Horses generally respond best to positive reinforcement when training rather than negative punishment.
You can, of course, train a horse through dominance and aggression, but this will limit the scope of learning and cultivate little trust from the horse. Some horses may submit, but others will attempt to flee or fight back. Regardless of the outcome, the horse will never be relaxed and comfortable in his work.
In contrast, if you teach the horse through positive reinforcement and praise, he will be happy to do a movement repeatedly without you needing to use any force.
Obviously, when you’re in the saddle, you can’t stop and offer your horse a treat whenever he does something well, so how can you reward your horse during dressage training?
Keep reading for some simple yet effective ideas.
Why reward your horse?
Dressage training is hard work for both horse and rider. To get the best out of your equine partner, you need to tell him that he’s doing a good job and getting it right.
Not only does this help to keep the horse relaxed and confident in his work, but it’s essential for his learning and understanding.
If you are positive with your horse, he will react in a positive way, too, just like you do when you’re at work.
The modern FEI description of the dressage horse is “a happy athlete,” and praise and reward can go a long way to creating a willing horse and a happy partnership.
How can you reward your horse during dressage training?
The reward that you offer your horse must be something that he understands and should ideally be something that you can incorporate into your schooling sessions easily whilst riding.
Here are a few methods that you can use, most of which can also be used during dressage tests.
1. Removal of pressure
When you ask your horse to move forward, you encourage him to do so by applying pressing with your legs.
The most effective way to reward the horse’s correct and immediate response to that pressure is to remove it as soon as you get the reaction you want.
If you think about it from the horse’s perspective, constant pressure on his sides doesn’t make it clear that his response is what’s desired by his rider. By removing that pressure, you are telling the horse that he’s reacted correctly, and the relief of the pressure is his reward.
This concept is fundamental when it comes to teaching the horse new aids and movements.
2. Stretching breaks
Working in an outline or in collection is strenuous and tiring for your horse. So, you can offer him a reward by including several stretching breaks during every schooling session.
You can encourage the horse to stretch through his topline in all three paces, providing him with an opportunity to relax his muscles and take a breath.
This is a great way to reward your horse for his efforts and he should enjoy this exercise and the opportunity to stretch.
Stretching breaks also offer an excellent opportunity to practice some of the movements that are included in lower-level dressage tests, too. For example, free walk on a long rein appears in most dressage tests up to medium level, and some tests also ask to see the horse take the rein and stretch in working trot and working canter.
3. Verbal praise
Most riders talk to their horses constantly while hacking out, lunging, grooming, mucking out, etc. So, the horse understands from the tone of your voice when you’re pleased and happy with him. In fact, one of the most effective aids that you can use is your voice.
Although the use of the voice is not permitted in dressage tests, you can verbally praise your horse during schooling sessions, especially when teaching your horse something new such as the rein-back. Just remember not to talk to your horse during a test or you’ll lose two marks!
4. Wither scratch
Most horses enjoy their owner’s touch. In fact, if you watch a pair of empathic horses in the field, they will groom and touch each other constantly.
You can use that “horse talk” to translate into praise for your horse. So, as soon as the horse responds as you want him to, ease your hand forward and give his withers a gentle scratch.
Although you often see riders enthusiastically patting their horses (as in our featured photo), a gentle wither scratch or neck rub is far more enjoyable for the horse and can be done much more discreetly during a dressage test, too.
5. Releasing the contact
Another very effective method of giving your horse a reward is releasing the contact.
Again, you can incorporate that release of the contact into your schooling sessions as a method of practicing for the “give and retake” exercise that appears in many dressage tests.
Also, releasing the contact tests that the horse is working correctly through his back from behind and carrying himself, rather than relying on the riders’ hand for balance.
During schooling sessions, and as a discrete reward in a dressage test, you can use what’s sometimes called a “Descente de Main.” That translates simply into “descent of hands” and is a very tactful release of the reins which can act as a reward for your horse.
When to reward your horse
So, now that you have a few ideas on how to reward your horse, you need to know when to praise him.
The timing of your rewards is critical. For example, if you wait a few minutes before telling your horse that he’s done the right thing, he won’t understand what he’s being praised for!
So, your reward needs to be given instantaneously when the horse responds to your aids as desired.
When you’re working on something new, even if the horse doesn’t respond entirely correctly initially, you can still praise him for trying to get it right and making a step in the correct direction. But as the training progresses, you can gradually begin to reward only perfect responses.
That builds the horse’s confidence in the new work and helps him understand when he’s reacted correctly to the new aids you’re giving him.
Essentially, you can build a reward system into your dressage schooling by releasing the pressure, giving your horse a little wither scratch or neck rub, or easing your hand each time he gives you the response you’re looking for.
For your horse to develop into a happy athlete as described by the FEI, you must remember to reward him during your dressage training sessions.
You can reward your horse verbally, by immediately releasing the pressure of your aids when you get the response you desire, and by gently scratching his withers or rubbing his neck.
Praise and reward are excellent ways of telling your horse that he’s getting it right, making your dressage training sessions more enjoyable and positive for both of you.