What Motivates Horses, and Why It Matters

brown and white painted horse with bareback pad
The fabulous Lilly patiently modeling her bareback pad.

I had an especially awesome training day with Lilly today. Backstory: when I first bought her a few months ago, her owner warned that she had a tendency to throw him off. So, instead of trying to use all the old techniques and just fix problems as I went, I decided to start Lilly's training over completely as if she had never been ridden in her life. She clearly has some negative associations about saddles and having a person on her back, so I'm using clicker training to layer good associations over those old ones. (For more information on clicker training, see this post). Our training has been sporadic and we lost momentum for a few months when I had my son home with me due to the pandemic, but finally today I got to see the fruits of our labors. I asked Lilly to stand still and she did - willingly, unrestrained - and allowed me to place the bareback pad on her for a few minutes while I sort of hung my arm around her back and applied pressure. This is a HUGE amount of progress from the horse that freaked out at the mere sight of a saddle.

Clicker training is really obscure in the equestrian world and somewhat scoffed at by naysayers because it involves feeding tidbits of treats as rewards, most of the time (though it can also involve other rewards, such as scratching the withers). But the scoffing or derision generally comes from the people without background knowledge in behavioral science to truly understand why it works. I started thinking about this major disconnect today, as my so-called difficult/"dangerous" horse was calmly and sometimes eagerly responding to my cues - something she wouldn't have done even months ago.

The thing is, clicker training really works. And that's because it's based in a solid understanding of what motivates horses. Much of traditional horsemanship is couched in the concept of dominance and control, using negative reinforcement (applying pressure to get the horse to respond to cues, followed by the release of pressure when the horse succeeds). So much of the equestrian world still holds onto this idea that if you apply enough force, the horse will eventually give in. But how many power struggles have you seen - a person pulling desperately on a lead rope while the horse digs its heels into the ground, or a rider constantly kicking their horse with more and more pressure to make them go? It's exhausting for everyone involved and rarely results in a better experience the next time around. If anything, now the horse definitely knows it wants to avoid being caught, or led, or ridden, etc. because it has that negative experience in its recent memory.

Think about it this way: you're probably pretty likely to do something if it means avoiding being hit or yelled at, but you won't like that person very much and will want to avoid the situation again at all costs. But if someone asks you to do the same task and instead of threats, there's a promise of something in it for you (food, money, etc.), you're much more likely to do it with no hard feelings. And beyond that, you're far more likely to do it the next time the request comes around, too. Incentive works far better than fear.

Horses are not that different from us when it comes to the fundamentals of motivation.

So, what exactly is it that motivates horses? Summarily, food. It sounds laughably simplistic but truly, as grazers, horses LOVE tidbits of their favorite treats and I've never met a horse that didn't become more willing to perform with some carrot coins or apple pieces on hand. Water is certainly a need and will motivate a horse to walk a far distance, however in terms of training it's not really an option because it would require you to withhold water from the horse to make it thirsty (which is inhumane for obvious reasons). Certain horses respond to a little scratching on the withers or in their favorite spot on their chest or rump, but Touch as a reward is usually very specific to each horse and it doesn't seem to be as highly valued by the horse, in my experience. (Lilly couldn't care less about me touching her and usually prefers that I don't, in fact.)

There are other motivations, of course, outside of what's considered logistically useful in the training context. If we're talking strict ethology, horses are highly motivated to seek their known companions - as evidenced by whinnying when a companion is out of sight. They're also motivated by reproductive urges (ain't we all... sorry, tasteless joke). And of course, survival itself - self-preservation - is its own central motivator for these prey animals, which actually helps explain why horses are often motivated against doing certain things we want them to do (load into a dark trailer, walk by the flapping tarp, etc.).

Overall, understanding what motivates horses gives us a strong foundation for understanding why they either avoid or embrace certain experiences within our care. It helps us encourage without force, bond without fear and build upon our training and relationships in a positive, efficient and effective way.