Think back to a time when you were in the midst of learning something new… We know that when we learn, different feelings come up. Some are positive and others are not so much… However a simple well done when you make even the tiniest progress can be a game-changer. In fact, it is often all the fuel that is needed to power through the obstacles or difficulties and keep trying.
It is a wonderful thing when someone gives us recognition for our attempts and efforts. A simple well done goes a long way to helping us push through the frustrations which might otherwise cause us to give up
Well, the same can be said for your horse. Do you make a point of rewarding your horse for every small step in the direction? How, maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was a good attempt or try. Do you make a fuss, or make much of him when he really tries and reaches for something new and difficult?
Rewarding Your Horse
It is incredibly easy to become so laser-focused on the end goal, that we often miss those small opportunities along the way to ‘refill the happy tank’ for our horse. Rewarding your horse will encourage him to persevere and continue trying. Often when we think of rewarding our horse, the picture of patting your horse on the neck comes to mind. Or a comforting, encouraging word or three.
However, all efforts to reward your horse are not the same. And one of our responsibilities is to find a way that works for you.
For example, if you are in the middle of a difficult movement; halfway through a dressage test, or even have 5 fences left in your showjumping round, a pat on the neck is not always an option. The same applies in dressage; encouraging words will not go down well!
Offering The Inside Rein
My suggestion is to begin working towards using your inside rein to communicate a reward with your horse. You can train your horse to understand a softening or offering of the inside rein to be the reward itself.
Now, it takes time for your horse to grasp that this softening of the rein on its own, with no voice, or pat or scratch, is the actual reward. However, investing the time to teach your horse the meaning of your actions, is one that will pay back dividends in the long run.
I have found that there is a process to doing this. If practiced consistently, this will lead your horse to the eventual realization that the offering of the inside rein is the actual reward. From there, begin to have all the positive effects that we spoke of earlier.
Start with Your Voice
The first part of training your horse to understand this starts with being aware of the tone of voice you use with your horse in different situations. We use a higher pitch when we are rewarding our horses.
I have found that what you say is not half as important as how you say it in your horse’s eyes
So the next time you are rewarding your horse, maybe with a gentle rub on the neck or a well-placed scratch, for a job well done both on the ground and from the saddle try this. Begin using a higher pitch to your normal ‘Good boy’ or ‘Good girl’ or whatever it is that you say to your horse when they please you!
As I mentioned, consistency is the key. The only way your horse will really begin to make the connection to your voice and the ‘reward’ is that it happens every single time. Together and simultaneously.
Once this is established, which can be as quick as a few days with some horses and as long as a few weeks with others, you can begin to while riding, use your ‘reward’ voice coupled with an offering of the inside rein while riding.
It is important to keep in mind that you are merely using your voice initially to build the association. Over time, your horse won’t need to hear your voice to understand the reward. Just the softening.
Consistent with Softening
The offering of the inside rein is something that also needs to be done correctly and with thought… You will move your inside hand, from the elbow, gently and softly in the direction of your horse’s mouth. I think it is important to note the use of your inside hand, not your outside hand.
The reason being that your outside hand will still hold everything together. It will ensure that all that wonderful energy you are creating in the back-end does not fall out the ‘front door’ while you offer the inside rein.
Once the rein has ‘slacked’ a little, you can gently begin to take the contact back. In the beginning, it is important to use your voice to back up the intention of a reward from your horse’s perspective. It is also important to note that both the offering and the retaking of the rein are very subtle and gentle movements. No snatching at the rein, and with it, your horse’s mouth!
Over time, your horse will again, begin to associate the softening of the inside rein as a reward, and slowly you can begin phasing out the ‘vocal’ reward. Once you have thought your horse to understand this simple yet effective reward, it is of paramount importance that you use it at every given opportunity.
By letting your horse know that he is on the right track with regards to what you are asking, no matter how small the progress, it goes without saying that your chances of actually getting to where you want to go increase exponentially.
Creating a Secret Conversation
What is fantastic about this is that you can use it mid-movement, mid-jumping round, mid-dressage test. Basically anywhere while you ride. And all without losing your contact with your horse. And without anyone noticing. Think of it as a silent nod of approval; a secret language between you and your horse when he has ‘done good’ :-).
I would love to hear your thoughts on the above, particularly any success you have had with this method.
If you would like to learn more about this, you can subscribe to my podcast, The Daily Strides Podcast for Equestrians where Episode 226 | Getting the Best from Your Horse Through Rewarding, deals exclusively with this.