Why You Should Teach Your Miniature Horse Tricks

It’s easy to dismiss trick training as silly fun (which it definitely is!), or a waste of time (which it definitely isn’t!), but trick training can both be an unbeatable “team building” exercise and a valuable tool towards other skills.

We had a foal born we named Hawk. He was definitely different – not curious about human contact at all, which meant everything was more difficult with him. Despite infinitely more time spent with him, by the time he was two years old he was far behind his brothers, nearly impossible to lead, brush or handle his feet.

With a lot of time and perseverance (and no small amount of blood, sweat and tears), Hawk gradually became accustomed to handling and learned to become a competent driving horse.

I still never had the feeling, however, that he enjoyed anything we did together. He wasn’t unwilling, but he was definitely not engaged, and since my previous driving horse LOVED to drive, I really wanted that partnership again.

I taught Hawk his first trick, rearing, sort of on a whim. He was a natural athlete, and would stand on his hind legs and bang the gate with his front feet to tell us it was time to put him outside (it was always time, in Hawk’s opinion), so he already had the musculature to perform the trick, and it was quite easy to implement a cue and reward to reinforce the behaviour when asked for (and not when it wasn’t.) 😉

Right away I noticed he was more engaged, and taught him to shake his head and nod on command, which he learned in about 5 minutes. I really enjoyed asking him, “Are you cute?” and having him shake his head no, only to nod yes to the next question, “Are you handsome?” He got so cued to the word “cute” that he would shake his head when people walked up to him and said, “Oh, aren’t you cute!”, which more than once resulted in a retort of, “Yes you are!” from the well meaning stranger.

After that it was bowing, Spanish walk, waving and painting, but while we had lots of fun, the tricks themselves aren’t the important part of the story.

For the first time in his life, Hawk began to demonstrate a personality. Horsinality?

He was engaged in what we were doing, and not just in the tricks, but in everything we did.

He had more confidence. Rather than simply doing what I asked, he was comfortable enough to put his own spin on things, to lean towards a cones course, to be bouncing around at the start of the marathon, to take matters into his own hands and decide to jump a cone when we had a difference of opinion on which direction to drive around it.

Those may sound naughty, but they’re not. I don’t want an automaton, I want a partner; one with a sparkle in his eye, who is as invested in what we’re doing as I am, and who isn’t afraid to tell me what he thinks. The old Hawk wouldn’t have noticed the cones course. He wouldn’t care where we were driving, and probably would run right over the cone.

Trick training showed Hawk how to have fun, and it turned us into a team, working together at everything we did.

I’ve taught tricks to a number of other horses since then. There’s Finnegan, who taught himself to nod because he figured out how Hawk got treats. Frankie and Johnnie, who learned to target, which has been a huge benefit in getting those two precocious youngsters through all kinds of real life challenges, like halter breaking, and trailer loading, and clipping. Frankie nickers on command – which is adorable – and Johnnie spins in a circle and does obstacles by remote control. Rocky gives kisses and loves to stand on a pedestal.

One of the reasons that trick training can make such a difference in the engagement and partnership, is that tricks are usually taught using some degree of positive reinforcement. In learning theory, positive reinforcement is the adding of a reward to reinforce the desired behaviour. Most horse training is traditionally negative reinforcement – that is, something is removed to reinforce the behaviour instead of added. This is the classic pressure and release method of training; a stimulus is applied and the correct response is marked by the release of the pressure.

Science shows that a skill learned through positive reinforcement is not only more firmly remembered, but the positive emotions associated with the reward as forever associated with the skill learned, so that it the behaviour itself becomes reinforcing. Through teaching tricks, we can make use of the science behind positive reinforcement – even if we don’t know anything about it, like I didn’t when I taught Hawk the tricks that would change our relationship.

Winter is a great time to teach tricks, as you don’t need good footing or warm weather or an indoor space. I taught Frankie to nicker while I fed him his breakfast each day, adding only 30 seconds of time – and WAY more enjoyment – to my morning chores.

My challenge to you this January, is to teach your horse a trick!

For members of our private community, below you’ll find a step by step tutorial to teach a simple bow … with the added bonus that it’s a fabulous topline stretch for your horse! Make sure you’re logged in to see it!

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6 thoughts on “Why You Should Teach Your Miniature Horse Tricks”

  1. Love your comments about learning theory – that needs to see a big uptake by the equine community.
    And…Johnny is lovely!

  2. That’s a neat story about Hawk. He just wanted to have a two-way conversation, it seems, and be listened to!

  3. If you have a “mouthy” horse who gets quite pushy wanting treats, what is the strategy you use to prevent the search for treats when treats are not part of the plan yet still use treats as the reward when teaching?

    1. Johnnie, and his brother Frankie (who is a two year old stallion) were actually more mouthy before I started teaching them targeting and tricks, I believe because they learned that they get tricks in response to a behaviour, not for mobbing me or pulling at my pockets. I am pretty careful with them (this bow notwithstanding) to always as them to target my hand before they get even a “free” cookie, and it really seems to keep them from getting bitey. In fact, I should’ve taken the time to track down my target for this trick, I think it would’ve kept Johnnie a little more focused and less excited about the treats.

      If you watch the videos in the group, Melinda has taught her horses to turn their heads away in order to get a cookie, which is definitely going to keep them very polite.

      A third option – I have a mare, Priscilla, who I love, but she is super strong, super bold and super pushy … all traits that are going to make her an awesome driving horse, but are decidedly less desirable in general handling. The ONLY way that Priscilla ever gets a cookie is off the ground or out of a dish – which can still be used as a reward, I simply toss the cookie into the dish for her. But cookies from my hand, ever, turn her into a cookie monster and I swear if I turned my back she’d knock me over just to see if cookies fall out. 😉 When I teach her this stretch, and the other carrot stretches I like to do with my driving horses, I’ll do it with her following a target and getting her treat out of a dish after the stretch.

      1. Just joined the group and taking the driving course. After watching the videos, I started at the beginning of your posts so I won’t miss anything.

        My new harness arrived a few days ago and I am awaiting delivery of a Hyperbike. My horse is an experienced green driver, so I went straight to practicing ground driving. I am very happy to have learned so much about harnesses from your videos. He likes the new Mullen mouth bit much better than the broken snaffle he had.

        This morning, I introduced walking over a blue tarp to him (with no harness) and my big horse. Little Scout must have done this with his previous owner because he was a champ. Mr. Big? Not so much. When we were done, Scout planted his feet and refused to go back in the barn, so we went out and did some more. He loves obstacles! I hope this bodes well for road and trail driving. I can’t wait to try more obstacles and some tricks. Evidently, doing stuff is fun!

        My big horse, Matrix, refused to cross the tarp, even for treats, until Scout led the way. 🙂

        Matrix was very naughty about the treats for today’s training, so I will try your suggestions. (Morgans are famous for being greedy.) Scout got the hint about not grabbing when I pushed his nose away several times.

        1. I love that Scout helped your biggie learn the tarp was okay! It’s amazing how well a confident example will help!

          I find the best approach to a cookie grabber is to ignore them until they take their nose off you and turn away, then praise and reward. They’ll pretty quickly figure out that being polite is a better way to get a treat than mugging you for one.

          There’s more info on teaching them to be polite around food rewards in this video:https://classroom.miniaturehorsemanship.com/barn-aisle-power-positive-reinforcement/

          I hope it’s helpful!

          Kendra

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