From the Archives: Rewarding the Try

From the April 2018 Issue

By Dusti Berry

I’m no Buck Brannaman, but I do consider myself a “student of the horse”, and I’ve been starting colts, and continually improving my horsemanship for a good majority of my life. One of the greatest comments I’ve ever come across regarding starting colts was this – “when you start a horse, his confidence must come before discipline, but both will ultimately reveal his potential.” It can be easy for us to be striving so hard for greatness, that we are actually hurting the horse’s confidence. It’s important to build that confidence up as much as we can. A confident horse is a force to reckon with, and to have the honor of riding one, or even better, making one, is a surreal experience. Rewarding those tiny victories in the beginning really sets the colt up to be successful & confident in the future.

Sometimes, as trainers we can get caught up in getting to our end “destination”, and in doing so we forget that the real progress comes with the littlest victories. In general, young horses are usually very willing – they have a desire to do what’s right, and they will work really hard to do it for you, as long as you guide them clearly and reward them for their effort immediately. Why immediately? Because they are young, and they will also get frustrated very quickly if you continue asking for something they think they are giving you. They’re very similar to little children, and they often react in a similar way. Colts in training will perform best when even the tiniest momentum in the right direction is given instant gratification.

Horse training

Even as experienced trainers, it’s easy to rush this occasionally. We make a few big steps in the right direction, and we get excited to ask for something more. That’s when things go south – the compliant, gentle colt bucks, the docile one gets spooked, or the really willing one gets defensive. What often has happened is they are expecting that reward, and instead we are asking for more, something that they don’t understand, and often we’ve skipped teaching them how to get there. This results in the colt doing what they do know, in an effort to find release, and we get frustrated because they were making progress, and suddenly they’re reverting back to something we went over in the past. If you run into this, it’s time to tread carefully – the colt is confused, we’re frustrated, and the combination can lead to a bad experience for both horse and trainer. The thing to remember is this – it’s ok to go back to what they know, and reward them for a job well done. Let’s say you’re working on a backup – remember even one step is a correct response. Rather than asking for three more steps, reward them for that one step, and build off of it. Ask for one more, and reward. Before you know it, they’ll be taking two, three, and so on, each time you ask.

By training in such a matter, we are constantly building that horse’s confidence, not just in himself, but in you as his leader as well. It is so rewarding to me personally, feeling that confidence the colt has in me to guide him well, to ease his fears when he’s intimidated, and to guide him through challenges he faces. This is my goal for every colt I start – to gain that partnership with them. And the best way I’ve found to get there, is to always reward the try.

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