Horse Training Tip: Reward With Rest

Horse Training Tip: Reward With Rest

When exercising or working a horse, rest is an important horse training tool.

generic buckskin western horse (Credit: Christin Brubaker)

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By Joe Wolter

Remember recess?

You quit concentrating for a little while and just enjoyed yourself for a few minutes. Can you imagine what school would have been like without recess?

I never used to think about recess when I was training horses.

At some point, I noticed an interesting coincidence: I’d be really intent on teaching a horse something when the phone would ring. I’d talk to whoever it was for awhile, then I’d hang up and go back to concentrating on my horse. And they’d be better!

I bet a lot of horses learn to love the sound of a ringing phone, just like kids love to hear the bell that signals recess. Or, depending on the day, horse and trainer, it may represent the bell that signals the end of the round in a boxing match.

Most experienced riders know to search for a good stopping point when a training session starts feeling like a battle of wills. But why wait 'til that point to call the timeout? Why not stop while things are good? Or when there’s an interruption like a phone call?

When an occasional recess is part of your routine, instead of something that just happens when you’re interrupted, your training program might progress a lot faster. You can benefit from it as much as your horse.

Maybe you’ve been trying to get your horse to respond a certain way, repeating your signals over and over, and the horse does not catch on. You’ve heard horses learn by repetition, so you keep repeating what you’re doing.

During recess, you might figure out a different approach that makes more sense to the horse. That’s progress.

If you have more than one horse to ride, you can just switch back and forth between horses. It’s especially important to not tax a young horse’s mind too much. He’ll either get confused or resentful. Either way, you’ll end up spending more time training, and the results will probably never be as good as if you’d gone slower.

Of course, there’s got to be a reason for recess. You’ve got to give the horse some little job to do, so the break means something.

Most people are aware of how a horse sighs and licks his lips when he relaxes. You’ll notice as you start incorporating short timeouts that it takes less and less time for a horse to come down from work mode to be relaxed and receptive. He soon learns to recognize and appreciate those short breaks.

These breaks also help build a good relationship with that individual horse. Think about the school teachers who helped you the most. They pushed you, but they rewarded you, too. Naturally, you tried harder for them than teachers with whom you didn’t have a good relationship.

It is the same with horses. Make them eager to do what you ask of them.

About Joe Wolter

Joe Wolter's horsemanship has been shaped over the years by Ray Hunt, whom he worked with for a number of years, and both Bill and Tom Dorrance. Today, Joe teaches clinics around the world and competes in ranch roping and other events as his clinic schedule allows. He and wife Jimmie divide their time between their home place in Aspermont, Texas, and a modest summer facility outside of Ballantine, Montana. To learn more, visit