Schedule of Events:

The content will appear below these headings on the date, and you’ll also receive an email with the same information!

Getting Started

What is a trick?

Tricks are behaviours that we humans think are extra cute or silly or fun.

Horses don’t see the difference between tricks and “serious skills” so the only difference really is in how we approach teaching them – like they’re just for fun!

Now, imagine if we taught “serious skills” with that same approach – food for thought.

It’s all tricks to the horse!

Learning Time & Space

You don’t need a lot of space or anything fancy to start trick training. You just need a safe space for your horse where they won’t have any other horses “helping” them while they’re trying to learn.

It should be some place where your horse is comfortable. If they’re worried about leaving their friends, then having friends in sight is a good idea.

Since we’re going to be using food rewards, it’s a good idea for your horse not to have an empty tummy or they’ll be too focused on trying to get the food instead of learning. If your horse hasn’t had food available when you’d like to work with them, giving them time to eat some hay before you get started is a good idea.

Food Rewards

Your food you’re using to trick train your horse doesn’t need to be a “treat” – in fact, you’ll probably have better luck with something a bit less exciting. Using hay pellets, a bit of their usual feed ration, or a low carb/sugar kibble type feed is much better than a treat filled with oats and molasses. Especially so with a Miniature Horse, because so many commercial horse treats are BIG and they would take forever to eat one.

You can also use cut up bits of carrots, celery, or other vegetables, but it does need to be something that your horse likes. Many in my herd are not into carrots (others find them TOO exciting) so they wouldn’t be motivating for those horses who aren’t into them.

Something your horse likes, that’s easy to feed, and not SUPER DUPER exciting is the sweet spot for choosing a training reward. And the “right” option will change with individual horses.

Delivering Food Rewards

Carrying food rewards in a pocket or treat pouch makes them handy.

When you deliver the food, make sure you are making a nice sturdy table for your horse to eat off. If you are nervous about teeth, and draw back as the horse gets near, you’re actually encouraging your horse to get grabby, as they think they better act fast as the food is getting away from them. A nice flat, strong hand that stays still or even pushes up towards their muzzle is much less likely to create a grabby mouth that isn’t careful with their teeth.

If you really are worried about encounters with your horse’s teeth, it will also work to keep a feed dish nearby, and toss the reward into the dish rather than try to deliver the food by hand.

Bridge or Marker

Since we can’t necessarily feed the horse the second they give us the right answer, we use a bridge or marker signal to tell the horse YES that’s the second that you earned the food, and let them know that food is coming. It’s a really important part of the line of communication we are building with our horse.

I use the word GOOD, many use YES, you could use a clicker, or a tongue click, or any other sound that you can have readily available to you. And if you have a horse who is deaf? Then a hand signal or touch might be your marker.

It doesn’t matter what you use, just that you stay consistent so your horse knows they got the right answer and therefore food is coming.

BFF – Back of the Hand, Flip, Feed

Some horses come at you to get their food reward with a gaping maw, like they’re going to inhale your whole hand to the wrist.

We can teach these horses that they don’t need to come at you with teeth, and only use their lips to pick up the food, by using the BFF method.

When you offer them the feed, first close the food in a your hand and offer them the back of your fist. When their mouth closes, THEN flip your hand over and open to a flat palm, giving them that first table to take their reward. Usually they quickly realize that the gaping mouth approach doesn’t work, and you can always remind them but reverting to this method as needed.

Keep it Short

We want to keep training sessions very short and rewarding for our horses. Even just two or three minutes is probably lots at first, and even by the end of the month when you have 10 new behaviours to practice, don’t work for longer than 10 minutes – I will even sometimes set a timer for myself, if I’m finding I’m getting too focused, and when that timer goes off after 10 minutes, then I quit, whether it’s going good or bad, because my horse’s brain is probably tired and it’s time to quit.

You can work every day, or even a couple times a day, or work on your trick skills a couple times in a training session while breaking it up with other things in between, but avoid drilling no matter what. We want tricks to be as fun for our horse as they are for us, and a big part of that is ensuring we’re keeping everything simple and fun and rewarding, not repeating it over and over until it’s perfect but we’ve sucked all the joy out of it.

You certainly don’t need to expect to master every trick first try, or before the next trick tutorial comes out. You can continue to build the skills by practicing each trick throughout the month as you add new skills. Some tricks your horse will have an aptitude for, and they’ll catch on in no time and be eager each day to show off that skill. Other tricks you’ll just work on a little each session, and gradually get better and better. All if it is a win!

April 1st: Be Polite

Be Polite is the term I use for a neutral behaviour – basically, standing quietly at your side, not touching you.

Other trainers call it “manners” or “the grownups are talking” but Be Polite is what makes sense to me.

Is it technically a trick? Well, if we start debating what is or isn’t a trick we might never get any actual training done!

Be Polite is a very important behaviour, and for those who have never used food rewards to train before, it’s a critical component of your success. Don’t be like me and teach a rear first, because then that’ll be what your horse chooses to offer first always and forever. Teaching your horse that a calm neutral behaviour is going to be reinforcing for them is definitely the right way to go!

It’s easy to teach too. All you need to do is be calm and neutral first.

This is actually easier to teach if your horse is already a bit of a cookie monster.

Simply stand next to your horse in a leading position, and ignore all their nosing at you and pulling on your pocket. If you need to, place your hand or arm over your pocket/treat pouch to block the opening, but don’t do anything else. Ignore everything, until your horse loses interest and removes their nose from you.

Then say GOOD! (Or YES or click or whatever you’re going to use as a marker signal to tell your horse they got the right answer and the treat is coming)

And immediately feed them.

When you feed, make sure you’re feeding them where you’re like their nose to stay – away from your body.

If you can be quite quick, and bridge (GOOD) and reinforce (feed) again before they reach back to you, that’s perfect.

Usually it only takes one or two repetitions before they deliberately put their nose NOT on you and look at you sideways like “this is what you like?” and then you feed them again so they know YES that is what you like!

It’s the cutest expression ever, so yeah, it’s an important foundation behaviour for using food rewards, for building on future tricks, but also CUTE so I think that makes it a trick all on it’s own!

Once they are getting it, you can begin to put it “on cue” so you can add a verbal cue of Be Polite, so you have that tool available to put them in that default position.

It can be easy to get into a chain of behaviours where the horse pokes you with his nose, you say Be Polite, he moves his nose away and you feed him. Instead, ignore the poke, wait for the nose to go away, THEN say Be Polite, and reinforce, so that he’s clear that poking you isn’t needed as part of the behaviour to get the reinforcement.

Wherever his head is when you mark and reinforce is where he’ll put his head, so you can play with that to whatever you’re comfortable with. Some want to be very exaggerated turning their head away, which might not be ideal if one of your future goals is a balanced school halt for in hand dressage schooling, but is super adorable if you’re going to be doing therapy work and putting on a little demo for the local seniors home. It’s up to you, but if you’re aware of where their head is when you bridge and feed, you can shape their posture.

April 3rd: 

April 4th: Target Training

When I first saw someone teaching their horse to touch a target, I didn’t get it. I figured probably I could teach it, but I didn’t see the benefit. But then I saw someone using a target to then teach a horse to load into a trailer, and suddenly the lightbulb went on.

Not only is touching a target a fun trick, it’s a super useful skill that you can use to teach other behaviours (both frivolous and necessary), and a tool that helps refocus an anxious horse in all sorts of situations.

I recommend a target on a stick of some sort to start with, so a dollar store duster, an old riding crop, a tennis ball duct taped to the end of a branch, those magnet ball things people use to help line up their trailer hitch … really, the possibilities are endless.

This skill is super easy to teach, because horses naturally explore new items with their nose. For most horses, you’ll simply have to hold out your target within easy reach of your horse, use your bridge signal the second their nose touches it, and then reinforce with a food reward. After a few simple repetitions you can start moving the target to different heights and distances, so they have to reach down or to the side, and then out of reach so they have to move their feet to reach it.

Don’t make it harder every time, go back to simple touches, so that the horse stays motivated and continues to think this is a super fun and easy game.

That belief that touching a target is easy and rewarding is something that will be hugely beneficial in the future – if your horse sees something new and scary, and you ask them to target it, suddenly it will no longer be a scary thing, it will be a target and they already know targets are easy and very reinforcing. When you ask them to walk over a tarp, or into a trailer, and ask them to come touch a target, it’s no longer a scary new situation, it’s a fun target game.

And we’ll use a target later this month to teach other tricks too!

If you have a worried horse, or one who has a history of the more traditional use of sticks and crops, then you may have to start a little slower. Some ideas to help a nervous or reluctant horse are:

  • Move your hand closer to the end of the target, to shorten the stick
  • Keep the target lower to the ground, sometimes even crouching yourself makes them feel braver
  • Work in protective contact, a barrier between you and your horse will often give them confidence and make them more able to engage with something new.
  • Bridge and reinforce for any movement towards the target, building more slowly to actually touching it while rewarding even the smallest effort.

If you have an interest in getting your trick title through Do More With Your Dog, then there are at least 3 separate targeting tricks you can do towards your Novice level.

Initially, the cue your horse will be going off will be the presence of the target. Once you have a solid loop of present target – horse touches target – reward then you can introduce a verbal cue of “Target” or “Touch” before the horse touches the target, which will help when start generalizing the target skill to other items in the future.

Don’t drill with the target – we want to keep it exciting! A few easy touches, interspersed with a few more challenging ones, then call it a day.

April 7th: Step on a Pedestal

You don’t need to have a “real” pedestal to start training this trick, just be sure that whatever you use is safe and sturdy. I’ve used a nice tight bale of hay (which is something most of us already have around the barn), reinforced pallets, wooden boxes, old wash basins, etc.

Start by placing the pedestal on a safe, level surface, and standing on it yourself. Assess if it feels stable or tippy – if it’s not stable for you, make adjustments so that it is. Barn floors, for example, are not always known for their level surfaces, so moving your pedestal around might make a big difference in how stable it feels.

If you don’t feel like you have something that is properly safe for your horse, don’t use it. If it tips or there is any chance that they’ll get hurt or scared, then it’s not worth the risk. You can instead do all the same steps with a foam mat, square of plywood, or other small ground level “pedestal” until you have something that feels safe to you.

When you introduce your horse to the pedestal, start by treating like a target, and reinforce them for touching it with their nose. Don’t repeat this more than twice, unless they’re super worried about it, as you might get stuck with them touching it with their nose, when we really want to quickly move on to touching it with a foot.

Then stand on it yourself again. Horses are natural mimics – their survival in nature depended on the herd acting as one, they naturally mirror what they see, and since we’ve already established that their behaviour is earning food, they are keen to figure out which behaviour and are likely to watch and do as you do.

Use a target or lure to ask them to step towards, and hopefully, onto the pedestal with their front feet. Reward any effort in the right direction, and make a big deal when they do pick one foot up and bang it on top, which is usually the starting point. Try to feed with the foot up, so it stays there, and then ask them to move forward again, hopefully bringing up the second foot.

In many cases, it’s just that easy.

Feed them as long as they stay on the pedestal. The position of standing with their feet up is naturally reinforcing for most horses – it’s a nice stretch and fun for them to see their familiar space from a different angle.

Direct them down carefully, I recommend backing off for safety, and then be sure to reinforce getting off as well. While we do want the pedestal to be reinforcing for them, we also don’t want it to be SO reinforcing that we can’t get them off when we need too. 😉

If your horse is reluctant to just step on while following your direction or a target, and they’re comfortable having their feet handled, then it’s perfectly okay to carefully pick up one front foot and set it on top to show. Reward that effort too! And don’t try to “hold” their foot there, if they take it down, just pick up the other one, and show them that foot can touch the top of the target too. Usually it’s the moment you least expect it that they will pop up with both front feet, be ready with their reinforcement when they do! And make sure you don’t run out of food rewards before you ask them to get down again, so that getting down also gets a treat.

If you are struggling, reinforce standing near the pedestal, hitting it even on the sides with a foot, moving towards it. If you get into a cycle of circling, then go back to reinforcing standing still near the pedestal.

Miniature Horses LOVE to step up and be tall in my experience, and this is a fun one to take a photo of and share with your friends and family!

April 10th: Spin + Zoom Q&A Meeting

If your horse is comfortable touching the target, AND will move their feet in order to touch the target, then they’re ready to start learning to spin.

You may need to adjust your target before attempting a spin, depending on how long your target stick is, how tall you are, and how tall your horse is. We’re going to use our target and arm extended to direct our horse to spin away from us and return to face us again, so we do need to have enough reach to do that.

I find it’s easier for me (as a right handed human standing facing my horse) to start the spin to the horse’s left. Ask the horse to follow the target back along their own side and as they turn to reach it bring them back towards you.

BUT horses also have one side that’s easier for them, just like we do, so start by asking them to bend towards the target both ways and see which is their “good” side, and start teaching the spin that direction first.

With a horse who is very keen to follow the target and move their feet you can probably get a full spin very quickly. With others, you’ll need to take it in baby steps. The first big step to reinforce is when they move their hind end out of the way in order to reach far enough around to touch the target – bridge and reinforce that step, and three repetitions is a good number, it’s enough to make sure they know that the big step is what you like, and not so many that you’ll get “stuck” there, though of course every horse is a “study of one” as Dr. Susan Friedman always says!

Once you get that big step, you can take a step forward yourself, along your horse’s opposite side (opposite from the side where you directed them with the target), give your bridge signal, and offer the food so that the horse completes the rest of the spin – or maybe, just 3/4s of a full spin at first – in order to come up to get their food reward. We are using “feed for position” in order to complete the movement.

Once the spin is repeatable following the target, you can begin to phase it out – you may need to get them started with the target at first, but once they get more familiarity with the behaviour you should be able to get it with just a verbal cue and hand gesture, or whatever cue you come up with.

Teach it both directions, teach them to spin from standing next to you, practice so you can spin away from them at the same time like you’re dancing, and it works very well on the other side of a fence (in protective contact) too.

April 13: Liberty Leading

By the time you’ve worked through the previous tricks, your horse will already know that you are a very reinforcing human to be around, so odds are when you start working with them at liberty (if you haven’t already naturally!) they’re going be happy to stick with you and stay engaged.

To be safe, always start with liberty work in a smaller, safe area where your horse is comfortable. If it is brand new to them to work with a human without a halter and lead, then I recommend leaving the halter and lead rope on, and start by draping the lead over their back, so it’s still easily used if needed, should they get into any trouble, but we can start training ourselves to stop relying on it.

The important thing is that if they DO wander off to explore instead of staying with you, that you just plain let them.

The value of working at liberty is that the horse has the choice to leave you, and still chooses to stay. But that can’t happen if you don’t let them choose.

Let them walk away, explore the space, clean up the grass at the fenceline, whatever. And then call them, ask them to touch the target, and make sure they know how valuable it is when they DO decide to come back to play with you.

Start by reinforcing just coming to you, usually when you walk they’ll lag a bit and then come, so you can reinforce just walking to you again. Once they start to catch on you can reinforce walking when you walk, and especially watch for the moments when they’re walking with you and you feel like a team.

Be sure that you’re marking the movement, because that’s what we want, and then you can stop to feed. You will also want to practice stopping together, but make sure you don’t only mark and reward the whoa’s, or you won’t get any go’s.

If you need to refine your horse’s position, the target is great tool to help guide them.

And once you’ve got walking together, try trotting, weaving, and eventually, larger spaces!

April 16th: Spanish Walk/High Five

April 17th: Zoom Q&A Meeting

April 19th: Simple Bow

April 22nd: Kiss

April 24th: Zoom Q&A Meeting

April 25th: Handsfree Sidepass

April 28th: Smile

April 30th: Kendra’s Birthday! Send her a trick photo or video! 😉

May 1: Zoom Wrap Up and Future Trick Brainstorming!

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