Grooming and riding are important, but horses like to have a little fun, too. You can take your relationship with your horse to another level by teaching him tricks and games that keep him interested and break up the routine of training for competition. In addition to increasing the bond you have with your horse–not to mention impressing your friends–trick training is likely to help you perform better as a team, whatever your discipline.
Author Bea Borelle takes you step-by-step through more than 25 tricks, including bowing, kneeling, sitting and lying down. Each lesson has a helpful “In Brief” box that includes Starting Point, End Goal, Body Language, Voice Command, Repetitions, Equipment, Training Area, Preparation and To End the Exercise.
Borelle, trained in classic riding by Richard Hinrichs and her husband Philippe Karl, encourages handlers and riders to always have fun with their horses, regardless of the pressures of training and competition.
Trick Training for Horses, by Bea Borelle with Gudrun Braun, is a 138-page paperback with 152 color photos. Published by Trafalgar Square Books of Pomfret, VT, the book is available from HorseBooksEtc.com for $22.95 plus shipping and handling.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, without images:
Classic Trick Basics
In this chapter I provide instructions for the horse tricks most of us are familiar with—ones we’ve seen on television, in movies, and in live performances. These are exercises that you surely expect to find in a book about trick training for horses, and therefore, I would like to accommodate you. I know that there are other resources available detailing these tricks, which I do recommend you read and view as well, if you want to explore this subject further. There are two systems of progression from which the individual classic tricks can be developed.
Plié or One-Legged Bow, leads to > Kneeling, leads to > Lying Down, leads to > Sitting
One-Legged Bow, leads to > Lying Down, leads to > Sitting
For simplicity’s sake I have explained all the tricks in this section from the left rein. Naturally, you can also work on the right side. Prior to working at liberty, I recommend using just a halter and lead rope or reins (if you need a connection on both sides of the horse’s head) as this offers the gentlest connection and the one that is most friendly to the horse’s mouth. If you attach reins to the halter, you can employ a stronger pull than you can with a bridle, if necessary. You can also use a longeing cavesson with side rings, if you prefer.
The Plié can help you develop the One- Legged Bow (see p. 103), but it is not a prerequisite for that trick. I leave it to you to decide whether to work on Plié or the One-Legged Bow first.
Note: It is prudent, and better for the horse, to warm him up before starting any of the tricks that require stretching, such as Plié, particularly in the winter or during cold, rainy weather.
Starting Point: Horse stands patiently.
End Goal: Horse stretches both front legs forward, steps both hind legs backward (parallel to one
another), lowers his chest, and curves his head over his extended forelegs. The horse may lower his
chest so far that it is within an inch of the ground.
Body Language: Stand at the horse’s side, aligned with and at a 90-degree angle to his belly.
Voice Command: “Plié,” or a command of your choice.
Repetitions: Two to three times each step, depending on the horse.
Equipment: Halter, set of reins, long whole carrots, whip.
Training Area: Arena or fenced-in area.
Preparation: The Statue (see p. 47).
To End the Exercise: Hold up the horse’s head to keep him in the Statue position, drive him energetically
forward, or summon the One-Legged Bow with a touch on the cannon bone of the leg that is to
be bent (see p. 103).
You will be amazed at how many details are involved in this exercise and how much time it takes to train it properly.
The Starting Point Begin on the left rein and halt your horse. Stand at your horse’s left side facing forward. Hold the halter with your left hand, while your right hand rests on your horse’s withers. (This provides helpful support to your horse during the little balancing act that follows.) You are going to tell your horse to move his forelegs far apart—this is necessary because in the next step your horse has to lower his head between his forelegs, and he needs room to do that. Bring your right foot forward between the horse’s front hooves and tap the inside of the horse’s left foot with it, right above the hoof, until your horse picks it up. “Pull” the left foot toward you with your right foot. Try to stay with the horse’s leg, even if he pulls it away, so that you can immediately pull it back toward you. Encourage him to set down that left foot and put weight on it by pulling the horse’s withers toward you. This shifts the horse’s balance to the left onto his left hoof. Why do I suggest that you use your foot to manipulate the horse’s foot, rather than your hand? Because you will use your hand when you practice the One-Legged Bow (see p. 103), and you should avoid having these two different tricks, and picking up the hoof for everyday cleaning, be too similar to one another. If you have trouble getting your horse to react to your foot cue, press your right arm against the horse’s belly so that he shifts his weight onto his right shoulder, then bend down and grasp his cannon with your left hand to suggest that he pick up his foot. Proceed as described earlier with your right foot “pulling” his left foot toward you. Reinforce this sequence with repetition.
2. In this step hold a long carrot in your right hand. Show your horse the carrot, but at first, do not let him take a bite. Instead, coax his head downward. Allow him to take his first bite when his muzzle is at pastern-level, and then another one when his muzzle is between his front hooves. Now reinforce this step with daily repetition, and introduce your vocal command, “Plié,” so that your horse becomes accustomed to it.
3. Coax your horse’s muzzle progressively further back between his legs. Continue to hold the carrot in your right hand, but now reach under his belly and only as far forward toward the forelegs as necessary. Encourage the horse to reach further back between his forelegs by holding the carrot perpendicular to his mouth so that he can feel it and touch it with his lips but cannot immediately bite off a piece. If your horse does not readily follow you down and backward to where your right hand waits, have two carrots ready: one in your left hand and one in your right. With your left hand, lure the horse down to where your right hand can reach. Still having problems? Try again just before morning or evening feeding time, when your horse is at his hungriest.
What? Your horse is never all that hungry? Rethink your feeding plan. (That is the short version of my at-least-15-minutes-long lecture on appropriate feeding to avoid fat bellies. Every one of my students can recite it from memory!)
4. The further back your horse follows your hand with his muzzle, the further back he must place his hind legs so that his chest can lower and his forelegs can stretch forward. Many repetitions will bring this about naturally.
What Does This Trick Have in Common with Riding?
Doing tricks well is exactly like riding well. I’m sure you are already aware of how many tiny details riding horses entails. Even when it is “only” circles or transitions or halting square, the details are what matter: tempo, balance, head/neck position, straightness, collection. You can’t get the big picture right if you don’t get the little things right first.
5. Stretching the Hind Legs If Step 4 does not come about of its own accord, you must help develop it. Halt your horse and touch his left hind leg with your whip right above the coronary band, while, with your left hand on the halter, you give him a very minute signal to move backward. Your horse should only move the left hind leg backward. Repeat and reinforce this. Do the same thing with the other hind leg (you can reach across with your whip so you don’t have to move to the other side of the horse) so that both hind legs are stretched out behind the horse. Come back to this step and repeat when necessary.
6. When your horse has fully grasped the idea of stretching his hind legs backward, connect this with the Plié movement. Hold the carrot in your left hand, between his front legs, to lure your horse’s mouth progressively further back, while touching his hind legs with the whip (held in your right hand). Repeat.
7. Condition your horse to lower himself into the Plié position by placing the palm of your hand on the point of his shoulder and pressing backward. Your horse will understand this signal if you connect it to something he already knows, so continue luring him backward with the carrot at the same time. The pressure on his shoulder, however, is only an interim signal. The actual signal for this trick should eventually be simply a touch with the whip under his belly. This allows you to work at a greater distance from the horse, which has a more elegant effect. (Note: A touch with the whip at the point of shoulder is too similar to the signal for Backing-Up or Spanish Walk.) How does your hand on the horse’s shoulder evolve into the ultimate cue for the Plié? You’ll use both signals at once: tapping under the belly with your whip while laying the flat of your left hand on the point of shoulder. Later, you can leave out the cue on the shoulder and only touch with the whip under the horse’s belly. Working from a distance also means you should start working your horse at liberty (remove the halter).
8. Remaining in Plié To persuade your horse to “hold” this position, you can encourage him with food, which you will gradually decrease as time goes by. Crouch beside your horse at a 90-degree angle to his belly. As long as you are crouching and giving the whip or hand signal, your horse should remain in position. Reward him. Keep your horse down for only a short time at first and gradually lengthen the duration.
9. Ending the Exercise It is important that the horse rises on your command and that you anticipate him—in other words, if you sense he is about to get up, you should give him the cue to do so. Say, “And up!” and stand up yourself, then take a small step forward.
10. Adjusting Head Position How do you perfect the Plié and get your horse to hold his head freely over his outstretched forelegs? As you coax your horse’s muzzle backward and downward with the carrot, tap him on his belly with it—you’re saying: “Hello, the carrot is over here.” When you have practiced this a few times and your horse reliably and consistently lowers his chest at a tap on his belly, use your right hand to give the signal, but hold the carrot in your left hand. This allows you to adjust the position of the carrot—and thus his head—over his outstretched forelegs.
Note: As a rule, this trick takes months to achieve.