Trick training for your horse

Here’s how to use tricks to develop a positive relationship with your horse.

Teaching your horse some simple tricks can bring many benefits to both of you. By using tricks, you can engage your horse’s brain, gymnastisize his body and begin his life of learning. Most importantly, trick training helps you both relax, and builds a fun and positive connection between you and your equine partner!

Tricks make learning exciting for your horse

Horses learn by association. Trick training requires plenty of positive reinforcement so your horse associates you with good things. Because trick training is not usually competitive in nature, your horse will most likely respond to it in a positive manner. Learning actually becomes more of a game than a necessity, and that removes the anxiety.

Without this pressure, you’re apt to slow down, observe the horse and interact with him in a way that clarifies your own body language. This clarification helps the horse understand your request. Most animals, including humans, are nervous when meeting new people, or when they don’t know what is expected of them. Teaching a simple trick is a way of breaking the ice. Once your horse realizes he can please you, he begins to relax and try even harder.

Recent research has proven that horses recognize human expression. You can’t help but smile when your horse suddenly “gets” what you’ve asked him to do. He recognizes your approval, and voila — you have stimulated in him a desire to learn more!

Trick learning is a step-by-step process

Positive reinforcement is used to shape the end behavior. A reward for a successful trick creates an inclination in your horse to repeat and remember the movement. Think of this as teaching in steps, with prerequisites. When you first discovered language and reading, you initially learned the alphabet, then simple words, followed by sentences, and finally paragraphs. Horses learn in sequence as well.

For example, getting the horse to want to work with you is the first step. The second step is getting him to stay with you — the “whoa”. From there, once you’ve decided on the trick you want to teach your horse, break it down into small pieces. Your reward for each step is a clear “yes” that helps develop trust and solidify the response.

The first trick is always the hardest. In the beginning, pick something simple. I suggest observing your horse to get an idea of what he enjoys. Make your work sessions frequent and short, always rewarding the slightest evidence of a final result. This steady progress is called “shaping”. By working with your horse, you’re learning what’s involved in teaching him anything from “whoa” to “Piaffe”. You’ll develop your own style — picking an exercise, breaking it down into steps, and shaping behavior for the desired end result. Some horses catch on quicker than others, and that’s okay. It is part of the fun. In my experience, just when you think the horse will never understand something, he suddenly gets it!

“Yes” or “no”

A clear “yes” and “no” are necessary to shaping equine behavior. If you spend time developing a positive relationship with your horse, and he enjoys working with you, the main form of correction is often the absence of reward. Your horse begins to learn that when he gets it right, he gets a reward. If he doesn’t get the reward, he’ll start to try harder. Every time you interact with your horse, you are teaching him something. If you take time, in the beginning, to help him understand the reward, he will become less flighty and more amiable for safe handling by people like your vet or farrier.

Trust and consistency

Through trick training and shaping, you are establishing trust. Your horse’s confidence will increase as he begins to trust that your reactions will be consistent. Then he will begin to rely on you more. Without trust, we can’t proceed with any training.

Moondance was extremely fearful when he first came to Judi, but after trick training, he became one of her best lesson horses. Photo courtesy of Jade Premont

About 20 years ago, I acquired a young and extremely fearful Hanoverian gelding. During one of our first training sessions, he knocked me out and sent me to the emergency room. His reactions created such a lack of trust in me that I became fearful just handling him on the ground.

Knowing I had to take the lead, I began spending time simply observing and being around him. I began working with tricks, not expecting anything in particular, and was pleasantly surprised that his eyes began to brighten, and he would actually lift his head in response to my voice. We began to establish a constructive relationship. It didn’t happen overnight, but today he is a solid citizen and one of my best lesson horses.

Trick training can be rehabilitation for your horse

Trick training can function as both physical and mental rehabilitation for your horse. I currently have a boarded horse on stall rest, recovering from an injury. He is allowed out for only short walks. This lack of exercise and stimulation was causing evidence of depression and muscle wasting.

His owner wanted to do something more with him, so she began working on teaching him to “smile” (see image at left). Seeing how much they were both enjoying themselves, I suggested the “hug” and the “curtsy bow”. These tricks stretch the muscles laterally and longitudinally, much like yoga does. The curtsy bow is similar to the “downward dog” stretch. The effort involved in teaching these tricks caused the horse’s owner to spend more time with him. The horse seemed more mentally relaxed when he left his stall, and from practicing his stretches, the wobbly gait he had demonstrated when he first stepped out disappeared.

Experiment with tricks you feel will work best

Now that you know the basics, go out and try your hand at teaching some tricks to your own horse. There are many to choose from. Those involving the horse’s head are the easiest and safest, but maybe he needs confidence in following you, especially onto the trailer. Working on getting your horse to step up on a low block or bridge can help create that confidence.

Whatever trick you choose, make it your own unique time together. Emphasize your horse’s strong points and individual personality. Be amazed that you are able to communicate with him on this level. I challenge you not to smile! Even if you don’t, I guarantee you will deepen your connection with your horse.