Over the years, after a performance at a fair, rodeo or expo, when crowds swarmed around my horse to pet him, there were individuals who asked me how I taught the various tricks and high school movements.
Their questions made me realize that there are many people who would love to teach their horses a few tricks, to show off their horse’s intelligence and their own horsemanship skills.
They might want to brag to friends and family, and show what a “ham” old Skipper is. It’s amazing how a few entertaining tricks will guarantee Skipper a place in someone’s heart, perhaps even make him more valuable. This column is written so that others may benefit from my years of training knowledge and experience.
Before proceeding to describe how to teach your horse a trick, let us examine just how the horse was used throughout history for entertainment purposes. The trick horse, also known as a performing horse, has long been used for exhibitions, for the amusement of the public. The trick horse dates back to the Greeks and Romans who used them in their spectacles, as well as the various circuses who presented beautiful performing horses that demonstrated their magnificently trained skills, capturing the hearts of both young and old alike.
Schools of classical horsemanship, such as the Spanish Riding School, developed methods used by circuses for their performing horses. Wild West Shows featured trick horses who enchanted the public as they displayed their clever and breathtaking poses and feats. Famous movie horses, such as Trigger and Champion, displayed many heroic and spectacular tricks, movements and gestures as their masters cued them with commands and signals.
So you have a beautiful, smart horse and you are anxious to teach him tricks. Although it is lots of fun, first your horse should have basic ground work and manners–leading, stopping, being groomed, tied, having his feet picked up, etc. Once he is obedient and respectful, then you can have fun with tricks.
The method I use to teach tricks is called conditioning and positive reinforcement. You ask the horse for a behavior, say kissing you on the cheek, and if he gives you anything resembling a kiss, you reward him with a tasty treat, like a small piece of carrot. You usually won’t be able to get the whole behavior at once, so you start with just a bit of the behavior. After you’ve reinforced (treated) that for a while, you ask for a little more.
Gradually, you will get all of the behavior on cue.
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. I suggest children trying to teach tricks be supervised by parents who will make certain the horse does not get overeager and “grabby” or bite for the carrot. DO NOT REWARD POOR MANNERS!
The first few articles on teaching your horse tricks will 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 has worked well for me and I believe it has its merits.
My first concern is for the safety of the handler and horse. The more “showy,” tricks such as bowing, lying down and rearing are not recommended to begin with, since both the horse and the handler are put in vulnerable and dangerous positions. Besides, they require more agility and elasticity on the part of the horse. We all start school with basic addition and subtraction before taking geometry. Why would we ask any more of the horse?
Let’s begin with a simple trick of acting “ashamed.” These first few tricks will center around using the horse’s head and neck.
Step #1. Have a halter and lead rope on your horse, standing him in an aisle, stall or next to a fence. Stand in front of him, and with a small piece of carrot in your left hand, reach behind your back and under your right arm, turning your body slightly so he can see it. At the same time, raise your right arm level with your shoulder, and in a scolding tone of voice, say, “Shame on you!”
Step #2. Make him lower his head, reaching under your right arm for the carrot. You can encourage him by gently pushing his head down with your right hand on his poll, if necessary. Let him eat the carrot, and while doing so, drop your right arm around his head, pet him and reassure him he is good, in a soothing tone of voice. Repeat this several times in one session, say, over a five to ten minute period, but no longer, so that he doesn’t tire of it.
Step #3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2, until your horse immediately drops his head under your right arm, upon hearing the words, “Shame on you!” and the raising of your right arm. Remember–your tone of voice in important here, so be sure to sound like you are scolding him.
Your horse is learning that the cues he should respond to are body position, your tone of voice and voice command. Be consistent in those cues, and reward him when he gives you a “right” answer.
With his head “hiding” under your arm, it will appear as if your horse is ashamed. I like to use this trick when he hasn’t gotten something right.
The above 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.