The Art of Praise
By Karen Nelson
We like our horse to know when it has done well, so that it can share in the accomplishment and hopefully be motivated
to repeat the desired task, but how can we ensure the praise is effective?
For Praise to be effective, it needs to be:
2) Understood and appreciated by the recipient
3) Timed correctly
I am sure most of us have been given praise or accolades that we have felt were less than genuine, as the actions or
expressions of the giver were not in keeping with the praise. Horses, like most animals, are highly aware of body
language and are well able to read energy levels. Praise given with a low energy level and/or by a distracted
rider/handler will be less effective than praise given by someone who has their energy focused on the horse. This does
not mean that praise needs to be flamboyant or loud, just that for praise to be effective you must genuinely feel that the
action was praise worthy, and focus your attention on the horse while giving the praise. By doing these two things, you
will ensure that the praise is considered genuine. This will also help keep you from over praising the horse, and making
the moments of congratulations less special.
Intent alone however, is not enough when we are trying to let our horse know we are happy with their actions. They must
also understand that our gesture means they did well. For praise to be effective, it must be given in such a way that
makes the receiver feel good...not just the giver. What we may consider praise, may not be interpreted that way by the
horse, just as different horses may interpret different things as a reward. Rewards can be of two kinds; inherently
understood and trained.
Inherent praise would be an action that the horse understands without training as it is a natural form of praise for the
horse. For most horses, being scratched or stroked on the withers or along the crest would simulate the same pleasant
bonding sensation that horses receive from their friends or their dams. A scratch in particular tends to make the horse
feel good about itself, releases tension, and cues a sense of belonging and partnership. This is a good method of
praise, and works on most horses without any conditioning.
Treats are another often used reward, but in horses, it should be considered a weak reward. Horses like food, but in
nature food is either there or it isn’t there. A horse doesn’t have to work for its food like a predator does, so it is not
wired into a horse that food is what comes after a successful struggle/hunt. Pawing for food in winter would be the main
activity a horse would “naturally” receive food as a reward for its work, however even then this is a very straight forward
connection; paw to reveal food. Eat food. Paw more. Unlike a wolf that has to come up with a complicated hunting plan to
eat, the “work” a horse may have to do to eat, such as paw or walk a few steps, is very minimal, and the “reward” is
Food can however be used as a motivator, such as with clicker training, and is also very useful when conditioning a
horse to learn a new praise cue. Food is also very useful when training a nervous horse, as the act of chewing helps
|We all want our horse to know when he did well, and to
share in our accomplishments, however for praise to be of
value to the recipient, it must be given in a way that is
either naturally pleasurable for them, or that has been
conditioned to be enjoyable or understood as praise.
The horse pictured is receiving a loose rein and a wither
scratch to let him know he did well and can relax.
You very commonly see a rider jubilantly slap their horse's neck after a successful round of jumps, or horse show class,
however this would not be considered an inherent method of praise, as horse would not naturally associate being
slapped/hit with a positive feeling. Typically the "Praise Slap" is very similar to the "No Slap" the rider may use on the
ground, which must further confuse the horse! The "Praise Slap' is at best a cathartic tension release for the rider, but
offers no positive stimulation for the horse. A horse may eventually learn that the "Praise Slap" is at the end of the
event, and may learn that it is a positive motion, but the "Praise Slap" should not be considered something that makes
the horse feel good in itself. Riders that use the "Praise Slap" also need to carefully consider how the "Praise Slap"
compares to the "No Slap" they may use at other times, and that horses they ride may not understand the slap as
"Good Boy" and "That's Right" are two common verbal praises. Again these should not be considered inherent praises,
as the horse has no reason to associate the verbal cues with good feelings, although horses do seem to inherently
appreciate and gain a positive feeling from higher pitched tones, as these may simulate the friendly nicker, so when
using a verbal praise, tone of voice is very important. Specific words to be used as praise should be conditioned into
the horse. The easiest way to do this, is to use these words when doing something the horse enjoys, such as scratching
its itchy spots or offering it a special treat. Once the horse associates the words and tone with feelings of enjoyment,
the words can be used as praise. Riders should not assume that the horse they are riding knows praise words, or
recognizes their tone of voice as positive, without training/conditioning the response.
Timing is also a key component to praising a horse successfully. If the goal of your praise is to encourage the horse to
repeat a certain action or performance, then the reward needs to be timed so that the horse associates the reward with
completing the action. A good example of where riders fail to time rewards properly is after a successful jump course;
usually a rider will praise the horse as they pull up after the last jump. This however is too late, as they are praising the
slowing after the last jump, or, even worse, they are praising the horse while they are pulling on the reins and would be
confusing the horse and sending mixed messages. The horse may even learn to associate the praise with the pull on
the mouth, which will eventually associate the praise with a less than positive feeling! Verbal rewards or stroking of the
neck/withers should be done before the horse is pulled up. Even better, these rewards can be quietly offered during the
course in suitable moments.
It is important though, that the praise is timed so as to not distract the horse. As praise will usually encourage a
relaxation response in the horse, so you do not want to praise it at a time when it needs to be focused and engaged.
You do not want to praise a horse in the middle of a difficult combination, or during a movement where it requires focus
and balance. In these circumstances, riding quietly may be the nicest thing you can do for your horse.
You also need to make sure your horse has time to bask in the praise...don't praise it and then send it forward when it
responds to you by relaxing slightly, as you will be contradicting the horse's natural response to praise, and sending it
The keys to being able to praise your horse effectively are to make sure your praise is genuine, that your horse
understands the praise, to time it so that the praise is associated with the activity you want it to repeat, and that you do
not unfairly distract the horse when praising it. Overall though, the best thing you can do for your horse isn't praise, it is
to ride your horse fairly, compassionately, and to keep its needs and limitations in consideration. Your horse will
appreciate this more than all the praise in the world!