We all use or have used verbal praise and a pat on the neck as reward for a horse.Was it helpful? Did we get more of the desired behaviour? In other words: was it reinforcing the behaviour we wanted?
What is a reward while training and how can we measure its value? A reward is an event that is added during or directly after a certain behaviour that reinforces that behaviour. If we don’t see any increase in the behaviour or the effort to display that behaviour it wasn’t a real reward or it was not associated with the behaviour.
In order to associate a reward with the behaviour we must give the reward during the desired behaviour or within a few seconds.
Horses that get a bucket of grain in their stall after they performed well in the arena will not associate their behaviours in the arena with the bucket of food. Therefor the horse will increase their performance next time, at least not due to the food. That is why positive reinforcement trainers use bridges.
Reinforcing the behaviour
If the reward doesn’t reinforce the behaviour, it wasn’t a reward for the horse. Most Dutch people learn to ride in a riding school and we have learned to pat (sometimes it looked more like slapping) the horse on the neck as reward. In hindsight: I have never seen any increase in the behaviour that was ‘rewarded’ this way.
During dinner time a lot of horses are kicking their doors. Why do you think that is? I think because they think that they will get food because they kick the doors. After all: they always get their food while they are kicking their doors.
I have worked at stables and even if I was only working in the weekends, it would take me about 4 weeks to teach most horses (25 out of 30) that the desired behaviour was: 4 hooves on the floor and ‘looking’ away (head in their stall so I could throw in their hay from the corridor). It took a bit of patience and consideration during feeding time, but it was rewarding for all parties. For me because I saved time and it made my work safer. Horses that are ‘looking away’ when I am feeding them grain or hay can’t snap at their food with all the dangers that come with it. A few weeks later all the horses learned the new, safer behaviour. For the horses because they got ‘jackpotted‘ every morning: grain and the second time I came: a bucket of grain.
So next time you are rewarding your horse: pay attention. Is it really rewarding? And does it increase the behaviour you desire.