It doesn’t take long for a horse to connect the dots between performing a specific task or behaving a certain way and being rewarded for it – especially if the reward is a tasty treat. Though many horse owners indiscriminately offer their horses treats, they should consider things like a pat or verbal praise as a reward for specific, desired behaviors, reports EQUUS magazine.
Rewards, edible or otherwise, are the most effective way to create positive associations in a horse. A reward is anything desirable, whether that’s a kind word, pat on the neck, or treat. Behavioral rewards are often better than edible rewards with regards to long-term learning in horses; these can be used to teach everything from ground manners to under-saddle expectations.
To properly reward the horse, the handler must have accurate timing, rewarding the horse within 10 seconds after a behavior or action is completed. This encourages the horse to make a connection between the behavior and the reward.
There is a fine line between encouragement and over-encouragement, which will cause a horse to become dull or immune to the positive aspects of the reward. Horses that are rewarded often are less able to be influenced as treats or pats become common. The unexpected reward garners the biggest release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical from the brain.
Reward is not just pats, praise or cookies; horses also value things like rest, being with friends, and routine, among many other things. The better the reward, the more memorable the association. Horse owners and handlers can alter the reward to adjust the value of reinforcement.
Treats should be used sparingly as they rapidly become associated with behavior – good and bad – as horses by nature always want more; a gentle touch can escalate quickly to a demand with teeth.
Read more about association and reinforcement at EQUUS magazine.