Rewarding a horse - without treats - pats and rubs? - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 09:22 AM Thread Starter
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Rewarding a horse - without treats - pats and rubs?

So I had an interesting chat with the guy I do some horse-logging with a while back about praising/rewarding a horse. His argument was that if a horse can feel a fly land upon its body they thus have quite a sensitive feeling to physical contact and that was his argument as to why he wouldn't pat his horses and would instead recommend rubbing over areas such as the neck; since a pat would be closer to a more aggressive action than affectionate.


So it made me wonder about others and your views on what is proper praise; accepting that (like most animals) praise can vary horse to horse depending on what they are used to associating it with; but that at the core there will be similarities (because certain things just feel good).

I've certainly seen both sides from rubs to pats, even up to some who make a very strong pat onto a horses neck or body that you can easily hear from across the eventing ring.

Taking it further it begs the question of, again excluding specific horses, general areas on a horse were a rub/stroke/scritch is generally going to induce a positive reaction in the horse. Areas where one can reach for to provide praise or just improve ones rapport with the horse.
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post #2 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 09:30 AM
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In no way am I a horse behavior expert, but when I do groundwork with my daughter's horse and want to reward him, I scratch him on his neck, near his mane. He seems to like it. I've found he prefers a scratching action, or even a rub, to a pat, even on his face which gets itchy by the end of a lesson (I give him a little scratch right between the eyes). He has his winter coat, so I'm not afraid to dig in with my nails.
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post #3 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:06 AM
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I agree that a rub would be a more appropriate reward than a pat, especially the forceful pats I often witness. Consider whether you would rather receive a forceful pat on the shoulder or a comforting rub as a reward for a job well done.

Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin agrees. In her book "Animals in Translation", she writes: "Stroke the animal, do not pat him. Some animals interpret pats as hits." Being autistic, she also cautions that the stroke should have some firmness to it; a light stroke may feel like a tickle.
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post #4 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:21 AM
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I reward horse by NOT touching them and by leaving them completely alone! I truly believe that a 'lack of contact', a removing of all pressure, is the only reward a horse needs and is the only one he really understands in most circumstances. I think they just learn to tolerate patting and petting. I think many do not tolerate face petting very well and become 'ill tempered' over it.

Yes! Horses can be conditioned to 'like' rubs and scratches. BUT, I think they seldom associate them with what we think they should associate them with. They learn quickly to do little 'tricks' or behaviors for a reward when we are on the ground right in front of or next to them. Beyond that, I think that most rewards come too late for the horse to make the right association and we often reward a completely different behavior that we think we are rewarding.

Let me just give you one example of how a common reward often contributes to a very spoiled and many times dangerous behavior:

How often do we see speed event horses that refuse to enter an arena or try to bolt to the gate during their 'runs? It is pretty common.

Now, think about how many of these horses (especially barrel horses) are whipped and spurred out of the gate -- at which time, the reins are relaxed, the spurring and whipping stops and the horse is petted and praised for a good run. [The same is true of horses that have just run a reining pattern or competed in a rail class, minus the whipping and spurring.]

Most people think they are rewarding a good performance. I think the horse thinks he just got punished for entering the arena and just got rewarded for leaving it. Why wouldn't he rather be outside of that gate? Why would he want to go back into that arena next time? I really think it is amazing (and very forgiving of most horses) that any horses ridden in this way is still willing to go into an arena for an event.

I think, before anyone engages in a lot of petting and praising under saddle, they should think real hard what the last thing the horse did before the pressure was taken off and he was petted and praised. The release of pressure was a much greater reward than any treat or pat.

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post #5 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:26 AM
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I am with Cherie! The release of pressure is the reward. I cannot pet or pat my horse from the carriage!
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post #6 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:34 AM
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Probably most of the "reward" I give my horse is for my own benefit, haha. I use lots of verbal praise, and I also do like to rub or gently pat my horse's neck. Does that matter to the horse? Probably not, in all honesty. All they care about, as Cherie mentioned, that you removed the pressure stimulus.

Release of pressure is what truly matters to the horse.

Personally, I don't do treats to reward my horse. Oh they do get treats, simply to spoil them, but they aren't as "rewards".
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post #7 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:41 AM
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I'm a scratcher and a verbal rewarder myself, but I have had people on my horses who are rather aggressive patters.

It might be because my horses are not used to being patted, but if someone slaps them (pats aggressively) as opposed to rubbing, the ears immediately go back. Not aggressive, back, more like annoyed back with eyes wide, head high. They don't much seem to like it.

Alternatively, a soft well timed "good boy!" or a nice rub has them lowering their heads slightly with soft eyes and ears. To me it appears that the former, they see as some kind of punishment, while the latter is pleasurable, which I think a reward should really be when it is your goal to make that positive connection.

When I watch the consummate patters horses, they don't seem to have a bad response to a pat, but neither do they seem to have a good one, so I'm not sure the praise connection has been made.

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post #8 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 10:49 AM
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You raise some interesting points, Cherrie. If any pressure had been applied, it would almost certainly be removed before any other type of reward was offered. While that is often enough, we might consider our own reactions in a work environment. Is it enough to simply receive less pressure when we have done a good job, or do we occasionally appreciate some other type of reward as well?

Rubbing and scratching can be either a pleasure or an irritant to a horse depending on when, where, and to what degree it is applied. Observation should reveal a horse’s reaction.

We should also not forget the verbal reward which a horse can soon learn to appreciate. This, again, is usually connected to other forms of reward including release of pressure.

Your comments about the barrel racing horses gave me several thoughts -- its often good to be prodded to think. Some might read your comments and think: “Wow! Maybe I should punish my horse for leaving the arena so it prefers to enter the arena.” On the other hand, wouldn’t a rider want the horse to rush toward the exit at the end of a barrel run?
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post #9 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 11:27 AM
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With one of my horses, a gentle Pat is tolerated, but she prefers to be scratched. She loves to have her withers scratched. Under saddle, I will rub or Pat her shoulder paired with a "good girl" and she doesn't seem to mind it.
However with one of my geldings, a pat is always seen as aggressive. He does not enjoy patting or scratching. He prefers rubbing, especially in his face. After a good ride, if you put your hand up to his forehead, he will rub his head up and down against your hand. He has a very itchy head and loves to be rubbed on the head. If you use nails, he throws his head up and is obviously uncomfortable. If you Pat him, he'll back way from you.

My pony gelding, the best reward is no reward at all. He doesn't like to be loved on, so for him, to be left completely alone is the best reward. If you try to rub, Pat, or scratch him he gets fidgety and wide eyed. So when he does a good job, a simple "good boy" and standing quietly for a moment works for him.

I think the physical reward you can use completely depends on the horse. Some horses respond well to affection, and some just don't want it.
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post #10 of 31 Old 12-06-2015, 11:49 AM
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Going back to the ways of my grandfather, who would be 120-something by now.

He did scratches behind the ear, along the neck in the horse's favorite spot and so do I.

Whenever I am done working with one of my horses, they might also get a one or two stroke massage- rub, especially if I just got done doing something with a leg or hoof.

I give treats but it is rare and never for things most people think. I do a lot of liberty "point and grunt" things because I can't ride anymore. When The Boys do something really jaw dropping, especially together or I am standing way behind them, I give a lot of verbal praise and a cookie.

It is a thing of beauty when they do something perfectly, on que together. It leaves me speechless, jumping up and down (literally) and digging for cookies, lollol. In turn they look at me like I need help
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