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Teach Your Horse Tricks!
Training Principles for Teaching Tricks
WRITTEN BY: Carole Fletcher

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 colomn 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, and although perhaps more “showy,” tricks such as bowing, lying down and rearing are not recommended to begin with, since the horse is put in vulnerable and dangerous positions, as well as the horse handler. 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?

1. Teach your horse to act "Ashamed"

2. Teach your horse to shake his head "No"

3. Teach your horse to nod his head "Yes"

4. Teach your horse to "Smile"

Carole Fletcher has trained and performed with several trick and high school exhibition horses for more than 23 years on the East Coast at state fairs, rodeos, expos, horse shows, parades, camps, schools, and on TV commercials and advertising promos. She presently performs exhibitions and gives clinics with her Paint stallion, “Heza Night Train.” She operates Singin’ Saddles Ranch at 8100 NW 120th St., Reddick, FL 32686. She has a video available, “Training the Trick Horse,” that can be ordered through her online at: www.trickhorse.com. You can also order it by phoning: 352-369-0950. There is also a new book available by Carole Fletcher, "Trickonometry: Secrets of Teaching Your Horse Tricks." This book can be ordered at her website, www.trickhorse.com.

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