Ask and reward
One of the most important aspects to look at is the type of personality your horse has and figuring out what incentive will work best for him. Now, you may be asking what different kinds of incentives or rewards there are. The answer is basically anything that your horse enjoys and sees as a reward. This can come in the form of treats, affection, verbal praise or free time. Treats, affection and verbal praise are the most well-known forms of praise and it’s pretty clear why horses would see those as rewards. The other form of praise – free time – is far less used because it is not understood well by most people. This method works well for horses who get pushy and boisterous around food. I personally never used this method until I got my current horse, who is by nature bargy around food, but now I use it to some extent for most horses I work with.
The basic concept is when you ask something of your horse and they do what you ask, you reward them by giving them free time to themselves to do what they want. I normally just give about a minute or so, but even a small break like that where your horse can just happily be himself is a very good incentive. After repeating this a few times your horse will also figure out that the more quickly he responds correctly to your cue or aid (yes, this method also works wonders under saddle for schooling work), the more free time he gets to himself. This method works very well for most horse personalities. The extrovert, boisterous horses learn to respect you and your wishes in order to get free time, and the introvert, nervous horses learn that they can relax and something isn’t always being asked of them.
Draw the line
Something important to think about in terms of incentives is not rewarding your horse for the wrong thing. Many people will reward their horse for performing a trick even if they weren’t asked to do it because ‘it’s so cute’ and ‘look how much he loves this trick!’. It’s imperative not to reward a horse for performing a trick without being asked, no matter how well they did it. It will only encourage bad behaviour and teach the horse how to ‘beg’ (by performing tricks on his own accord).
Choosing a training environment
The next aspect to look at is the environment in which to trick train. The space needed will depend on the trick you are teaching, but as a general rule of thumb it should always be an enclosed area, such as a stable, lunge arena or fenced arena, so that if your horse gets away from you he can’t hurt himself. Some people also use a paddock, but I prefer to try steer away from the paddock because to a horse this should be seen as his place to relax and do what he wants with no demands asked of him – it’s their equivalent of lounging on the couch in front of the TV.
Follow the steps
I think of training a new trick as a process of steps. Learning how to recognise this process will help a great deal with teaching tricks effectively and quickly.
- Find out what naturally induces a behaviour similar to the trick you want to teach.
- Repeat. Repeat. By repeatedly asking your horse to perform the behaviour or action, you are making him associate the request from you with a specific outcome (the trick) instead of just reacting to a stimulus out of instinct.
- Cue phasing. It’s not always practical to use the initial cue you use to ask for the behaviour. You want a cue that is seamless and works well in any situation. It’s a good idea to use a cue that is unusual human behaviour so that your horse doesn’t get confused by somebody accidentally asking them to do a trick if the person uses that action, such as waving or pointing.
- Perfecting the trick. Again, this process depends on the trick. It may be asking your horse to hold a leg higher, or hold a position for longer, or use a bigger movement. I use selective rewarding for this. To put it simply, I will only reward attempts of the trick that are better than the last one. This teaches your horse that the more effort he puts in, the more reward he gets out, and thus the trick is perfected.
First you need to teach your horse how to lift his leg on command with a certain touch. I like to teach this with a dressage whip or carrot stick because it allows you to touch his leg very gently from a distance so that you can avoid being in the way of his leg as he lifts it. Most horses will naturally lift their legs if they are touched with something they’re not used to, so this trick shouldn’t be too hard to teach.
- Touch his leg with the crop. I find it most effective to touch on the outside of the horse’s leg, just below the knee.
- When your horse lifts his leg, even if it is just a few centimetres initially, stop tapping and give him a reward.
- Repeat the process a few times until your horse knows what is being asked, instead of just doing it ‘by mistake’.
- Phase in a cue. I taught my horse to respond to me ‘pawing’ with one of my legs as it leaves my hands free for other things. It’s also an unusual human behaviour, so the chances of my horse being asked to paw accidentally are very low.
- Perfect the paw by asking your horse to do it higher and higher. You can also teach your horse to lift a specific leg when asked.
Your horse needs to first learn how to paw on command before learning this. The Spanish walk is commonly taught by riders who want to help their horses free their shoulder movement more.
- Ask your horse to paw with one leg.
- As he paws, ask him to walk forwards (use a halter or bridle for this).
- As he puts his pawing foot down and lifts his opposite leg to walk, ask him to paw with the lifting leg. Repeat this over and over. Initially he will be very confused and it might be an idea to get him to walk very slowly to allow him time to figure it all out in his head. Many horses also won’t have the co-ordination initially to step high and even with each step and they may slip a few normal steps in. Don’t worry about it as they just need to repeat the action over and over to figure out where to put their legs.
- Phase in a cue. Since my horse learned to paw when I paw with my leg, I taught him to Spanish walk when I walk with my legs out high, almost like a soldier’s march. Again, this works well as it is a very unusual human behaviour … and on top of that it is also really cute to see a horse ‘marching’ with his owner alongside.
The full article and other tricks appear in the October issue of HQ (115).
Text: Amy Blair