• Sue Steiner

Horses as Helpers Series

Rewarding the Try.

How Seeing the Good Changes Everything!


Rewarding the Try with Horses

If you have read or followed various horse trainers, you have heard the term 'reward the try' in your horse to them know that they are moving in the right direction. On the horse's end, they give us signals that they are seeking an answer to your question but may not understand completely what that might be. When the horseman is attentive, sensitive, aware and skilled in their timing, they can reward the small movements that the horse makes that are headed in the right direction.

The counter to the above approach would be to continue to ask or possibly demand a response and keep the pressure on until the horse does what you want. There may be times this is necessary- for safety's sake for example, but when teaching a new skill it is more likely you will have to guide the horse to the right response until they learn that skill rather than try to intimidate them to do what you want.

Ways to reward the horse can be very subtle, but horses are so perceptive, they pick up on subtly well- unlike most humans! :) Usually, the reward consists of a release in pressure or the discontinuation of the aid. Even a momentary 'release' while the horse is doing well, lets them know that THIS is what I am after! Horse seek that release of pressure or 'calm' which is why this method can be used to guide a horse in the direction you want them to go. I do remember in my early horse days seeing a lot of forceful, heavy-handed approaches to horse training. One horrible memory I have about 25 years ago is from a time I was pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy and restricted from riding. I was worried about my horse being confined in her stall 24 hours a day at my boarding stable so talked to the barn owner and asked if she would want to use my horse for lessons. The premise was good. I thought this could be a way for my horse to be ridden and exercised while I was out of commission. I just hated the idea of her going stir crazy in her stall. The barn owner took me up on that 'offer' and not long after I was at the barn to check on her and Annie was in the arena with the barn owner/trainer. I can't remember the details, other than my horse obviously was not doing what the trainer wanted so she proceeded to, well, to beat up on my horse. I remember watching, stunned, but was too new and unsure of what to do since she was the 'expert' and I didn't have the courage to challenge her. I was ashamed of myself for not stopping her but in all honesty, there were plenty of other 'role models' all around of experienced horse owners (can't quite say horseman or horsewoman) who did the exact same thing as my old barn owner. Your horse wouldn't stand at the mounting block so what do you do? Yank on the reins, give it a smack, yell at them. Crazy, huh? As I think of the contrast between the two different mind sets above, I think about how we can apply rewarding the try in our interactions with people.* (I kind of do that opposite of anthropomorphism. I apply equine characteristics to people!) Imagine searching for the good in the person who is before you. Imagine, in spite of the gap between you in communication, understanding, personal history, you practiced observing people more than correcting, judging or demanding? Imagine not reaching for aggression or violence at the first obstacle, but listen more than you speak and try to understand the basis of their thought. What need is being expressed underneath the words? Ask more than tell. What happens when you do this?

I bet, as you interact in this way, you will find that people, generally, share very similar needs and wants. We go about trying to get those needs met in different ways....but as a whole share so very basic human needs that most of us can relate to. Look for that as the 'try' you see in your horse. This can become a tiny pebble on the bridge to understanding and better relations.

I don't profess to be a master communicator or peace-maker, but I do think that my time spent in art and horses has helped me to 1. Appreciate non verbal communication and non aggressive, assertive approaches 2. See things in shades of grey rather than black and white.

Anyone who works with people or animals knows that training progresses in incremental steps - sometimes baby steps initially that builds to a solid understanding. I've been training my pony to drive during this CoVid shelter at home time. I have to remind myself each time I work with the pony to find ways for cooperation and openness and to proceed in small increments. When I jump ahead, the pony gets overwhelmed and we loose track. When I proceed in small steps. she gains confidence in me and in the process, and learns. Overwhelm blocks learning so when I allow her to find the release, the comfort, the rest, she can digest what I am asking. I make sure the 'work' is not all work and incorporate things that she enjoys- rest :), scratches, a nice grooming session, some adventure but not overwhelm, hand grazing etc. It is similar to seeing the need in another person....where are they coming from? What need is being expressed in their actions, body language? How can I show respect, empathy to them in this situation? Where is our common ground? My pony's common ground is having a gentle touch, letting her 'rest' to digest and bonding over a good grooming session. My fellow human's common ground is likely the same basic things I need....a sense of safety, love of my family, the need to be heard/seen, to be treated fairly and with respect.


When I don't view my pony's 'overwhelm' as misbehavior or disrespect but rather an expression that shows I need to slow down, be clear, fair and allow her to digest my requests, we make progress. When I am able to hold off judgement, criticism or harshness toward the person who I struggle with, I can listen, observe and seek to understand and possibly begin to build a bridge. When I begin to see from their perspective, I can find the good in them. My pony knows instantly when I approach her whether or not I see her as mischievous, stubborn or lazy and reacts to my intentions. I believe people, although not as fine tuned or as easily recognized as the pony's perception, can sense also whether you approach in goodwill or judgement. To see the good in others, I have to carry in my heart good will for them. And THIS is the challenge for all of us. This does not mean I let my pony trample me to the ground....I maintain boundaries, self-respect and safety of course, but that will be another blog post. Good boundaries are a given, just as safety and boundaries in dealing with horses is a given, so it is with people. I can maintain boundaries AND show goodwill toward another.

Have a Good day!

Sue Steiner

Free Rein Art Studio


concept- space of understanding between 2 people as the sweet spot /reward

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/09/your-money/overcoming-an-aversion-to-loss.html?_r=0

https://horseandrider.com/health/just-rewards-24936

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0NIQVhs7wo

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