Reward the Try

Baby’s first horse fair! This weekend we went to the Hoosier Horse Fair in Indianapolis. It was so much fun, but bringing a baby definitely changes your experience of the fair – aka how much time you spend watching clinicians VS. how much time you spend in the kiddy korral (after much hollering at Peggy Brown and Susan Harris of “The Visible Horse” I decided to let him blow off steam with the rocking horses).

Reward the Try

My favorite presentation was by Steve Lanvitt about trail obstacles, but I would rename it “Reward the Try.” His point was that you can’t desensitize a horse to everything, but you can build in a training or reward system in which he seeks the release, and make the obstacle the release.

He had a few good points that I think apply to therapeutic riding instruction, as I’ve added in italics!

Reward the try. When asking a horse to do something new, start by rewarding the littlest try. For example, asking him to walk over a bridge – if he stops, but then puts his head down to sniff it, or even just leans toward it, release all aids and give him his reward: a rest.

Reward the try for riders too! Some tasks we ask them to do may be very hard or new or scary – be it trotting their horse, or reaching out to grab a ring. So praise their littlest try and take a quick rest, then try for a little more next time. Be sensitive to the fast that they did try at all.

Find the rest. And reward it. If a horse gets worked up about something new, get him as far along as you can to his resting point, or the edge of his comfort zone, and release all pressure, before asking again. For example, he gets worked up about walking over a bridge, so get him close enough that he stops to sniff it or changes demeanor to think about it instead of refuse it, then rest there with him, releasing all pressure.

Find your rider’s rest, their comfort zone, and let them hang out there for a while, before asking for more. Be careful not to ask for them to go too far past their comfort zone before they are ready. When working outside their comfort zone, give them little rest breaks to process and refuel.

Guide the horse instead of pulling him. When working with a horse on the ground, go with him over the obstacle or send him beside or in front of you, instead of pulling him behind you. It’s not really a partnership or leadership if you’re having to drag him along.

Guide your riders instead of pushing or pulling. Besides their instructor, your are their coach and mentor. Give them the tools and opportunity to succeed on their own, instead of doing everything for them. Encourage volunteers to give them the chance to do it on their own first, before helping. Be sensitive to whether the rider is ready for a particular skill or not. 

Build the horse’s confidence by building up moments of release. String together little moments of rewarding the try. As with task analysis (breaking something down into a series of steps), break down the obstacle into a series of steps (first get to the bridge, second lean toward it, third put one foot on it, and so on). The more rewards and praise, the more the horse’s confidence is built. If you ask him to do too much all at once, he may loose confidence (such as walking over the whole bridge at once and not releasing until he does).

Build the rider’s confidence by building up moments of success. If something is hard, break it up into tiny steps, and as they accomplish each one, move on to the next.

If the horse is having a lot of trouble, find the little moments he is successful and build on that. Similar to the other points, this is a good reminder for a horse is really having a hard time with an obstacle and losing confidence, find the moments he is successful (maybe just standing by the bridge), find his comfort zone, then work from there.

If a rider is having difficulties, go back to something they know how to do, and rebuild their confidence there. Or go back to whatever step in the learning process of the new skill they had mastered, and start over from there. The point is to build upon confidence.

I thought the parallels were neat. It made me think a step further and wonder how much the way you work with your horse relates to the way you interact with your students. Do you tend to push? Not be enough of a leader? Be quiet? Energetic? Adapt to the horse? Adapt to the rider? It’s worth thinking about. In the same way veterans programs use horses to practice controlling their body language and behavior in order to interact with the animal, which they can apply to the rest of their life and social interactions, so can we use the horse as a mirror for our own behavior in how we interact with others, in particular our riders. It’s food for thought.

I hope all this thinking helps get you off to a great start of the week!


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

6 thoughts on “Reward the Try

  1. I love your blogg. I didn’t know you were from Indiana. I attended the Hoosier Horse Fair too and loved it. Thanks for your blogg. I use it regularly!

    • Hi neighbor! I’m not from Indiana but we’ve lived here 5 years 🙂 I’m so glad you like the blog and had fun at the horse fair, I thought it was really good this year!

  2. I love how you paired horse training with teaching riders. I am definitely going to share this at my center, where I have been a TRI for almost a year. I am currently in a mentor training course with PATH. This should be required material for the course. It is wonderful!

    • Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you so enjoyed the post! I’m surprised I hadn’t related the two before – training horses and riders – and think it will make me a better instructor, as training horses comes more naturally, so I just need to remember to apply the same principles to riders! I hope this helps your center, and good luck with your mentor training – learning to instruct others horse to ride is one thing, then learning to instruct others how to instruct others how to ride is another, haha!

  3. I read your blog and always learn something! Loved this one on training for trail obstacles and how to make progress by waiting or even backing up to a learned part of the skill. Wow, got to start working my horses on obstacles !
    Working w riders, the same skills apply. Great info!

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