Look at Maxwell out there in his paddock, half-asleep, sunbathing by the fence. You’re glad he’s not chewing on it. You feel a trifle bad-guilty is more like it-that you haven’t had time to ride him like you should. You know he’s bored silly and that he’s got the smarts to learn just about anything.
But, wait! There is something the two of you can do that doesn’t require the necessary time for grooming, tacking, riding and cooling out. Nor do you need an elaborate round pen, riding ring or expensive equipment. Teach him tricks! You can teach him in a stall, barn aisle or in a ring–perfect for those cold wintery days when you can’t ride. Inside your horse there’s a fertile mind waiting to be developed. Inside you there’s a ham waiting to break out into show biz.
You can entertain friends in your barn or Aunt Sally with your horse’s antics. He will shine with intellectual achievement, seem brighter, more interesting. He will love the attention and praise. You will beam with pride at your accomplishments and anticipate what trick you can teach him next. Sound challenging and exciting? You bet it is!
How do you go about learning how to teach him tricks? There are few books or videos on the subject of trick-training. Most performers and trainers of trick horses are reluctant to reveal their methods. In my opinion, much is left for the horseperson to figure out for himself.
After a long time spent oberving horses and figuring out signals and responses, I produced several trained trick horses which I eventually presented for twenty-three years to fairs, expos, festivals, resorts, theme parks, horse shows, rodeos, camps, schools parades, and on TV commercials, traveling and performing for audiences all over the country. The methods prescribed here have also worked for other horses I’ve trained successfully and should work for you.
There are some things you should know about your horse first:
- You must listen to your horse. Learn to understand him and learn his language.
- Observe your horse out in the pasture or paddock.
- Really, he knows how to do all the movements; he knows how to bow on one knee, two knees, lie down and sit up.
- We are going to ask him to perform these tricks on command from you–the trainer.
- It is absolutely necessary to have your horse trust you.
- Spend lots of time just being with him. Lean over the fence and talk to him.
- Watch him while he is eating. Develop a togetherness, a companionship, a sense of belonging to each other.
Carry rewards. We all know that horses love carrots. Pet him in addition to giving him the reward when you are near him and he will soon look forward to the caresses as much as the treat.
Remember: Your horse–your companion–wants to please you! A word of caution here: While the reward system of training is the greatest in the world, it can be overdone or applied at the wrong time. In these initial training stages, be sure your horse has done exactly what you asked of him, and in a mannerly fashion–not “mugging” you for a treat–before you reward him with a carrot. Unless you demand absolute manners and perfection in whatever you ask of him, it can not only confuse him but can slow down the training process.
Although any horse, from a weanling to a senior horse, can learn tricks, it will be much safer for you and for your horse if your horse knows basic ground manners and has a solid foundation in handling before attempting tricks. This foundation includes: haltering, leading, stopping, standing quietly for grooming, having feet picked up and tying.
The trick horse learns from cues just like any other horse. The cues are from your body position, your hands, legs, seat and the crop. Ask for a response often, demand little, and reward generously for any likeness of the movement you ask for. You ask for a movement or gesture, he makes some correct response, and then you reward with a small piece of carrot.
The first few lessons on teaching your horse tricks begin with what I call the ABC’s of learning, simple tricks that require no elaborate equipment, but are essentially taught with patience, companionship and reward. The recommended sequence of training described here is not an absolute prerequisite to schooling your horse, but it has worked for me and I believe it has its merits.
Let’s begin with a simple trick of getting the horse to kiss you. The following procedures may be used several times a day for short periods. In the beginning of all trick-training, the horse’s attention span is very short, so several brief sessions are recommended, and only when the horse is attentive and quietly standing still and relaxed.
Step #1. Have a halter and lead rope on your horse, standing him in a stall, an aisle or next to a fence. Stand in front of him, facing him. Hold a piece of carrot in your right hand. Let your horse know it is there, but don’t give it to him. Place the carrot firmly next to your face and let him smell it. He knows it’s there, and will probably attempt to get it by reaching closer to your mouth for it. Command, “Kiss Me!” while raising your head. As soon as his mouth touches your hand or cheek, give him the carrot. Repeat this several times, giving him the command each time and continuing the suggestive movement of your head.
Note: Your horse should be mannerly while taking the carrot. Do NOT reward poor manners, and exercise caution in watching he does not get over-eager, and in trying to reach for the treat with gusto, nip or bite. Actually trick-training is a WONDERFUL way to teach horses to take treats in a mannerly fashion, but you must be aware at all times of your safety.
Step #2. Repeat Step #1 until your horse is reliably nuzzling you on your cheek which you immediately reward with a carrot. Stand in front of your horse, raise your head slightly, without the carrot next to your cheek, command, Kiss Me!. When your horse raises his mouth and nuzzles your cheek, pet him and give him a carrot. Repeat this process until your horse thoroughly understands the trick and responds quickly. Do not continue until he tires of it (and he will). Two to three training sessions a day are about all he needs at this point to perfect this trick. Now he’ll give you a sloppy horse kiss whenever you ask for one. And he won’t even kiss and tell! Now you might rename him Maxwell Smart!
You have now provided the groundwork for teaching him to use his mouth carefully and safely. In my next lessons on trick-horse training, I will continue to focus the trick-training on using the horse’s head and neck. I have over 50 tricks and high school movements that are outlined in detail in my video and book.