Praise Always Wins

Recently in a number of lessons I've taken, I've noticed the same attitude seeming to prevail. The higher up the training scale the rider goes, the more they are likely to find fault. Not with themselves, I hasten to say - but with their horse!  Although I dislike generalisations, it does seem the less qualified or more amateur the rider, the happier they tend to be with their horse and what he tries to give them.  In both cases there will be many imperfections in the work in general and nearly always corrections to be made; it's how people go about these that makes all the difference.

Faults may be major or minor... but often it is the almost perfect horse that lacks the sparkle and joie de vivre that one might expect at this level. Instead, I frequently see a notable coldness in the horse's eye - a sure sign of rejection, even dejection. Then I look at the rider and find the same coldness... ie No smile on their face, no softening of the eye ... Just a steely determination to do better which if they only let go, might very well happen!

I am not suggesting that riders should go around grinning from ear to ear and I am the first to know that concentration often conceals our innermost feelings, but the eye dies not lie. I would go so far as to say the horses with the saddest, coldest eyes often carry a rider who is clearly not content with them and the work and there exists a constant feeling of blame.

This attitude helps no one. I always remember the old adage that Nuno Oliveira often used (although I think it originated at Saumur) in his teaching ...'Praise often - be content with little.'

Content means to acknowledge what you have, what's been offered and to be happy with it. It doesn't mean that you may not necessarily want more... In the fullness of time. What it does signify is that you are happy in the moment, whatever that timeframe may be.

'Content' should also mean that you don't instantly want more! In riding this should result in constant small gestures to express that state of mind ... Soft eyes (one of the late Sally Swift's great sayings) ... a relaxed jaw - how can the horse relax his if ours is tense? ... A calm demeanour, a grateful heart.  Once we learn to acknowledge every effort the horse makes which can take so many forms, I can assure you the horse will perform better and better. Things can really turn around when instead of being anxious - reluctant to try anything that might result in disapproval - he is given praise and confidence. Only then, will he be more at the ready spontaneously to offer!

In the learning of new skills, new movements for example, all attempts, all offerings should be encouraged and rewarded. There has to be a starting point for everything, so naturally nothing will be perfect at the beginning... But that is the way of all things both for humans and animals. And without that first fumbling attempt - and a word if reassurance, we cannot progress.  I am horrified when I see a horse worked relentlessly without the appearance of reward. Reward can be totally imperceptible but a skilled observer will take note. A momentary softening of the rein (descente de main), the 'dropping' of the legs (descente de jambes), a quiet word of praise, a secret caress.  None of these need be obtrusive but they mean everything to the horse - he knows his rider is in tune with him and it encourages him to offer more and to try again. And gradually, with patience, time and praise, everything looks more harmonious, more accomplished and easier.

As a teacher and trainer, I love it when I see a smile on the rider's face... I love it even more when I see the horse is smiling too. Try it!


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