Positive reinforcement is an ethical training methodology that can help horses that lack self-confidence or willingness to benefit from an exciting learning experience, while building a stronger relationship with their human!
Horses are intelligent and emotional animals that can learn new tricks easily. For each trick, make sure to use repetition, consistency, and reward (positive reinforcement). At the beginning, reward each small step before asking for more, and keep sessions short (between 5-15min) to prevent your horse from losing patience and disengaging. Don’t forget to have fun and take it one step at a time!
- Teach Your Horse to Bow:
Teaching your horse to bow is a great way to build trust and confidence with your horse. The aim is to have your horse kneeling on one leg while lowering his head to the ground. Use a halter and a lead rope to facilitate this trick.
- Stand beside your horse at the level of his shoulder while facing the same direction. Once he is calm and attentive, take a treat and encourage your horse to lower his head by gradually bringing the treat down to the ground. You can encourage your horse to move his head down with your lead rope, by passing it between his front legs and gently pulling on it while offering the treat.
- Reward with a treat as your horse reaches further down with his head. If your horse tries to back up to reach the treat, do not give him the treat and instead ask him to remain still.
- Eventually, your horse should begin to naturally put one leg out in front and bend his knee in an attempt to reach the treat further back. Make sure to reward this effort before asking for more.
- Repeat steps above until it becomes more comfortable and natural for your horse to kneel, rewarding each effort in the right direction.
- Teach Your Horse to Lift a Leg:
For this trick, ensure that your horse is desensitized to your crop, which will be used as a gentle aid and extension of your hand.
- Lightly tap just below your horse’s knee with the crop while saying a cue word, such as ‘lift!’.
- Your horse will eventually react to the crop stimulus by moving or lifting his leg. Reward with a treat and gently lift your horse’s leg forward by gripping above the knee.
- Repeat the steps above until your horse associates the crop stimulus with the cue word and desired outcome. You can accompany your horse by lifting your own leg at the same time.
Eventually, your horse will lift his leg when you lift yours and say “lift”. You can also replace the crop by touching or tapping your horse’s leg with your hand, so he knows to be attentive to your cues.
- Teach Your Horse to Smile:
Teaching your horse to smile can be a fantastic way to engage his mind, build trust, and promote relaxation. The trick is to get your horse to extend his neck, lift his upper lip and show his teeth.
- Start the exercise by holding a treat over your horse’s nose and upper lip. You can get him to wiggle his nose and lift his upper lip by gently tapping it with your index finger.
- Anytime you get your horse to wiggle the nose, even for a little bit, you must reward with a treat. You can associate this to a verbal cue by saying “smile” while pointing up with your finger.
- Repeat and each time, try to get your horse to roll back his upper lip a little more before giving the treat. Then, repeat until your horse is conditioned to simply roll back his upper lip upon hearing the cue word!
Teaching your horse simple tricks will make him trust you and become more engaged in and out of the saddle. A few easy tricks can go a long way in helping you build a stronger relationship with your horse and impressing your barn friends along the way!