First, I'd like to thank you for all you do to help us humans understand our equine friends!
My question has to do with praise. I think we all use patting and kind words spoken gently as a training reward, but I am wondering if most horses really understand this as meaning "job well done"? If so, how? Do they make the association based on herd behavior(affection between herd members) or on past pleasant experience with humans (as in voice tone and body language during activities like grooming). Do they indeed understand this? And are there any better ways to praise?
Horse language is more visual than verbal, but horses do communicate with some sounds, and they are intelligent, observant animals. Since they learn by association, they are generally very quick to understand that the tone of a human voice can convey the message "I like what you are doing" - or the message "I do NOT like what you are doing".
Good trainers, whether they do this consciously or not, always make their approval or disapproval very clear, and make it clear at the instant when the horse is performing the action. Conditioned response is an important training method. A horse that is treated absolutely consistently by its trainer/owner/rider will never have to wonder whether the trainer approves of disapproves of any behaviour it offers, because the trainer's voice can make that approval or disapproval clear whilst the behaviour is still going on. This is, in fact, the idea underlying clicker training: The horse will learn best when reward/praise is given DURING the desired behaviour. Once the horse learns to associate food (primary reinforcer) with praise (secondary reinforcer), it will come to regard the praise itself as something good, and not just as a promise of a treat.
Training changes as the horse's education progresses. In the first stages, when the horse is learning to trust the trainer, and when it is still learning to learn, food rewards can keep the horse happy and comfortable and relaxed. So can the momentary pause when the trainer approves - "Good boy" followed by a demand for more or repeated performance is unlikely to teach a horse to relax when it hears those words, but "good boy" followed by a cessation of ALL demands (a moment of peace and quiet and rest) will quickly teach a horse that it can relax when it hears those words. The words don't have to be "good boy" - the horse doesn't understand or care about the specific words, but it does care about the consistency and the tone of voice. You could train a horse in exactly the same way by saying "dental floss" instead of "good boy" - as long as you said it in a gentle, caressing tone, and gave the horse a moment of peace and quiet whenever you said it, the horse would learn that those words convey the message "I like what you are doing". For most trainers, "good boy" is a better choice of words than "dental floss", ONLY because the trainer associates those words with quiet relaxation. Typically, a rider saying "good boy" or the equivalent will simultaneously relax his or her OWN body, thus allowing the horse to relax as well.
Secondary reinforcers are an important part of training. Just as it isn't always practical to offer food treats as a reward or as proof of your goodwill towards the horse, it isn't always practical or even possible to give the horse that moment of peaceful rest along with the verbal praise. Fortunately, it also isn't necessary - once the horse has learned the particular behaviour, and understands that verbal praise (or a click) means "I approve of what you are doing", then the click or the "good boy", "well done", or "thank you" (or "dental floss") will elicit a clear relaxation response on the horse's part. At this point, we aren't so much rewarding the horse (no treat, no time off) as we are congratulating it, but that's all the horse needs or wants - because it has learned to relax when praised, it accepts the approval as the reward, and the praise itself as something pleasant.
So, yes, horses understand praise very well, as long as it's coming from a reliable source - someone who is clear and consistent and trustworthy. A stranger who jerked the reins and shouted "GOOD BOY!" would NOT elicit happy relaxation as a response. There are other ways to praise a horse - a scratch on the withers or along the top of the neck under the mane, for example - but verbal praise is very convenient. Even if you are leaning over to open a gate and have both hands occupied, or if you are not yet within touching distance of your horse, you can still say "good boy".
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