Improve Your Horse's Training With Praise and Treats, Helpful Tips & Advice

I am a huge supporter of using praise and treats when I am training my horse. I think that a well-timed treat can greatly enhance your horse's desire to learn and perform. However, if treats are given when the horse did not earn them they can definitely make a horse mouthy or sour, so timing is essential. I will be the first one to admit that I give a LOT of treats, probably too many but that is my own choice. I always use them when I teach new movements and regularly with the piaffe in-hand, trick and liberty work.

I like to think of treats as a way to activate the horse's brain. If he is really food motivated then he will use his brain to anticipate what you might ask for, thus resulting in less aids on your part because he is listening. Once the horse has learned a new movement I wean them off the treats and only use them sporadically for that specific movement. For example, in training the Spanish Walk on the ground, I started by giving my horse a treat each time he raised his leg. It was tedious, patient work because he was not naturally talented for this movement and wanted to "hang" his leg back under the body rather than reach out from the shoulder. But fast forward a few years later and we can perform an expressive Spanish Walk around the arena before he earns any treats. He loves to do the Spanish Walk and I have to be careful that I do not aid him by mistake since he likes to earn his rewards. I do not think I could have motivated him to do the Spanish Walk without treats because he found it difficult in the beginning.  Some horses find the Spanish Walk very easy and a nice pat or "good boy" will work really well as their reward.

Using the Voice: The voice is definitely an instrumental tool in training. Try to use your voice with as much timing and precision as your other aids. If my horse is tense I try to talk to him, telling him what a good boy he is to give him confidence. Your voice can also be the quickest way to reward your horse when he is learning something new. If he gives you one step of piaffe or yields nicely to your leg then tell him right at that moment. Positive reinforcement is the best way to train a horse, they will want to perform for you because you make them feel confident and appreciated.

A Well Timed Pat: To reward your horse "on the go" try to stroke the neck with your inside hand during your ride at the right moment. This will help you, the rider, release the inside rein which is also an added benefit. It is also helpful in training to transition to the walk, give a long rein and a pat on the neck (along with voice) when the horse has done something really spectacular. The horse then associates a huge reward for a job well done...walk on a long rein, voice, and a pat. I do this a lot for training flying changes. After my horse does the change I reward with my voice, transition to the walk/halt, give a pat or treat and let them walk. This helps for a horse that gets nervous with changes and tries to rush or run after the change. Eventually they become calmer and more confident, wanting to do a flying change for fun! Be careful not to slap your horse too hard on the neck, this could be a little uncomfortable for them so try to stroke or rub the neck instead of hitting them too hard out of sheer enthusiasm!

Treats: There is such a wide variety of treats it really depends on what your horse likes. Apples, carrots, sugar cubes, and any other treat on the market work very well. I prefer to use peppermint treats because they are an excellent size for training and they don't get mushy like carrots and apples. I do use sugar cubes as well because of their small size and they dissolve quickly. Carrots and apples are wonderful with the Bitless Bridle because you don't need to worry about them getting stuck in the bit. Make sure you do not give the colored treats or carrots at a horse show because they will change the color of your horse's saliva and could cause a problem with show management. Especially the peppermint treats because the saliva can look almost identical to a horse that has blood in his mouth.

Training Pouch: I helped design the Treats Reward Pouch found for sale on my website (shown in the photo). This training pouch has a magnetic closure so the rider has quick, easy access with one hand. Being able to hold the reins in one hand and give a treat quickly with the other is KEY to positive association. Wearing a vest is equally as helpful but not as comfortable in the summer months when you need to wear a tee shirt or tank top with no pockets. It is also handy to unclip your pouch and leave it in your tack trunk or grooming box rather than treats ending up in the washer machine or melting in your pocket. Click here to view this training product.

I hope these suggestions will help you incorporate more praise into your training. Horses, like children, thrive on praise and positive feedback. I really feel that they start to blossom when they know the rider is thrilled with their performance and effort. I would love to know what types of treats you use with your horse and any other tips and suggestions you might recommend. Please post a comment below or send me an email at beginthedance@gmail.com.

Improve Your Ride with a Positive Attitude! 6 Tips to Help You Focus & Relax

Horse are incredibly sensitive creatures, they rely on their instincts for their overall safety. If they sense an uncomfortable situation their "fight or flight" mentality comes into play.  Horses will teach you the incredible power of your emotions and how to harness your personal energy. If you arrive at the barn in a negative mood, frustrated or tired, the horse will sense that as weakness and feel uneasy. If you approach their stall in a great mood, confident, and looking forward to your ride then they will be more interested in their work. Put yourself in your horse's shoes...if your owner/rider was tense and frustrated you wouldn't be that excited to go trot and canter circles over and over again would you? It took me many years for this to really sink in. I spent so many rides in frustration at my inability to improve. I am a type-A, goal oriented person and learning to train a horse doesn't exactly go according to plan. I broke down in tears more times than I care to remember. I tried too hard and let myself think negatively about my skills. This blocked my ability to relax and really feel my horse. Timing comes when the rider can truly be "in the moment" with their horse. You must focus and read the horse's body language to react quickly and correctly. If you are constantly thinking negative thoughts such as, "I am never going to get this." "The other riders look good, why can't I do it?" "This is too hard, why won't my horse just do it!" "He always spooks in that corner." "I always get tight in the flying changes."

What you think about materializes into reality so be careful! If you constantly repeat any negative thoughts they will continue to be a problem in your riding. You must learn to take a negative thought and turn it into a positive one. For example: "I am never going to get this!" can turn into "This is hard but I am going to master it!" You are recognizing the difficulty but encouraging yourself to push on and believe that you can do it. We can only accomplish what we truly believe is possible.

3 Tips to Help You Focus:

  • Surround you and your horse in an imaginary bubble. Imagine that you and your horse are enclosed in a quiet, safe place. Almost like an invisible force field that protects you from outside, negative energy. I try to feel that my aura is merging with my horse's aura, creating a highly positive force field.
  • Close your eyes.  Don't allow your eyes to wander towards the on-lookers or the other riders if they intimidate you or make you feel inferior. That will only make you self-concious and your ride bad, the opposite result that you actually want! Try closing your eyes for a few strides, feel the horse moving with you, or focus on the horse's ears, notice if his attention is on you. The better you can filter out the unnecessary thoughts and distractions, the more sensitive you will be to the finer details of riding your horse.
  • Ride a pattern. Pick a dressage test that you and your horse are familiar with and ride through it. This gives you something to focus on and relays confidence to your horse because you are certain where you are going. Often times riders wander around the arena aimlessly and never really know if their horse is truly on the aids.

3 Tips to Help You Relax:

  • Have NO Expectations. I have found over the years that I ride better when I have NO expectations of how my ride will go. I am not focusing on a specific test for scores for an upcoming show...I am simply riding my horse, working on weaknesses and enjoying our strengths. Horses do not have an agenda and they certainly do not always agree with the rider every day. Try to be aware of how your horse is feeling and tailor your ride accordingly.
  • Take your time in warm-up.  Rushing your warm-up is a key to disaster! Your warm-up should be based on rhythm and relaxation. I always start with a free walk on a long rein to allow the horse and myself to warm up together. I like to feel my hips open, my legs relax and then feel the back of the horse swinging with a relaxed topline. Make sure your basics are intact, the energy is good, the swing through the back is there, and your horse is supple before you attempt the harder movements.
  • Smile! The simple act of smiling can also change your attitude. If you are becoming negative and over-focusing on a problem I suggest taking a walk break (very important for the horse as well if he is frustrated). Try to find something in your mind, in another horse/rider, or in your surroundings that you think is positive. Recognize it and smile, appreciate the positive and then pick up your reins and go back to your ride. This is also a great opportunity to breathe deeply and release tension in your back and shoulders.

I hope these suggestions help you Begin the Dance with your horse. If you have any other tips to help riders develop a positive attitude please leave a comment below! Or you can email me with any comments or questions at beginthedance@gmail.com. 

How to Develop Soft Elbows - Seven Tips for Horseback Riders

I'd like to start this post with quotes from Nuno Oliveira, as I believe he says it best:

"In the trot, the hip has to trot, not the hand."

"One has to have an immobile hand with mobile fingers."

"Every rein aid must be preceded by an action of the torso. Otherwise you only address the horse's head."

"The hand should be a filter, not a plug or an open faucet."

-(Vol 3. 1998. "Notizen zum Unterricht von Nuno Oliveira"-  a compilation of notes that several of his students took after lessons and conversations with him.)

For more about Nuno Oliveria, CLICK HERE.


I believe the most important element of having a soft connection between your hand and the horse's mouth is the elbows. The rider's hands should be soft, the forearms relaxed, and the elbows bent and moving forward and backward in a fluid motion. 

Common Faults:

  • Moving the hands up and down instead of receiving the energy back into the elbow.
  • Pulling the hands towards the belly and rounding the upper back.
  • Holding the forearm muscles tightly with clenched hands.

Any of the common faults listed above will create resistance in the horse's mouth. All of these habits reveal an inefficiency in the use of the elbows. If you brace, the horse will brace. If you break the connection to the elbow, the horse will break his connection and come above or behind the vertical. I also find that the hands coming towards the belly creates a mental and physical block where, instead of keeping their seat moving within the horse's center of balance, the rider ends up pulling the seat towards the back of the saddle.

A simple solution is to practice riding with the hands approximately hip-width apart and keeping the elbows bent. This opens up a space for the seat to "go through" your hands and keep a correct position. Sometimes just changing your mind and imagining that the horse's top-line is a channel will help keep your hands in the correct position ("mind over matter").

Sandra Beaulieu and Rovandio showing a Second Level Musical Freestyle.   Photo taken by Spotted Vision Photography. 

Sandra Beaulieu and Rovandio showing a Second Level Musical Freestyle. 
Photo taken by Spotted Vision Photography. 

I know how hard it is to have soft hands! For years I wanted to keep a tight, steady contact on the horse's mouth.  I would finish riding and my arms would be tired and sore from holding them tense throughout my ride.  It has taken over a decade of riding to develop softness and the feeling of lightness in my hands. Mentally I was trying too hard and the tension came from frustration. When I became more confident and relaxed in my riding I was able to feel softness in my reins. Our arms will also reveal a lot about our security and confidence as a rider. If you are tight on the reins that typically means that there is some insecurity or fear related to being out of control. Other times it just has to do with a lack of balance, and the arms will bounce or tighten up as a result.  Quiet hands will come from a quiet seat, quiet mind and relaxed elbows.

7 Tips to improve your elbows:

  1. Have a friend hold your rein so you can practice gently pulling and giving, focusing on the bend in your elbows.
  2. Take a lunge lesson so you can ride without holding the reins. Practice keeping your elbows bent and mimic the actions of the reins, pulling and giving, keeping the motion smooth and relaxed.
  3. Keep space between your hands, generally hip-width works the best. This will help keep your elbows by your side.
  4. Have someone place a hand on the back of your elbow so you can practice pushing back against them. This will help if you tend to lock your elbows.
  5. Record your ride and review photos and/or video, focusing on the use of your arms. Watch for negative habits and tension. Try different arm positions in the video so you can make a connection between what you feel and what you see.
  6. Imagine your elbows weigh 100 pounds but your hands are light, this will help them to stay bent correctly.
  7. Gently wrap an elastic band around your elbows behind your back. One of the fitness bands you would use at the gym works really well. When your elbows drift too far away from your body you will feel the resistance.

I hope this information helps bring more awareness to your riding and improves the connection you have with your horse. If you would like to work with me to improve your riding join my new coaching group online. 

Join Sandra's New Online Coaching Group!

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Sandra Beaulieu Performs at Elysium Sport Ponies Fall Fun Day with Douwe and Rovandio

I had a wonderful time performing with the horses at Elysium Sport Ponies Fall Fun Day with Douwe, Rovandio and Lydia Rose Spencer. The weather went from hot and humid all week to cold and windy overnight so all the horses were a little on edge. Rovandio was well behaved considering this is just his third time performing away from home. He is going to the Equine Affaire, Inc. (Official) next month and that will be his big debut in front of a larger audience.

Lydia and I changed our routine slightly to incorporate her fan veils and our loooonnnng blue veil that we used with Douwe a few years ago. We changed our color scheme and our entrance music. We only practiced the week before because the filming for Falcyyr has had us busy, out in the fields getting the horses ready for their group scene. We had some really nice moments in our routine and then other parts we goofed but overall I was happy. Rovy was anxious to get started at the beginning and wouldn't stand still but his focus was awesome once he got moving.

Riding Rovandio with Lydia Rose Spencer dancing. The long veil is harder to manage but it is beautiful in motion! Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

Riding Rovandio with Lydia Rose Spencer dancing. The long veil is harder to manage but it is beautiful in motion! Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

My routine with Douwe and Rovy came out pretty well, Douwe decided to add a new move where he took his front feet off the pedestal and left his hind feet up....not something we practice!!! He is only allowed to get off the pedestal by backing up but he lost his balance and came off the front. But it was really cute because he paused long enough for me to ride around him and give him a loving pat on the haunches. Douwe got on the pedestal with all 4 feet for the first time in this routine and he also did a nice lay down in front of the audience. Rovy was a superstar when I left him on the pedestal to do some in-hand work with Douwe. He stayed there for the end of the routine and never moved a muscle! He is so reliable, I love both of them so much!

Douwe and Rovandio working together in their routine. Douwe was a little lazy for the canterwork but they had some nice transitions together. See the video at the bottom. Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

Douwe and Rovandio working together in their routine. Douwe was a little lazy for the canterwork but they had some nice transitions together. See the video at the bottom. Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

Douwe was really good in his wings routine, relaxed and slow enough for me to push him a little bit. I was concerned that the wind and the weird noises from the roof would make him a little on edge but he was chilled out after working him at liberty. We performed bridleless again and he also did his flying changes pretty well. His rein back had a little more energy to it this time and his slow spin was even.

Douwe bridleless with his wings. Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

Douwe bridleless with his wings. Photo taken by Laurie Harvey's assistant Kaitlyn.

Please follow Elysium Sport Ponies on Facebook for upcoming events:
https://www.facebook.com/ElysiumSportPonies
To see more photos from this event click here to see my PHOTO GALLERY.

Here is a highlight video of my routine with Rovandio and Douwe together. Thank you Kaylee Clark for videotaping for me!
 

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Sandra Beaulieu - Dressage Training - Importance of Free Balance

Balance is the #1 most important skill for a rider.

How can a rider help the horse to achieve balance if the rider themselves cannot find balance?

I see riders every day, Training Level all the way to Grand Prix, who rely on their legs to grip for balance, knee rolls to hold the thighs down, or the reins to keep from falling back in the saddle. Finding balance on an animal that is moving is not easy and can be a constant struggle. However, if the rider cannot ride without holding onto the reins for balance, it will be nearly impossible to create true self-carriage in the horse and will cause problem areas in the horse's body. If the rider cannot relax and trust their body, the horse will always hold tension in the neck and back, and will have difficulties moving freely.

I spent over a year working on my position on a lunge line. My instructor, Carolyn Rose, made me ride without stirrups at all times, to allow me to find my balance without relying on any external devices. I encourage everyone, of all ages and skill levels, to take periodic lunge line lessons. Having the horse controlled by a ground person allows the rider to focus on their body and position and to feel the horse's movements through the seat.

A great example of this method is the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. The instructors there keep the riders on the lunge line for months to help each rider develop an independent seat. Many riders associate the lunge line with "lesser" beginner riders. Considering that the totality of the sport of dressage is about balance, why would it only behoove a beginner rider to focus on this foundation? Why would it be seen as "below" the rider to learn the bio-mechanics of themselves and their partner?

A lunge lesson can reveal answers to those who seek the truth about riding and the language of the horse.
— Sandra Beaulieu

The rider can also develop balance through riding the horse bareback, without the saddle. This should not be done too often, as the direct pressure to the horse's spine is not beneficial for the horse. It is informative to feel the horse's back muscles without the obstruction of the saddle, as the rider can better understand how the horse moves and how their own body affects that movement. Feeling the energy move through the horse's top-line is an incredible experience.

Here is a video of me riding Gryphon, a Friesian gelding that I had in training in Florida. In the video I demonstrate riding bareback at the walk, trot, and canter.