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Reward and punishment


In my last column I touched on how easy it is for people to misread a horse’s thoughts. In their anxiousness they think a horse senses their fear, or worry that they may make a horse mad, and they try to appease them with treats. I brought forth the fact that horses simply do not think that way. They are very logical. Rewards need to be based more on making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.

Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

Not only do many horse people reward their horses poorly, they punish unclearly also. I have witnessed countless examples of horse owners who punish their horses by tying them up for a long time or withholding grain from them if they are “bad.” They do not seem to realize that a horse will not correlate this with being punished. Teaching a horse to tie does teach patience, but it is totally unrelated to working with humans. The only possible similarity would be learning to give to pressure. It is better for a horse to learn to give to pressure from a movable post (a human), before a solid post, because a human can be more forgiving and can get a horse used to pressure more slowly than an all or nothing post. The biggest reason this common punishment scenario is mediocre at best is because a horse lives in the moment for the most part. We must time rewards or comfort and punishment or discomfort with the exact time their response occurred. I like using God’s 9th commandment – “do not lie” – to point to “timing.” Crystal clear communication is the exact opposite of lying, and the best way to communicate clearly to a horse is to get our “timing” as perfect as possible.

We might say that living in the moment is a weakness for horses, but it is also for us humans. If we always live in the moment, we would not be good at saving, or planning for the future, or any other kind of delayed gratification. It would also make it harder for us contemplate eternal life with the author of life, Jesus Christ.

If a horse’s weakness is the fact that it lives for the most part in the moment, then its strength would be its perceptiveness. A horse is very perceptive to everything we do. This is why the true religion of truth and light prevails with horses. They can tell when we are being sneaky, so we must do everything in an upright clear way, such as we should do life in general!

Many people mistakenly choose to grain their horses based on whether they are “ bad” or not. As a rule of thumb we should use grain or treats to motivate horses to come to us, or let them eat grain as we are getting them ready to ride. I like to have range cubes in my pocket from time to time as I put the halter on, so horses do not favor a bucket and run from the halter. This is how to reward in the moment. We bring cattle in with treats also, and whether it be cattle or horses, the important thing is to let them savor their food before we work them.

These animals that live in the moment will not associate being caught with being worked if enough time passes after we grain them. We really do not want to emphasize treats after we work animals, because in a sense we would be rewarding them for us leaving them. If we stick around to curry and brush them, then they can associate eating treats with us there. Currying and brushing is probably even better than grain. I think it is a good way to emulate God in the flesh Jesus Christ demonstrating true leadership. It was a shock for the world for Jesus to demonstrate servant heartedness as real leadership. But it was the recipe for our country becoming the most productive nation ever. Horses ultimately appreciate our servant heartedness through brushing and even better yet learning to move like them to partner with them better.
Punishment should be more related to making the wrong thing difficult at the time it is happening. If a horse does not want to be caught in a small pen, we will work it until it faces us. If it is evading us in a big area, we will not give it rest until it goes into the pen. We can do this from another horse’s back (or an ATV). The rule of thumb is to work horses where they are trying to escape in attitude or proximity. On the other end, rest a horse more where we want it to be in the same way. We get to play God by shaping horses’ world view. This helps us appreciate our creator God more as we begin to understand more how a horse truly thinks.

Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville. His columns are posted online on the blog page at (which is accessible by mousing over “news”). Email: