Trick Training

I started with carrots and a how-to book.
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I started with carrots and a how-to book.

As horse crazed youngster I remember seeing a book titled something like “Dr So and so Book of Trick Training for Horse.” I had ordered it – a yellow paperback booklet with a drawing on the front of a gentleman in a ringmaster coat and a horse with his front feet on a wooden half-barrel. Apparently it got lost or discarded somewhere along the many moves in my life.

Frodo learned to do tricks quite quickly.

Frodo learned to do tricks quite quickly.

But when I finally got my first horse, Goldie, a palomino Half Arab, when I was 14 years old, trick training was one of the things I set out to do. Goldie was clever and that first summer I had nothing but him. No organized sports or activities like kids have now, no electronics. I realize that may be hard to imagine for some of you!

Not knowing anything about clicker training, operant conditioning or any of the behavior science we now have at our fingertips, I had a bunch of cut up carrots and my booklet. Looking back, I did a combination of luring and bridging. Goldie was a typical horse of the Arab persuasion – clever and a true quick study.

I started with “shake.” I would tap his lower leg with a crop lightly. As he moved his leg (sort of like responding to a fly landing on his skin) I would praise and treat. Once he moved the leg reliably on the cue of the crop touch, I started to grab the leg. Goldie picked up this idea quickly. Once he grasped the idea of picking the leg up in a forward motion, we were on it. I added the word “shake” and voila! A horse who would shake hands! Of course my blacksmith killed me on his first visit after we mastered this trick as Goldie kept trying to shake while he was working on him.

Goldie picked up other tricks. He would put his front feet up on a cut off stump. He would side pass with me standing by his shoulders. He would shake his head “yes” and “no.” He would bow. We lured that trick with treats held down between his front legs. He would give kisses. He would carry a basket by the handle.

On his own, Goldie had picked up some other tricks. He loved to snatch hats off people’s heads. He would steal anything you had hanging from a pocket. The blacksmith wasn’t fond of that trick either as Goldie would steal tools as he bent over. He also stole tools if my father was working around the shed.

Now fast forward many, many years. My daughter Kate decided to do operant conditioning for her science fair project. She took her Australian Shepherd, Tia; our goat, Zoom; her miniature horse, Frodo; and the older donkey, Sugar; to teach how to bow. She was armed with a clicker and Cheerios. Kate used a combination of shaping and luring. She wanted to see which animal learned fastest, had best retention, etc.

It was fun watching the progression. Tia learned quickly, but then she had had a great deal of training and this was a natural movement for her as well. Frodo also caught on quickly, too.

But Zoom was a real star – he took a bit of time to learn, but it stuck with him for years. Literally until he died if you gave him his cue he would bow. And then hassle you for his reward! Zoom would also perform rapidly and repeatedly – clearly expecting a treat every time.

Sugar the donkey took the longest to learn. She would study Kate, think about what was being asked, ponder it some more and eventually got the behavior. Once she learned it, she was 100% accurate on performing. Never done with much enthusiasm or speed, but very accurate.

While tricks are fun, they can also be useful. Goldie could actually carry some things for me. You could cue bends to either side or up and down as part of a physical therapy routine. If you have a horse who is stall confined, learning tricks can be mental stimulation and help to reduce stress.

There are many excellent books, DVDs and even seminars available now. Have you done any trick training with your equines? Share your experiences with us!