No matter what your equestrian discipline, you have likely heard trainers talk about “rewarding the try”, or something akin to that. Maybe “release when he softens” or “quit asking when he gives”. Usually, there is a specific task or action the handler is asking the horse to perform, while standing by to reward the horse by releasing on the cue when he compiles. Depending on the level of training or prior preparation for the task at hand, it may be broken up into smaller pieces to build up to the whole. In fact, we can get really creative in breaking down a complex task into tiny individual components or puzzle pieces, building a foundation from which you can go in countless directions with how you put it together or what you ask for next.
So, back to “rewarding the try” along the way. What does this really mean? It’s not enough to carry this around as a meaningless mantra. If you say you stand at the ready to reward a try, do you know what that horse’s try looks like? Can you recognize the softening in the eye, the tension in the nostrils, the rate of breathing, the tiny shift of weight or energy, the blink-and-you-missed-it, subtlest of indicators? Do you know what else is competing for his attention today? Have you set the horse up to succeed? Are you at a point in your skill, and the horse’s understanding, to responsibly ask for what you are asking? If not, you may set the horse up to fail. And by that, more than anything, I mean this – you may miss a try, and not reward it, because you were busy looking for something else. When you think you have set the bar appropriately, but the horse tells you otherwise, ask yourself, “Could I break it down further for him?”
In short, to reward the try you must be able to recognize it – and it may not be what you expect. To recognize it, you must put in the time, ideally with many horses, to train your own eye and intuition. Once you can recognize it, to acknowledge the try accurately and appropriately you must remain totally present and tuned in. At its most graceful, intimate, and truly conversational level, this can be summed up as “capturing the whisper”. If you are not tuned to listening for a whisper, you will miss it and wonder why the horses are not talking to you… while they wonder why you are not listening to them.
A good example is in working with mustangs or other untouched horses. At first, the only thing I will ask for is acknowledgement. For a frightened horse who copes through hiding, avoidance, or flight, acknowledgement alone is trying hard. It is on this seemingly insignificant foundation that trust and progress can be based. It’s just the greeting, the first part of any respectful, two-way conversation. And yet how easy would it be to skip that initial moment because you didn’t realize that you had started a conversation? How many of us skip a simple greeting with our trained horses and simply charge in there to go about our business because we think we’re “past that”?
The horses are talking. I’m not the first person to ask, “Are we listening?” But, I do stop and challenge my clients to recognize more about what the horses are saying at any moment, to train their eyes, ears, and gut to capture that whisper. It is then that you realize just how hard your horse is trying for you.
Sarah Lockwood, P.G. is a Holistic Equine Training & Management Specialist based in Sonoma County. Sarah provides Holistic Horse Training and Professional Geologic Consulting for Horse Properties. Visit www.EarthAndEquine.com to learn more. Email: EarthAndEquine@gmail.com. Phone: 707-239-2280.