Monday, February 6, 2012

Reward Versus Work Ethic

As most of you know, my pony's work ethic is somewhat lacking.  Interestingly enough, my kindergartner got the same marks on her report card last week.   My horse and my kid are only two weeks apart and they both have work ethic troubles?  Hmmmm.....

Anyway, I'd love to hear some thoughts about rewarding and work ethic.  My big goal right now is forward.  It trumps all of my smaller goals (pay attention to me and go where I would like to go).  Without forward, we got nothin'.  I would also prefer forward without the tantrum beforehand.  So we've been working on that, both on the lunge and in the saddle.

We don't have an outdoor arena.  We don't have trails.  We don't have cones and other interesting things to set up.  Our arena is not big enough to set up poles if there are more than two people riding and lately, there are always four or five people and a lunging horse in the arena.  It makes it hard to even do serpentines and other things to break up our endless circles.

Yesterday she didn't want to lunge.  She kept suddenly spinning and facing me and jumping with all four feet off the ground.  She even did some amazing 'airs above ground' while trying to get out of lunging.  We worked through it mostly, but it was annoying and occasionally dangerous to have your horse suddenly spin around and leap through the air.  Then she would stand there, her head high, not moving until I got around behind her with the whip again.  I kept trying to catch her body language BEFORE she did it, and in the end I got better, but I was never entirely successful.

So by the time I got in the saddle, she was already tired and very hot and sweaty.  It has been unseasonably warm during the day (mid to high fifties) and she is wearing her full set of winter woolies.  So I got on and she was reasonable.  Not great about forward.  Not great at all.  But there was no bucking and she trotted and cantered when I asked.  She was mostly paying attention and she wasn't snarking at my leg constantly.  So after only about ten minutes, I gave her a loose rein.  We went back to work for another two minutes after a short break since this has been a problem for her.  She bunched up a little bit, but then got back down to business so I kept it short.  My reasoning for this is that I don't want her to think that if she offers forward, she's going to get worked into the ground.  On the other hand, is this instilling a poor work ethic?  We ride for 45 minutes to an hour in my lesson, but my rides are generally much shorter.  20 minutes is a long ride for me.  Mostly because I want to reward her if it's going well and I worry that going around in endless circles isn't much of a reward.

So, what are your thoughts on this?  When you're training a green horse how do you instill a work ethic?  And if you can't get out of the arena and you can't use 'objects', how do you keep it fresh?

Saddle fitter comes today at 11am!!  Update to follow.


  1. My horse is older, but sort of green as he didn't know much. I've found that rewarding and appreciating even a small try will encourage them to offer you more. Tell them, "Good boy!" when they do something you like, even if it isn't exactly what you asked for. Allowing them to make mistakes without making a big deal about it, etc. It has certainly made a big, big difference in my boy. Like in your situation above, she wasn't the most forward horse, but she trotted and cantered when you asked without bucking, which is an improvement and you should reward her for it. A little appreciation has really gone a long way for my horse (not implying you're not or anything - I wasn't appreciating him enough).
    Also, transitions, constant changes of direction, figure-eights, etc help with keeping focus. Or, ask the other riders if they mind if you lay a few ground poles along the rail. Good luck!

  2. Instead of circles try straight lines from letter to letter (if you have them) if you don't from barn beam to barn beam.

    I recommend the book 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. It's full of different exercises to do. It's large flip chart type so you can take it into arena with you and look at as needed.

    As far as work ethic. Horses are lazy creatures by default. So a break is reward. Rewards build willingness. If I get a good honest try I reward. If I get exactly what I asked, when I asked, I celebrate! If it's something that we've been struggling and we master it - I jump off immediately, lavish praise and put her away. I let the lesson "soak" if you will.

  3. I agree with Jeni's suggestions - esp the 101 Dressage Exercises, which offers diagrams plus written explanations of the exercises.

    I was fortunate to have my daughter come and ride my mare yesterday and from watching her I know I have to be quicker to insist on forward and quicker to reward for good behavior. My daughter also had me work lots of transitions while circling the arena - never more than one lap without asking for a transition, or a circle, or change of lead across the diagonal.

  4. I found with the arabs I have owned that variety is best. If you have room only for a circle, then add transitions. They work really well to promote forward. You can also change the cirlce to a square to challenge her mind more.
    As for the length of ride, if you achieve your goal that is all that matters. I have had the best rides that were only 15 min. You may find that her work ethic will improve and your ride times will lengthen. I had to convince my Arab that it was his idea to move the way I wanted. Good luck.

  5. For me, getting out of their hair is the reward. For green horses and broke horses. Past a certain point anyway.

    Don't get me wrong--if something goes really well I don't have a problem with jumping off then and there, loosening up the cinch and calling it a day. For some things that works really well.

    But I get what you're saying about reward vs. work ethic. They shouldn't be in conflict with one another--but it's easy for one to affect the other.

    "Work ethic" basically just means the horse is happy and forward in his work. So I think at this point doing things to encourage her to be happy are right on (DUH, right? but HOW?).

    I think probably short and sweet is the answer. Because we're humans, we have this natural tendency to say, "Wow, X went really well! And while I only wanted to get X, now I think we should try Y..." and pretty soon the situation spirals out of control. Horsey never gets a break for doing X, and gets discouraged.

    I think you're spot on with the lunging. If she's naughty, make her work on the line. But once you're in the saddle, it's all good times. Reward for the little try will create a good work ethic, because she will know what to do and feel secure that she will be "rewarded" for her good behavior.

    When she's a little more finished, getting out of her way and going "quiet" will be enough. At this point, as soon as she gives you a good trot transition with no crankiness, I'd jump down immediately, praise her, and walk her out from the ground. Saddle time is good time. She needs to learn that can be true, and something to rely on.

    Let me know if that makes any sense. Sounds like you are making some serious progress.

  6. Lungeing - Keep her on a small circle close to you where you maintain control. Lunge in one hand, whip in the other right behind her bum. If she wants to trot 800 miles an hour let her, the small circle will tire her out quickly. When she is GOOD, let her go out a bit further, if she starts being a dinkus again, bring her back into the small circle. You may have to do this a few times, but it works and gets the message across.

    Have you done any longe lining/ground driving?? I did this with my skittish young guy and I think it was one of the biggest things to help him get used to stimulation and focus. He really enjoyed it.

    To create work ethic, you must create routine. Horses are creatures of routine. Have the same schedule of events. Catch her - groom her- tack her up - lunge her - ride - untack - put away. Soon enough they know what to expect and feel more comfortable with the work.

    Dealing with boredom in the arena, you can use anything to spice things up ; a cooler, a jacket, a feed bag. I used a shavings bag on the ground, and would walk my guy over it until he was bored.

    As for circles, they are actually comforting to a horse. They know what to expect and is easier on their brain. I work my young guy only on a circle at this point. At the end of our ride we tour around the arena for some variety, but you can add things in the circle, like poles, for variety.