nev­er taught how to rec­og­nize when a kick is nec­es­sary, but rather that it’s always nec­es­sary when a horse isn’t “obey­ing”.

And the expec­ta­tion has been cre­at­ed. Force is always an option. Pain com­pli­ance is nev­er­the­less com­pli­ance. And by the time that eight-​year-​old becomes an adult, with spurs, or a crop, or a twisted-​wire snaf­fle, or draw reins, “Kick, kick, kick!” has been inter­nal­ized. When oth­er “author­i­ty fig­ures” chime in with “Show him who’s boss,” “Hors­es don’t feel pain the way we do,” “Make him yield at the poll,” the mes­sage is rein­forced. We’re teach­ing the hors­es, so it must be okay.

Where do we go to find the evil here? We all came through the same sys­tem. We learned the same lessons. Some of us real­ized what we were doing and said, “No! I won’t do this any more.” Oth­ers con­tin­ue to go along, because of igno­rance, social pres­sure, or expe­di­ence. Kick him. Push the but­ton. You have no oth­er choice, you must go on.