The Art of Praise

Over my years of having project horses and babies, I’ve come to notice that when you have a horse that is green or lacking confidence, but is also very willing, a simple “good boy” or a reassuring pat can be a very powerful thing. This has been especially true with Henry, who will turn himself inside out to find the right answer and is very sensitive to the idea that he might ever be in trouble. Like for real, even just trying to do transitions in semi-rapid succession made him think he’d done something wrong, and he would get upset.

Don’t be fooled by his badass persona, he is a giant marshmallow on the inside

I’ve always been pretty quick with a pat and a Good Boy when we’re jumping. He does a lot of ass-saving, after all. When he was but a wee baby event horse going around his first BN and N XC’s, and even his first T, you could even feel the effect that a “Good Boy” had on him. He might be a little unsure about a jump or about the woods or whatever, but you’d sit and put your leg on and he would go, and he’d get a big “Good Boy!” on the other side. You could practically SEE his little brain going “Oh my gosh she’s right, I am a GOOD BOY!”. His confidence would grow and grow as he went along.

Henry’s first ever helmet cam video is a good example. Gah he was cute at BN. So many feels.


He’s still very much the same now. The jumps are bigger, he’s way more seasoned, and he’s got a pretty high amount of self-confidence about jumping, but still if I feel him take a bit of a peek at something, or if he makes a good decision, I always try to be quick with a “Good Boy”. I don’t have to say it as much as I used to, where it was more a reassurance to him – now it’s more of a confirmation to him that he did the right thing. It’s important to Henry, because he’s THAT sensitive.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as good or quick with praise for the flatwork as I have for the jumps. In the past I mostly just took the pressure off and went back to something easier, so his praise came in the release or the rest. Which is a totally valid training method, and one he also understands. But when the flatwork gets more complicated, and things start coming at him more rapid-fire, sometimes the pressure has to stay on for a little while before he gets to rest. The “reward”, in that format anyway, isn’t as immediate as it used to be.

I do wonder how many times I’ve told this horse he’s a good boy in his lifetime. Hundreds? Thousands? He is the goodest boy.

In the flatwork, when he doesn’t get a quick reward, he starts to think he’s done something wrong. If you repeat a transition several times in rapid fire, he becomes increasingly convinced that he was bad. That means he gets more and more tense, more and more over-sensitive to what’s happening. But we also can’t just avoid rapid fire forever. It’s time to step it up a bit. The key to this seems to be twofold: 1) immediately put him to work after a transition, be it shoulder fore, or a leg yield, or anything that gets him using his brain to move his feet rather than using it to get worried. 2) Praise. Immediate reassurance that he’s done the right thing.

That might be in the form of a “Good Boy”, or it might just be a quick touch to his neck with my inside hand. Something, anything, so that he knows he’s fine. I’ve learned in the past few weeks that while we’re stretching his comfort zone and increasing the pressure, I have to be very quick and obvious with the praise. It’s almost like BN XC Henry again, but on the flat. He needs the reassurance, and his confidence grows a little bit with every Good Boy. In retrospect, I’d gotten too slow and stingy with the praise when we weren’t jumping. In the flatwork I think it’s easy to demand a little more and a little better, without always recognizing the effort that he did give. He’s not the kind of horse that can take that. I don’t need to take the pressure off, I just need to do more to reassure him that he can exist under said pressure and still be ok.

relatively convinced he could die from dressage

Yesterday we were able to execute a string of trot/canter/trot/canter transitions in rapid succession without him getting worked up or worried, so that’s a big step. They aren’t necessarily always good transitions, but as long as he’s responsive, I’m giving him some kind of praise. If he’s trying, I’m rewarding. So far it seems to be helping. There’s still pressure on him to do more/better, but he’s relaxing into it and learning to accept it a bit more.

I am 5+ years into this horse and he’s still teaching me something and making me better every day.

15 thoughts on “The Art of Praise

  1. Frankie is definitely not sensitive and doesn’t tend to get worked up about things, but he LIVES for praise, even if it’s just a little scratch on the withers as we continue to work. It’s easy to focus really hard and forget to praise him esp when we’re working on the flat since he doesn’t really protest, but he’s noticeably so much happier and willing when I remember to stroke his ego a bit.


    1. Duke is so similar! He’s so laid back but he LOVES being told he’s a good boy. You can feel him react happily to it, although at one point he thought “good boy” meant “we’re done with that now” and would try to walk every time. So that was fun, figuring out new phrases that made him happy without making him walk, haha.

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  2. I love this! I just rode with a clinician who was getting me to constantly praise my mare for an answer in the right direction. It’s funny how much they respond to a quick pat and a “good girl”!


  3. Chuck Grant said,” ask often, expect little or nothing in return and reward generously” in regards to starting young horses and teaching new movements. Your comment of “if he’s trying, I’m rewarding” made me think of that.

    Henny is looking really nice out there!


  4. Simon is still super green so when you give him pats for rewards, he opts to stop and lick and chew to confirm he’s a good boy. It’s hilarious!
    I have had to reteach myself to focus on rewarding good behaviour instead of punishing bad. Having grown up with a Dad who was a REALLY OLD FASHIONED cowboy (in his youth he literally rounded up wild horses on the prairie in Montana and broke them, flour sack over they eyes, let ‘er buck style) taught me some bad habits, but as my Dad got older he worked really hard to change his ways to that of reward instead of punishment and he got a lot more out of his horses.


  5. This motivates me to try and say “good boy” more. I only really do it when I’m supremely happy and just rely on softening pressure for my main reward. But Mort is sensitive and easily worried so maybe he just needs some more praise. Going to experiment!


  6. agreed completely. my horse thrives off of reassurances, and oddly, i do too. like telling my horse he’s a good boy somehow has the same reassuring effect on *me* that it can have on him. sorta like how george morris says he “clucks for bravery,” except i praise for bravery lol


  7. This makes me even more sad about my eval lesson with a new trainer. She yelled at me for praising my guy and he LIVES ON PRAISE. Not so much so that he knows he did right, more so because he thinks he is the next coming of Christ and needs that constant validation that he is in fact correct about that. And I am happy to oblige him. But she wouldn’t let me and I watched as he got more upset as it went on. Finally I broke down and did it anyway and back at home I am continuing to give him what he needs to succeed – lots of affirmation that he walks on water.


  8. Great post- I have the super sensitive TB as well, who just soaks up any sort of praise like a sponge, but I can’t really think of anytime I’ve praised him for flat work. For transitions sure, but for working hard within a gait…not so much. Definitely something to think about.


  9. Love this. My sensitive flower loves praise. And its nice to know that my situation is not unique, even when it feels like Im the only boarder in my barn to fuss over my horse with pats, praise and kisses. He particularly loves applaise and when I scream like a little girl “omg, you are the BEST HORSE E.V.E.R.!!!!”


  10. I’m a scratch-the-withers, “Good girl!” fan when it comes to praise, but always wonder what horses whose riders, in their own excitement, wham them on the neck think is going on. Do they take it as praise or wonder why they’re getting whacked?


  11. “I don’t need to take the pressure off, I just need to do more to reassure him that he can exist under said pressure and still be ok.” THIS. So, so much.

    I’ve got a post all about praise in my drafts right now. I really should finish it up…


  12. I think I’ve been too vocal in the saddle lately… Eros didn’t want to put himself together (too much time toodling this winter…) so I literally just started asking him verbally to please give at the poll. Lots of thank you’s and good boys follow if he complies though. Not sure it will fly in the hunter ring?
    I think it’s easy on the flat to forget that they are working just as hard (or maybe harder) on the flat for us versus over fences. I find flat work (while definitely challenging, and not at all easy) a lot less… I don’t know, intimidating maybe? So while it’s work, it doesn’t take as much from me emotionally, but I think it probably does just as much or more from them. If that makes sense? So it makes good sense that we should be rewarding them just as much on the flat as we do when we’re jumping. If there’s something we’re struggling, then I’m pretty good about rewarding and making a big deal when we get it right. But for the basic day to day to stuff, it’s easy to just accept and move on, without acknowledging their work as much. Thanks for the reminder!


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