Trick Training

Trick training’s got a bad name.

Horsemen are always saying that they want their horses to learn useful things. Yes, I do too. But what is a trick?

Trick – a skillful act performed for entertainment or amusement.

                                                         – from Apple’s Dictionary

Alright. Let’s go with that definition (even though I think it’s a bit narrow).

How about bowing? Yes, that’s a trick. No, it doesn’t really have a purpose. Hey wait! It does! It can make it easier to mount a large horse. It can be used as a stretch for a stiff horse. And it is good practice for the trainer too, learning how to communicate accurately with the horse.

Alright. Bowing is a useful trick.

What about the dime (having the horse put all four feet together underneath his body)? Can’t see much use in that, can we? But again, horses than know the dime can mostly always be taught collection easier because they already have the muscle mass required to lift their back and draw their back legs underneath themselves.

The dime is useful too.

How about moving over to the mounting block to allow you to get on? I don’t think I have to work too hard to prove that this one is useful.

One more – how about willingly allowing a predator to climb onto his back? Let’s take that one step further and say we want to teach our horse to allow a predator onto his back and then walk, trot, and canter calmly with the predator stuck there? What, riding a horse is not a skillful act? I think it sure is.

What do horses do when a predator leaps onto them? They buck. They kick. They run. They do everything they can to get the thing off so they can live another day. Riding him is a pretty big trick to teach your horse, and one we use all the time.

So in defence of trick training, all horse training can be viewed as trick training. Some tricks that don’t seem to have any other purpose are simply for training practice on the part of the handler. That’s how I use tricks.

When I don’t have the available time to drive out and spend time training a horse to work better under saddle, I revert to ‘tricks’.

Yesterday I was starting to work on a bow with Jamileh, and I had just been working on the left side, out of habit, I suppose. Well, I went to the right side just to try it, and on the first try I almost got a whole bow with no fuss.

So in your training, whether it is considered ‘trick training’ or no, do things from both sides. One side may be easier for your horse, and muscles will be built up that will allow him to do the other side easier afterwards.

Happy training!

The Horsegentler



I have noticed a marked difference between ranch horses and performance horses. Compare these two word pictures:

  1. A dressage rider is leading his big warmblood down the barn isle. The animal is tacked and ready to go into the ring for practice. In the saddle, he does everything perfectly, thanks to the expensive trainer, but recently he has been a real pain on the ground. Now, as he is led to the ring, he seems to deliberately walk on his rider. He pushes his master almost into the stalls on the other side of the isle and refuses to go back where he should. When the rider finally succeeds in correcting him, he throws up his head and makes a big fuss, prancing. The rider has tried everything to calm his horse down – a custom saddle and bridle, special feed, and even supplements and medications. Nothing has helped. The trainer assures him this is normal.
  2. A big warmblood stands quietly tied to the trailer. He is saddled and ready for the day’s work. His saddle is the same saddle his rider uses for all the horses he rides. It fits, but it is by no means custom. For food, he grazes and receives a treat of oats when he comes into the pen every morning. His rider unties him and walks towards the gate. The horse follows behind at a polite distance, stopping when his rider stops to open the gate.

Which horse would you want to ride? The professionally trained horse that only has experience with a rider in the saddle and is spooky and disrespectful, or a horse of the same breed and temperament that can and will do anything his rider asks? A horse that is respectful and willing can still compete to high levels – perhaps even higher than the ill-mannered one. It just depends on the training.