Why reward is overrated

I reward too often. I reward when I shouldn't. I reward behavior that doesn't deserve it (anymore). How, some may ask. You cannot reward often enough! Reward fuels motivation, without reward no learning!

Wrong (at least in my opinion).
To understand the most important lessons, horses need no reward.

I don't know about the situation in UK and the US, but here in Germany, people currently knock themselves out with rewarding and praising their horses. They damn negative reinforcement and promote positive reinforcement (unaware that negative does not mean bad in this context but simply taking something away).
Well, that's going to far, let's get back to why I think reward is overrated

First Example: I am in the arena with a very insecure mare (the readers of my newsletter will already know her). 
She thinks her last hour has come: The barn manager has watered the sand and the fencing is full of (horse eating) water spots. Her head is in the air, her eyes are wide, tail up, back hollow. She would love to run as she is a very reactive horse. But she cannot as running would bring her closer to the scary spots. So we start working her emotions

Approach and retreat, I let her explore her thresholds. If she can't stand it any longer, if she's too close to the spots and the pressure becomes too big, we withdraw again and bring some distance between us and the spots. Within half an hour the mare is relaxing more and more, at the end she's cool. I praised her verbally quite a lot, but that was not for her. It was for me, because I needed to express my joy over her development. For the mare my rewards didn't matter. She didn't want to please me or solve a puzzle the human presented her. For her, her life was at stake. Reward was of no importance. What really meant something to her was safety, calmness, relaxation - not exuberant praising or cuddling on my part. 

reward, release, respect, beingwithorses blog
To reward effectively, we need to know
 where our horse is at.  Photo: Marko
Second Example:  I am again in the arena, this time with a rather dominant mare. She doesn't obey. I want her to back up, she pushes into my space. I want more room, she tries to crowd me. We discuss
This is no motivation issue. It's about respect. Again, reward from me, for yielding a few steps and giving me some air, does not interest the mare. I am not in the position to praise. I am not important enough, I don't have enough influence (yet). She doesn't want to please me. She wants to show me who's in charge.
Imagine you have a big discussion with a friend, but in the end you manage to agree at least partially. Then your friend says: "Well done that you finally accept my point of view." How would you feel about that? 
You cannot reward somebody if you are at eye level. There is a decent between the one rewarding and the one rewarded. As long as the mare doesn't accept me as higher in the hierarchy, she cannot take reward from me seriously. She needs to take me seriously first. I don't gain respect through reward.  

Us humans are very focused on reward and recognition. I am convinced that both of it is of far lesser importance to horses than we tend to assume. I usually work with release to show the horse that he is on the right track. When safety and respect are no issues anymore in our relationship with the horse, we then can think about ways to motivate him. But even then, just leaving them at peace is often reward enough

What do you think about reward?


  1. Thank you for the great article!
    I too, work with release of pressure and have been quite insecure about it at times. Lots of people keep telling you positive reinforcement is the only (horse friendly) way to go.
    I never thought about it the way you describe and it sounds absolutely logical to me, that in a lot of situations the horse doesn't want or need a reward in the sense of giving him something to eat.
    In general, I think you have to do whatever fits you and your horse. Everyone is different and there is not one single right way to do something.

    All the best!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think too that it's up to us to decide which way to choose for us and our horses. And though I am quite convinced of the horsemanship approach, I am currently trying to wrap my brain about the concept that first of all we need to influence the horse's mind and how he feels, and then his body. I find interesting aspects in other ways of training too. And I'd never claim that one is the only right way for everybody.

  2. This really got me thinking! I'm also of the opinion that positive rewards don't have a huge place in horsemanship. That doesn't mean I never reward my horses, but rather, I try to do it in ways that actually have some meaning to the horse. Taking off the saddle and allowing them to roll in the arena or round pen after riding/working, a nice long rein after working on something difficult, or taking a break and letting them graze on a hack. It's not really a training method, but i hope it helps create willingness in the horse to work with me rather than against me. One thing I feel strongly about is that i don't think positive rewards help at all where fear is involved - no horse is ever going to brave a potentially life threatening situation (which is, as you pointed out, is what horses think of most 'scary' situations) in order to get a pat or a treat. Earning trust and respect is the only thing that will make the horse want to look to the rider/handler for guidance.

    Also, if we're talking about giving food as rewards, when do you see horses offering food to other horses? Never - it's the more dominant horses that will move others away from the food they want. So this is kind of mixed messages for the horse - 'i want you to trust and respect me and view me as a leader, but here's some food'. If you think of that from the point of view of a horse, it doesn't make sense!!