Do You Reward Your Horse Enough?

Forget what you learned about rewarding horses at the riding school! A few hard hats on the neck do not see most horses as a reward. A reward is only a positive reinforcer if your horse sees it as such.

Your horse is constantly learning

Everything you do with your horse can be seen as training, learning or education. He will show behavior that has unpleasant consequences less often and behavior that has pleasant consequences, he will show more often. That means that learning goes beyond just the daily hour’s drive. Getting out of the meadow, taking a walk and grooming are all learning moments.


In professional terms, punishment is also called a negative reinforcer. There is, however, an important difference between these two names!

A negative reinforcer is an external stimulus that, if that stimulus stops, leads to an increase in behavior.

A negative reinforcer is therefore something that you remove at the right moment. A good example is learning to give way to pressure. The horse moves aside for the pressure of the leg and the rider takes the pressure away.

Disadvantages of punishment

Real punishment is different from negative reinforcement: punishment is the administration of something unpleasant after your horse does something that you would rather not have. Punishment such as a tap on the nose must absolutely be avoided. This has several reasons:

Horses have a much more sensitive skin than humans.

Punishment is fairly arbitrary. You want to unlearn your horse to nibble on your coat and decide to give your horse a slap. If your horse is shocked and raises its head after that tap, it may well be that you are teaching your horse that avoidant behavior instead of stopping nibbling on your expensive coat.

And most importantly: in various experiments it has been shown that (especially horses) do not learn so much from punishments and that they mainly link it to the distributor of the punishment. So you! Your horse will draw the conclusion that you are unreliable and would rather avoid you.

Another point of view is that your horse can even become frightened by a tap or kick. Fear is an emotion and not behavior, it even blocks the learning process. So he learns nothing if he anxiously responds to punishment with a tap.

Consequences if you do not reward enough

What ‘enough’ is of course varies per horse. I think the most important indicator is that your horse remains motivated. Not only during a test or competition, but also by doing what you ask him to do in a happy way during the daily course of events.

Without much rewarding it is easy to get into a negative spiral. Your horse has passed that dressage test, whether you have high points or not – reward him!

And tell yourself, isn’t it a much nicer way of dealing with each other if you tell your horse what he is doing well instead of focusing on what is not going well?

The importance of timing

Whatever your upbringing looks like, good timing is essential! Take a good look at your horse. He shows so many behaviors. If you are a few seconds late with rewarding (or with penalties if necessary) how does your horse know what he is being ratified for? It then becomes a guess what behavior you will see next time.

Horses have a shorter memory than, for example, dogs or cats. Your reward window of opportunity is only 3 seconds! One way to overcome this is to teach complex behaviors such as freedom dressage with a clicker.

A clicker is a device that gives a typical sound. You use this sound as a bridge for the reward. You first learn that the sound means a lump. The more you do this, the faster the clicker is associated with a reward. You can of course also use a word for this! Many books and YouTube videos can  be found about clicker training .

Ways to reward your horse

As mentioned earlier, hits on the neck are probably not a reward for your horse. Cuddling or stroking the neck and around the withers is much nicer for your horse.

Even words such as ‘good’ or ‘good like that’ are not just a reward. They can be confusing for your horse, for example if you also use them to calm your horse when it bounces along the forest path.

Words can of course be used very well while driving and having a nice chat is really fun. In the earlier example, your horse will of course hear your intonation. But if you really want to use it as a reward, link the word to kibble or crochet at the withers. A moment of rest, doing nothing or doing something that your horse wants to do during training can be a very good reward.