I was reminded recently, in the horse world, about the importance in behaviour change of rewarding the try. Many horsemen/women have talked about this approach to training a horse and I wondered if it’s something you can apply to your life too?

What does it mean?

From Warwich Schiller to Ross Jacobs, you’ll hear horsemen/women all over the world explaining how ‘rewarding the try’ is so important in their work to behaviour change. When teaching a horse something new, we can’t verbally explain ‘when I do this, it’s your cue to do that’ so we have to find another way. This can be with pressure, touch, body language, reward, trial and error and many more. And, so when the horse offers a behaviour towards what you’re looking for, it’s important to either reward immediately or remove the pressure (depending on which you’re using). This is vital so that the horse begins to understand ‘when you do that, I do this’.

Getting the timing right

Timing is everything as it’s split second. If you reward too late, the connection isn’t made by the horse that the carrot was attached to him doing a certain behaviour. In addition, if you’re removing a stimulus (pressure) and it happens too slowly, the horse will think ‘well I did the thing and the pressure kept coming, so I obviously got it wrong’. You’ll actually have taught them to do whatever it was exactly at the point of addition/removal. Then, next time you try the same thing, you’ll get the behaviour they thought was connected.

Over time, with accurate practice, our ‘ask’ becomes smaller, less energetic. It almost seems as if we’re just thinking about what we want the horse to do and they do it as it becomes embedded.

Delayed rewards?

What we’re talking about here is an external reward for a behaviour. The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is a whole other ball game. There is research that says that horses can wait for their reward, but it’s usually fairly self serving. For example, they’ll wait until the predator has gone before drinking at the waterhole.

And, in the horse world, there’s a lot of discussion about what constitutes a reward. We’re not going to discuss that here other than to say that it has to be of sufficient value to the horse, or they’ll not be motivated to continue. Suffice to say, horses don’t think like us – they’re prey animals and are often at our mercy for their health and wellbeing.

How is this relevant to your life?

Well, the type of reward might be different for humans. For me, an hour with my crochet with my dog snuggled up next to me will do just nicely. Someone else might like a night away in a spa hotel. In this concept of rewarding the try, it just needs to be something that we can access pretty much straight away, otherwise the link to the behaviour fades, as with horses. Although we’re much better at delayed gratification than animals, for many a new pair of shoes in the summer for something that happened in February might not cut the mustard. If we’re talking about behaviour change, the ‘yes’ has to be straight away.

Building new neural pathways

Rewarding a try for behaviour change is about building new neural pathways and connections in your brain. You’re finding ways of repeating the wanted behaviour so that it becomes the norm, the ‘go to’ behaviour rather than what was evident before. If you reward the try, your brain lights up with dopamine which for most results in a lovely feeling. Your brains are programmed to go there again and get another hit of dopamine.

Building motivation

It’s motivating when a try is rewarded, even if you haven’t achieved a whole. I can think of when I was new to learning to play the piano, we stopped for a biscuit when I got a basic scale right. The next time, I had to do a bit more to earn the reward, but I knew it was coming, so I was able to make more of an effort. If my teacher had waited for me to be able to play a symphony, quite frankly, I’d not have a biscuit yet! She helped me develop a growth mindset to keep moving forward and not to get frustrated that I can’t do it all yet.

So, next time

So, next time you feel like you have a mountain to climb in learning or behaviour change, break it down into smaller chunks and reward the try. You don’t need to wait until you’re an impressario, or can canter round that intermediate cross country course. The simplest of scales, or learning to canter in an arena will do to start with and build the behaviour from there.

And, if you have children in your life, try rewarding the try with them too. You’ll be amazed how quickly they’re motivated to try some more.

Rewarding the try works for dogs and other animals too, by the way, so have fun with them too.

Of course, this can work against you, for example scrolling on social media will give you dopamine hits, but it’s not necessarily a habit you want to reinforce. So, be careful when you offer the rewards rewards and find a variety too.

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