Do Not Reward Bad Behavior

I love teaching this principle to new horse owners because a complete and instant understanding comes as soon as I describe it. Training by reward is very effective even if the thing you are training the horse is NOT what you wanted to teach.

An example is a horse who paws at the stall door because it is feeding time. Feeding is rewarding the horse for this obnoxious, noisy and damaging behavior. Whenever you acknowledge a behavior, you are rewarding it. For example, when a horse paws while tied in the cross ties and you yell at him, it gives attention to the horse and rewards it by giving it this attention.

It takes courage and extreme patience to ignore bad behavior, but you are effectively training the horse NOT to do the behavior by ignoring it. This skill is the principle of cheerleading versus coaching. Cheerleading involves positive encouragement for any conduct that is wanted. For example, a horse that stops pawing in crossties and you praise the horse with positive words of how proud you are of this wanted behavior is applying the cheerleading principle.  

We all know it doesn’t work this way forever, so the horse starts pawing again. You now have two choices. First, erupt with frustration and scream at him, thus rewarding him with the attention you are giving him. Or you can dig deep into your reservoir of patience and turn your attention elsewhere, thus not rewarding him with attention. Both work well, but unfortunately, ignoring bad behavior takes patience and mental strength on your part.

Remember that you are nagging when you start barking orders to stop something; no one likes that. Also, remember that this works with people too. Try it sometime when someone annoys you. Just pretend that you are training yourself to be better with your horses. Also, think of what I have heard from people raising children – choose your battles wisely.  

There are some things you need to stop when they occur, such as a horse nipping or biting. In this case, a swift and accurately focused discipline needs application in no uncertain terms. The horse (bigger, stronger and faster than you) can understand that doing that behavior again is not in their best interest. It is NOT beating. But rules need to be enforced, or they are not rules and harming me is a rule that horses must not brake. Here is a story from my 2nd year with horses.

I was feeding a mare, the 7th horse down the line, in a row of 11 stalls. This mare was a little excited when I got to the stall. I needed to open the stall door, enter, move the stall length to the feed tub in the far corner, dump the grain in, and then backtrace my steps out the door. The routine was simple and accepted by all horses except for this day with this horse. Her excitement was high-pitched.

As I entered the stall and moved towards the corner, she spun and kicked out with both hind feet aiming directly for me. It was just pure excitement for her though I now know it was probably gut inflammation from the grain. It was 1975, and plastic buckets did not exist then. Instead, we used galvanized steel pails. I immediately threw the grain-filled pail at the horse – actually over the horse – where it hit the wall, bounced off the wall, made a racket and spilled all of the grain throughout the stall into the bedding. I screamed at her, “There! Are you happy now? Was it worth it? If you’re hungry, you can find your food buried deep in your straw bedding. Have a great day!” As she stood wide-eyed in the far corner, I left her and her bucket in the stall.

This horse broke my rule that a horse should never hurt me, and I gave a punishment opposite to ignoring the bad behavior. It was swift, done without anger and memorable. From that day forward, for as long as I knew that mare, feeding time was a period of mutual respect, and we became great friends for the rest of our time together. I also praised her every time she behaved, reinforcing her good behavior.

For most of the bad behaviors horses do, first, decide if it is worth giving it attention. If it is, be effective without anger. If it is not, then ignoring it works better than bullying and nagging. Always reward good behavior even if it is your 100th time doing so – it never is bad to reward good behavior. Never reward bad behavior because it reflects weakness on your part and is a trigger to repeat the bad behavior for the attention the horse needs from it.

This video is all about never rewarding bad behavior. You won’t hear a word from us except a “Good girl” about the 12-minute mark. Also, note the energy of the humans and the horse. It has been several years since this video, and my wife can deworm this mare in about 5 seconds flat. The effort you put in now will pay off in the long run.

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