Good Boy?

Good Boy or?

Over the last two years in my travels, I have been exposed to many different disciplines and styles of training. As an advocate for on going education I always pay attention to everyone’s style. Afterall there could be something I am missing. During this time, I have found one universal habit that happens across the board and have been studying the habit inside and out for the benefit vs. the drawback.

This habit actually drives me crazy, and it has taken me some time to derive to cause, how it gets started and how it effects the horse involved.

It is the CONSTANT repetition of saying “GOOD BOY”.  I have watched many riders who with every step every execution of muscle movement the words “Good boy” come out of their mouth. At first, I thought that maybe I was missing something. Do horses really respond positively to constant vocal stimulus and are they actually processing the words you are using in the learning process? You may be surprised what I have found. 

First an example, a young lady had just finished with the farrier and took her horse into the round pen to evaluate his movement. She turned him loose and began to push him around the pen, simply looking to see if the new shoe job had helped with some issues he was having. She gave the vocal cue to trot and then proceeded to yell “good boy” at the top of her lungs, over and over again. The horse was quite simply moving around the pen and enjoying his romp with an occasional kick out and buck. To the other riders in the near by arena I could see their dismay at the constant repetition of the praise coming from the round pen. I watched for quite some time to see if the horse responded to her praises. I have witnessed the same when the same young lady rides.

The actuality of my observations was quite simple, the horse had completely tuned her out. There was no response from her constant praise to confirm that what he was doing was the right thing nor when other commands were offered did, he acknowledge the command, or even begin to execute it.  The fact of the matter was the owner, who is supposed to be leading had become nothing more than a nag. Much like the husband whose wife constantly nags he had turned on the football game and was repeating the words uh-huh.

Further investigation into this method of working with horses I found that when watching her ride, her ride filled with tons of elevated octave “good boys” was answered quite negatively by her steed. I stood baffled at his outburst that seemed to follow every positive re-enforcement that was far from positive. This is an aged well, schooled horse.  To be completely truthful I have really investigated this matter for more than just a couple years. As I have had numerous students who constantly talked to their horses like small children the entire ride. I found the same result, when a command was actually given, they were watching the football game.

I investigated even further with a number of these horses, by asking barn staff how the horse was to handle on a daily basis. These same horses are horrible to handle, they walk over the handler, step on them, have no personal space limits and often drag the handler from one point to another.


In my own training program, I have stayed with the concept of offering praise when something truly is accomplished. I find that the horse responds positively back. I teach that a horse has very little concept of what is actually right or wrong, they learn they have done it correctly when you stop coaching. This concept also dictates that if you stop and offer praise at the time in which they have accomplished nothing more than natural instinct for them (I.E. Trotting in a round pen) they also believe that is what you wanted correct or not. The more I repeat positive reinforcement at the wrong time the more the horse has no clue of what you truly want. And praising the horse for ignoring you, does exactly that, teaches them that you wish to be ignored.  The constant bombardment of “good boys” for simply putting one foot in front of the other turns the rider or handler into an annoying bird somewhere in the trees that must for everyone’s sanity be blocked out. When the command actually comes the horse has now gone to its own little daydream and the command is not recognized.

When I stop and praise a horse for an actual learned behavior the horse responds, licking, chewing etc. The horse that is nagged often only has that response when the rider puts him back in his stall. Which in my experience is not a horse that wishes to be your partner nor much of anything else.

In the cases in which horses that have endured the perpetual nag have come to me for training, I find they often really lack in problem solving skills, focus and courage. They have been told they were doing everything right at the wrong times for so long without constant guidance they are unsure of what their actual job is. Horses that tend to be fractious that have been told they are good for just stepping in a direction lack the skill set and tend to be even more fractious than they were in the beginning. The constant coddling has actually made them helpless in a natural environment. They alert and respond to stimulus incorrectly and will not acknowledge simple problems nor try to tackle them. Making them a victim of learned helplessness. Sadly, people often jump to the conclusion that the horse has been abused in some way, and then they add the sympathy play which is more “good boys” at the wrong time. It is a vicious cycle.

Positive re enforcement at the correct time is a powerful tool. Horses respond well and learn to search for it. They apply themselves harder and become more focused waiting for the “good boy”.  When the term of approval becomes as common to them as the word “the” is to us they lose their ability to focus and often their self-worth. Their human counterparts become pawns in the game of “guess what she wants today”?  and all too often the horse actually digresses in his level of training instead of progressing. AND then…They end up at a trainer who after much work, now has to find a way to tell his owner to SHUT UP, without making a new enemy.

Because I work with both the rider and the horse, I have learned something about the riders who use this method. I actually hate to use the word method as it’s a habit more than a method. The riders themselves have a lack of confidence, they are often talking uncontrollably and don’t even realize that they are doing it. They also don’t realize the damage they are causing. They are using the constant talking to console themselves and in most cases believe they are showing love for their horse by constantly re assuring themselves in all reality. The truth is though as they reassure themselves, they drive their horse’s confidence down. I believe the horses in these situations actually begin to believe they are always doing something wrong and not as we believe that we are building them up with our comments.

Positive reinforcement is key to building a solid, confident horse but only when it is provided at the right moment.  Are you helping or hurting the situation? Do you allow your horse to progress? After all they only need to be told how to walk for about three seconds after birth and they have it for life. If you are telling your horse he’s good for running around in the round pen like he does in the pasture is he learning?

Kryss Helfrich