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.

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.

Sandra Beaulieu - Training Journal for Friesian Gelding, Gryphon - Difficulty Picking Up Right Lead in Canter

Gryphon:

Gryphon is a 9-year-old Friesian gelding that is trained in the walk, trot, and canter and basic leg-yielding and has been ridden a lot on trails. I rode Gryphon while he lived in Maine and my friend, Marsha Hartford-Saap, has been working with him since his new owner purchased him. Like most Friesians, he is behind the leg aid and has trouble connecting in his top-line. Marsha has improved his connection and he is able to trot forward, feeling through in his back.

Day One

Biggest issue: 

Picking up the right lead in the canter. He needs a lot of help to coordinate his body for this transition.

To help him get the right lead:

1) When he tried to pick up the left lead, I made very clear half-halts with the rein and my seat to help give him a compelling reason to not take the wrong lead.

2) I used my voice to say "No," when he got the wrong lead and highly praised him when he got the correct lead.

3) After cantering on the correct lead for a few strides, I would ask him to halt, and then I fed him a treat so he would start to have positive associations with this lead.

4) I "unbalanced" him by counter-bending and thinking of physically pushing him onto the inside shoulder at the right moment.

He successfully picked up the right lead about 1/3 of the time and he started to understand the "game". I wanted him to have fun and look forward to his training sessions. I believe his difficulty lies in his having formed a bad habit and his lack of coordination. Most young horses have a difficult lead to pick up, much like people are right- or left-handed.

Day Two

Today, Gryphon had plenty of energy and I hardly had to use my leg or whip aids to keep the impulsion. I asked for leg-yields from the center line to the rail, followed by shoulder-in. I asked for canter once on his good (left) lead before trying the difficult lead. On the left, he lifted beautifully from the walk and showed an improvement in his engagement and uphill jump.

  • Moving to the right, he anticipated the canter transition and tried to pick up the left lead. I half-halted strongly and used my voice.
  • I asked again, and again he anticipated and attempted to pick up the left lead. I repeated my actions.
  • I then asked for the walk and re-grouped.
  • In the walk, I counter-flexed him and shifted my weight to the outside to push the energy towards his inside shoulder.
  • From there, he jumped into the correct lead and continued to get the correct lead every time afterwards. Each time I asked, I straightened him a little more, until he had the correct bend and was not "falling into" the lead, but lifting correctly into it.

Day Three

Day 3 of Gryphon’s training was gloomy. He felt a bit tired from our previous rides and a little stiff in his body. We worked on basic trot and canter work. He picked up the correct lead to the right without a fuss.

  • I added: half-pass in the walk to our routine, performing simple half-turns towards the rail and then asking him to step over with his haunches. Gryphon is responsive to the leg for other lateral work so he could perform legitimate half-pass steps to either direction. I also taught Connie (Gryphon's owner) the aids for the turn-on-the-haunches. The aids are almost identical to the half-pass, so this will give her a way to practice the aids to eventually ask for half-pass.

I also asked Gryphon to bow at the end and he was so good that he went down so far he got sand on his forehead!

Day Four

This day was interesting. Gryphon had gone out to the pasture with my Friesian gelding, Douwe, for the day and it seemed to bring out his "alpha" attitude. During the session, Gryphon was distracted and constantly looking around. On a positive note, he was energetic! I asked for half-pass at the trot, since he had the impulsion, and he performed nice steps tracking to the right.

  • I added: simple changes in the canter using a large figure-eight. This would help fine-tune his leads and make sure that he is balancing and listening to the rider’s aids. When I asked him for the left lead, he volunteered his difficult lead, and instead of transitioning to the walk I pushed him to keep cantering and then asked him for counter-canter. He held the lead beautifully with no tension or resistance.

To end the session, I asked for piaffe in-hand and it seems Gryphon will learn the piaffe fairly quickly. He had a few engaged strides and he is beginning to figure out how to connect his body. Connie is doing an awesome job riding Gryphon and is learning balancing techniques for herself and her horse that will help improve their relationship.

Day Five

Today was a fun day! I did a few new things with Gryphon today- riding with my veil and riding him bareback.

I started the session with softening work, and he was feeling energetic so I had to really remind him to keep his hind end underneath him when he went forward. He is such a funny horse; now he just wants to take the right lead no matter what direction he is going and I had to work much harder to get the left lead. The clear message to not pick up the left lead and the praises and treats for getting the correct lead really changed things for Gryphon. So today I asked for more cantering on the left lead, and gave him the same rewards as the right lead, to balance him out.

  • At the end of our session, I rode with my belly dance veil. I put a knot in the reins so they weren't too long and just did simple trot with transitions while I held the veil up high behind me. Gryphon did great, but the fabric spooked some of the other horses in the arena! I also rode Gryphon bareback at the trot and canter- what fun!

For a 9-year-old horse that has had chronic issues, Gryphon is doing wonderful!