At Via Nova, we reward the behavior we want. This is our greatest asset to influence motivation, and it requires a fresh mindset for many equestrians. In the past, we haven’t had a clear way to communicate “Yes,” so we’re in the habit of focusing on the “No.” But once you have a systematic way to tell your horse, “Yes, that’s what you should do!” you’ll flip your mindset.

Even when you have a problem, you’ll determine the behavior you want to see repeated. By rewarding that behavior, you’ll motivate it to happen more in the future. And by making clever choices about what you want, then what you don’t want goes away because the horse can’t do two things at once. (The big, fancy, scientific name for this is “differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior,” or DRI for short).

Cami and NIco

Example: We don’t want our horse mugging our pocket; we DO want our horse to stand relaxed with nose forward. Reward “Head straight.

Example: We don’t want our horse pawing at the crossties; we DO want our horse to stand still. Reward “All four feet on ground.”

Example: We don’t want our horse balking at the trailer ramp; we DO want our horse willingly walking up the ramp. Reward “Step on ramp.”

Whether you are focused on…

  • teaching a specific behavior
  • addressing a problem
  • building your horse’s confidence
  • changing your horse’s emotional state
  • improving your relationship

Ask:

What specific good behavior am I looking for from my horse? What small thing can I say “YES!” to?

Ever had a boss, teacher, or coach who seemed to focus only on telling you what you’re doing wrong? We struggle when that’s all we hear. It’s hard to be confident in our performance. We may not even want to try in case being wrong gets us in trouble. We close up and play it safe, resenting the source. Though we may put up with it, our primary motivation will be “avoidance” of the criticism.

In that sort of situation, we desperately want even a hint about the right way to go. And when we follow that hint, and it works—we get told we’re RIGHT—we’ll feel GOOD. This will give us motivation to actively work in that direction again.

In the same way, when we systematically use positive reinforcement (R+) in our horses’ lives to reward the behaviors we want, we also increase their confidence as well as improve our relationship. All of this results in a happier horse (and a happier human)!

As trainers, of course it’s not possible to pretend there’s nothing “wrong” with certain horse behaviors. They may be unsafe for the rider and the horse alike. They may be annoying or obnoxious from a human point of view. There may be husbandry behaviors that must be performed whether a horse likes it or not.

What is possible for us, as trainers, is to flip our mindset and decide what we want to happen instead.

One way of doing this is getting into the habit of noticing what’s already working. No horse is 100% “bad” every moment of the day and night. There is always some behavior that you can find, if you pay attention, that is working for both the horse AND you. Even one tiny “yes” can open your eyes to possibilities of what you can reward.

Think about it this way:

  • Communicate to the horse what I do want instead of focusing on what I don’t want.
  • Reinforce the desirable behavior. Make it more worthwhile for the horse than the undesirable behavior.

Why we do this for the horse: Motivation Changes!

The huge reward is that by systematically and consistently utilizing R+ to teach these physical behaviors, we change a horse’s outlook on life. Just like you, when you have a coach, boss, or teacher who focuses on helping you find the right answer instead of punishing you for the wrong one, a trainer who focuses on finding the “Yes!” will create a more curious, confident, and trusting horse that wants to work.

But there’s one catch–You can’t reward behavior that isn’t occurring

What if you know your “Yes,” but it’s not anywhere close to happening? What if the horse heads for the horizon the moment the trailer door opens?

In Principle 3: Create Opportunity, we will talk about the Priority to Positive tools we use to create behavior that we can say “Yes!” to.