Why Trick Horse Train?

Why Trick Horse Train?


Just like many of my horse crazy counterparts, I became fascinated with horses a long time ago.  Their quiet communication, grace, athleticism and wittiness intrigued me, and I knew even back then, I wanted to have them in my life. 

There is something purely magical about communicating at a subliminal level where only the keenest eye can appreciate the true partnership between a horse and handler.  This is the articulation of elegance and the expression of liberty where human and horse can speak in a common, primitive language.  To me there is no greater feeling than releasing the suppression of misunderstanding and allowing two species to coadjute in this interchange. 

The receptivity to this kindred partnership between the humans and horses I have worked with is nothing short of inspiring.  Each reveal personality and individualism, but as interactions become synchronized and perfected, true beings reveal themselves.   It is through this communication and mutual understanding that trust is developed and a partnership that all handlers should aspire to, blooms.  

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The Benefits of Trick Horse Training


Trick horse training is just one facet to open the communication lines with your equine partner, but it is an avenue that I find to be very adaptable, fun and beneficial to all involved.  It can be taught to all ages of horses with any level of training.  I have worked with halter-broke-yearlings to 30-year-old retired riding horses successfully.  A horse does not need to be broke to ride and does not have to be athletically fit to be taught tricks.  Did I mention that these methods work even on non-horse participants?  The techniques described in this course, though targeted towards a horse, have been used on a variety of specimens including mules, donkeys, goats and even a zebu cow in my younger days!  Whether you are interested in trick training just for fun, or to give your equine partner a new mental challenge, there are many benefits of undertaking this journey.  

Specifically, injured horses on stall rest or otherwise out of work can greatly benefit from these methods of training.  Working with these horses can keep their minds alive and give them a job during a time where they cannot be physically active.  Of course, care must be taken when selecting the tricks to teach an injured horse to ensure they do not strain the current injury, but I found this training to be extremely beneficial to my own show horse after a suspensory injury had him on rest for a full year.  I used the time he was off riding to fine-tune many of the tricks he already knew as well as teach him a few new cues.  During this time, he was more than happy to have the stimulus and positive attention that he accustomed to getting on a regular basis under saddle.  I found this time together was some of the most successful in developing his mind in regards to trick training and he learned several maneuvers that we had struggled with in the past.   

Trick training is also a wonderful avenue for Horseplayers who want to work with their horses, but are unable to ride.  Many of the participants in the clinics I teach love their horses, but have medical problems or physical restrictions that prevent them from riding.  Trick training is usually done in very short sessions allowing the handler to take multiple breaks and still make amiable progress with their horse. 

I have used trick training to teach young horses elements that will help with their riding careers as they grow and have realized much success from this technique.  Trick training encourages a horse to use their mind by asking them to think through a specific task or challenge rather than just reacting to a stimulus.  This approach defies the usual ‘force and effect’ training methods and rather builds the overall confidence of the horse and allows the horse to use his brain to work through the problem.  As a result, this training can help reduce overall reactivity to new situations or objects in the future. 

Regardless of your motivation, there are several benefits to adapting trick training into your ‘tool box’ of horse knowledge.  The biggest take away is that in the end it will help evolve the partnership you have with your horse and as a handler will help you to better understand, acknowledge and shape the different behaviours your horse is eliciting. 

Is Trick Training for Me?

I have taught many clinics with a wide array of horses and participants.  Most people come to the clinics with a great attitude and an open mind.  Participants are willing to learn, work hard and have a ton of laughs. If you are one of those people, I am sure you will fall in love with trick training just as I have. 

It is an incredibly rewarding experience to encourage a horse through the different stages of learning and to witness its own individual personality develop before your eyes.  It will force you to challenge yourself, be creative and above anything else laugh at some of the shenanigans the two of you will undoubtedly experience as you learn new techniques.   To be successful you will need to be adaptable in training techniques, read behaviours quickly to capitalize on ‘try’ behaviours and, overall, become a better horse-person where you will be able to understand and shape the behaviours you are trying to illicit.  

Is Trick Training Difficult?

I have run into successful competitors, owners and even trainers who are well versed in many training methods but find trick training to be elusive.  Why is trick training so difficult?  In reality, it is not any different than teaching riding maneuvers.  

Think of a young horse learning to canter for the first time.  With an inexperienced rider, this horse will eventually learn to canter if given enough time to figure out the aids and what is being asked.  However, if you take that same horse, but give him an Olympian Equestrian to learn from, that horse will likely be executing the canter not only in a shorter session, but also with more precision.  In this particular example, we were assuming the horse was already broke to ride before asking the horse to canter.  For argument sake, we will take away that presumption and instead be thinking of a non-broke horse and think of that same green rider with the goal of cantering.  An experienced horse person will tell you this is not a recipe for success. Why?

To be an effective equestrian, the trainer must be able to effectively communicate with the horse through cues that include body and vocal aids.  The timing and use of these aids are critically important in order for the horse to understand what is being asked.  Mastering these two elements and adapting them case-by-case is what makes a rider become exceptional.  The more a rider practices the use of aids in the proper way, the faster they are able to apply them effectively and thus communicate with the horse in a clearer way leading to greater success of the team.  

Visualize a horse and rider executing the perfect jumping routine: Each turn, each stride and each fence is meticulously performed.  They are in complete unison.  This team makes the course look easy.  They create an illusion of simplicity to an untrained eye.  It is moments like this that can manifest frustration in amateur riders who fail to recognize all of the training, time and patience that went into creating the few minutes of the brilliant performance they were privy to.   

How does this relate to trick training?  In my years of teaching I have found a common theme amongst some frustrated students I have taught.  These students tend to agree that it may take years to master a certain riding movement, but that a horse in his first trick training session will master a trick.  Just as advanced riding maneuvers require the patience and precision of a rider, the advanced tricks (and even the basic ones) should be thought of and taught no differently.  It requires persistence, patience and a lot of practice to execute the tricks you are asking your horse to perform and furthermore, the more ‘green’ a handler is to trick training, the longer it will take them to teach their horse to master a trick.  Similar to riding maneuvers, the more a handler perfects the timing and use of cues the more successful they will become at communicating with their horse and likewise the learning process will be expedited.  

To further complicate the matter, many typical riding techniques cannot be used in trick training.  In many riding aids a ‘force’ is used in asking for a response of ‘effect’ from the horse.  For example, if I want a horse to back up, I can pull back on the reins.  I apply a force on the reins which effectively asks the horse to move off of the pressure of the bit and step backwards (the effect). Over time, this concept is developed into more precise riding cues, but they ultimately stem from this ‘force and effect’ concept.  Does this work in trick horse training?  In theory the same approach CAN work in some tricks.  For instance, in teaching a horse to bow there are many methods that can be used.  One of the most popular includes tying a horse's leg up and then asking him to back up.  As the ‘force’ to back up is put on the horse, he shifts his weight back and his front end lowers towards the ground (effect) into the bow.  There are many trainers that have used this method and found it to be very effective, but does this approach work in all tricks and do we need to use this approach to teach a horse?  

In teaching some tricks there is little we can do in the way of a ‘force’ to cause the ‘effect’ we are looking for.  Think of trying to get a horse to pick up an object.  What could be done to ‘force’ the effect (picking up the object)?  Think long and hard.  There really isn’t a ‘force’ we can put on a horse to cause this.  We could try making the object friendly for the horse to pick up by making it taste good or have easy edges to grab, but if the horse does not want to ‘try’ to pick up the object there is very little we can do to ‘force’ him to do so.  

In approaching trick training, retrain your mind to be more creative and think outside the box of “force and effect’.  This can be very challenging and frustrating at first!   However, in doing so you will challenge not only yourself as the trainer, but also your horse to think on his own and use his own creativity to demonstrate his own unique personality. Your biggest challenge is creating an atmosphere where your horse WANTS to try rather than you telling him to respond.  This is how you develop a mutual conversation with your horse and where you truly reap the benefits of the relationship developed through trick horse training.  

As you continue your road of trick training you will become a master of creativity fed by your horse’s desire to learn.

©Horseplay and Harmony Academy 2020