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Alpha Natural Horsemanship

‘Ask with lightness, encourage without forcing, correct with softness’
30 60 90 Days Training
Abuse NeglectRehab Part 1
Abuse NeglectRehab Part 2
Aids & Cues What are they
Assess Diagnose beforeFix
Are all horses trainable
Be safer use a Dummy
Behavior Retraining Tips
Behavior Solving Issues
Buying first Horse Guide
Buying Training Older Hor
Buying a Horse Part 2
Buying a Horse Mismatched
Buying a Horse Selecting
CalmingTrg 1 sided horses
How to Communicate Horses
How horses Communicate
Cycles and Pyramid Trg
Establishing Leadership
Exercises Warm Up
Flexion Lateral
Flexion Proper Training
Flexion Vertical
Foundation GroundTraining
Foundation Mounted
How Horses Learn
Liability Release
Motivating HorsesandMules
Natural Survival Instinct
OTTB Re Education
Overcoming riding fear
Saddle Fitting
Selecting A Trainer
Soft Inside Light Outside
Spurs How to Use them
Teaching Strategy
TRAINING Ask Properly
TrainingGreenRarely Handl
Training Guidelines
Train Outside the Box
Training Principals
Training Pyramid Natural
Transfer GroundworkSaddle
Turning and Neck Reining
Winter Training Workouts

Motivating Horses & Mules

Inside and Outside

From the beginning, humans have been trying to control other animals and dealing with their frustrations when they fail. Animals have independent wills, and controlling them successfully takes intelligence and strategy. When training your equine, the key is to understand and capitalize on his motivations.Why do equine do the things they do? What is it that drives their behaviors? Training a horse or mule is easier if we first figure out what motivates the animal.  These four basic drives motivate horses and other animals to do things:

  • fear
  • aggression
  • learned behavior
  • ten natural survival instincts [read more]
  • lightness on the outside & softness on the inside [read more]

Fear and aggression are often misinterpreted. Did the horse kick because he was fearful, or did he kick because he was aggressive or bad?  Neurologically, fear and aggression are different emotions that may result in similar behaviors, such as kicking or pinning the ears back. Determining which emotion motivates the kicking is important, because punishing a horse for kicking will make a fear-based behavior worse.   
If kicking occurs during a training exercise, it is likely to be fear based. Fear is also the likely motivation if an animal becomes agitated when it is alone, tied up, or held in a squeeze chute. 

Another factor is genetics. A horse or mule with a nervous, high strung temperament is more likely to have fear-motivated behavior than an animal with a calm, placid temperament. It is unfortunate that some breeders select for hot-blooded draft horses. This pattern of selection is likely to result in more problems with fear-motivated behavior. An animal with a hot temperament is more likely to blow up when it is suddenly confronted with a scary novel experience.

A tense horse does not yield to pressure but resists it

Aggressive behavior occurs when an animal views a person as a herd mate that needs to be dominated. This problem occurs especially with stallions.  Castration will reduce aggression in adult animals and, if done at a young age, mostly eliminate it. In grazing animals, an orphan male raised away from its own species may be imprinted to people and think he is a person. The resulting behavior is cute in a young animal, but when the male becomes fully mature he can be dangerous. At full maturity he may turn on his caretakers to prove that he is now the dominant male in the herd. Raising young equine in a social group helps prevent aggression toward people.  Young stallions must learn they are not people. Orphaned male grazing animals should be either castrated or placed in a social group with their own kind by six weeks of age. When they grow up with their own kind they learn who they are and any aggression is more likely to be directed toward their own kind.  The male aggression problem is not due to the animal being tame. It is due to mistaken identity. Social behavior in grazing animals has to be learned. Grazing animals must learn the normal give and take of social behavior. Horses that are reared alone will often be vicious fighters when mixed with other animals. A young stud colt reared alone may constantly fight other horses because he has never learned that once he has become dominant he doesn't need to keep fighting. Stallions will be easier to manage when they mature, if they are reared as young colts on a pasture full of other adult horses.

Learned Behavior:
An animal often learns bad behaviors because people inadvertently reward the behavior. One common problem behavior is a horse pawing and striking the stall door at feeding time. The horse acts this way because he thinks it will speed up being fed. If feed is given while the horse is striking the stall door, his undesirable behavior will be reinforced and rewarded. He learns to associate being fed with pawing the door.  To eliminate the behavior, drop feed into the manger at the precise instant the horse stops pawing at the door. The timing must be right so the horse will associate keeping his foot still with getting fed. To stop pawing behavior, reward the horse for keeping his foot still.

Natural Survival Instincts
These are fixed behavioral patterns that each equine are born with; they are hard wired into an animal like a computer program. These innate behavioral patterns are not dependent on learning. The behavioral pattern runs when it is triggered by certain specific stimuli that animal behavior specialists call sign stimuli.  In stallions the flehmen lip curl is an example of an instinct. An instinctual behavior often interacts with learned behavior.  Understanding the motivating basis of a behavior makes it easier to deal with that behavior and improve an animal's performance. Punishing may make fear and flight worse, but some assertiveness may be required to stop true aggression. When dealing with aggression, imitate the animal's natural instinctual behavior patterns.  Exerting dominance over an animal does not mean beating it into submission. During training, all animals respond to positive reinforcement such as a feed treat, stroking, or a kind voice. Trainers should use positive reinforcements to train horses, cattle, and other animals to do tasks. Next time you watch a pulling contest, note how the loggers' horses usually pull better than horses that have been motivated to pull by whipping. Positive rewards make a better motivator than fear.  It may seem that there a many different horse training methods designed to help teach our horses the tasks we need them to learn, the truth is the fundamentals of how horses learn really all stem from the same place. What I have found to be a confusing problem is that many people do not know or understand the terms they are using and often think they employ positive reinforcement but they are actually employing positive punishment for example.  Before we decide on what gadgets we need like chains, rope halters etc, we instead need to learn the aspects of how learned behavior is accomplished (or delivered), how would a horse perceive the information offered and what are the best motivators for doing it?  I believe even the horse often asks the question, "What's in it for me!"

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation
Let's take a closer look into some different ways of thinking about motivation, including one method that involves looking at whether motivation arises from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) the individual equine.  What exactly do we mean when we say extrinsic or intrinsic motivation?

  • Extrinsic motivation occurs when horses are motivated to perform behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment.  
  • Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.  Intrinsic motivation of feeling safe and calm, feeling connected, mentally stimulated and moving with good biomechanics.  Participating in an exercise because you and your horse find the activity enjoyable.  Allowing the equine to solve problems, doing activities they find enjoyable and exciting.  In each of these instances, the equine's behavior is motivated by an internal desire to participate in an activity for its own sake.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best?
So, the primary difference between the two types of motivation is that extrinsic motivation arises from outside of the animal while intrinsic motivation arises from within. Researchers have also found that the two type of motivation can differ in how effective they are at driving behaviour.  Some studies have demonstrated that offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behaviour can lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the over justification effect.

1)    Extrinsic motivation can be beneficial in some situations, however:


a.  External rewards can induce interest and participation in something in which the individual had no initial interest.

b.  Extrinsic rewards can be used to motivate people to acquire new skills or knowledge. Once these early skills have been learned, people may then become more intrinsically motivated to pursue the activity.

c.  External rewards can also be a source of feedback, allowing equine to know when their performance has achieved a standard deserving of reinforcement.

d.  Extrinsic motivators should be avoided in situations where; the equine already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding

2)   Intrinsic Motivation

While most people would suggest that intrinsic motivation is best, it is not always possible in every situation. In some cases, equine simply have no internal desire to engage in an activity. Excessive rewards may be problematic, but when used appropriately, extrinsic motivators can be a useful tool. For example, extrinsic motivation can be used to get our equine to complete a work task or exercise in which they have no internal interest.  Praise can help increase internal motivation.  Offering positive praise and feedback for the smallest try or for something good can improve intrinsic motivation.  However, once the equine understands and does the task willingly with minimal cues intrinsic motivation will decrease if handlers heap lavish praise on their equine every time he completes a simple task, he will become less intrinsically motivated to perform that task in the future. 

Combining Motivators
When combined with intrinsic motivation food treats can be highly motivating especially when they are used as a positive reinforcement as opposed to a reward or a lure. The differences are explained below:

  • Punishments and Rewards come after a behavior has been executed as opposed to positive and negative reinforcement which occurs in the exact moment that a behavior is presented.  Because a punishment or reward comes after the execution of a behavior it can’t directly change or influence a behavior in that moment as the behavior is already finished and it may or may not influence behavior in the future.
  • Positive and Negative Reinforcement however, occurs exactly in the moment of the desired behavior and therefore can influence the behavior in that moment and it is also much more likely to influence future behaviors.  For example you ask the equine to lunch to the right but it goes to the left.  Allow the equine to commit to the mistake and then correct it!
  • Luring would mean giving the treat before the desired behavior is executed to try and encourage that behavior to be presented, but in actual fact it can be reinforcing an unwanted behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement refers to a negative consequence to discourage an unwanted behavior.  Some horse training is based on negative reinforcement, for example making the horse more uncomfortable when they are not doing what is wanted. This can cause training in general to feel more negative to the horse, pressuring, uncomfortable and in some cases painful.
  • Positive reinforcement refers to a positive consequence to encourage a wanted behavior. I know from experience that we and our horses will be more motivated, have a more willing attitude and become more inspired by positive reinforcement.  I have witness great changes in horse’s motivation with increasing positive reinforcement and decreasing negative reinforcement. Working in this way also feels more enjoyable to us as trainers. Food treats can be highly motivating especially when they are used as a positive reinforcement as opposed to a reward or a lure.

Positive reinforcement methods encourage positive attitudes
Negative reinforcement methods breed negative attitudes

So by focusing on lightness and softness; positive and negative Reinforcement combined will intrinsically motivate our horses because of feeling safe, calm, feeling connected, mentally stimulated and moving with good biomechanics!  This seems to me to be the cornerstones of good horsemanship and how to motivate horses!