Many years ago, I encountered a quirky little palomino school horse that reared whenever a beginner tapped him on the shoulder with a riding crop. Many entry-level riders on our college equestrian team had learned to ride elsewhere and had learned to tap the shoulder first, rather than behind the girth. But tapping this horse on the shoulder could result in a sudden fall. He'd rear so quickly you'd need glue to stay in the saddle.
A local trainer of my acquaintance recently got a phone call from a woman who was frantic to find someone to help her with a similar quirky horse. The lady had bought a young paint at auction and found the horse would do all sorts of frightening, dangerous moves for no apparent reason. The young paint reared at the sound of clapping, stomped his front right hoof when he heard a cough and would snap at people who passed his stall door.
In both cases, it took some detective work to realize that each horse had been trained to behave in that fashion. Both horses had been raised by owners who thought it "cute" to teach their foals tricks.
The problem with teaching young foals tricks like this is that tiny foals grow into big, dangerous animals. What's cute in a foal or a yearling can results in injuries to unsuspecting people later on when a fully grown, 16 hand horse decides to "count" by stomping his hoof or rear when he's touched on the shoulder.
And while you may think that you'll always own that precious foal, the unexpected happens. You may be forced to sell the horse later on. Will the new owner understand and appreciate the tricks you've taught your horse? Will he remember to tell subsequent purchasers the myriad cues you've taught your horse?
Tricks that are dangerous to teach horses include...
- Rearing on command, as in the case of the school horse in my first example.
- Biting or snatching at food, clothing or equipment. Encouraging biting is never a good idea!
- Laying down on command. The last thing you want a horse to do is suddenly lay down when a rider is astride. If he rolls, he could seriously injure his rider.
Although some training guides offer advice on how to teach a horse simple tricks, such as giving a kiss, certain animals should never be encouraged to perform this trick. Horses that are naturally mouthy may get over-anxious or overly enthusiastic when learning to give kisses, and learn to bite instead.
Good Tricks to Teach Your Horses
Instead of focusing on special tricks, why not bond with your horse while teaching him better ground manners? The same techniques of stimulus and reward that are used to teach potentially dangeous tricks can be used to train your horse for safe and useful tasks. A few useful and helpful tricks for horses to learn include:
- Standing quietly without being tied to a post or cross ties.
- Backing up on voice command.
- Following you while at liberty (without halter, lead or bridle).
Horse owners love their horses and want to bond with them. It's naturally to want to train your horse to do something cute and funny. But unless you can train your horse to perform a safe and harmless trick, don't confuse him with conflicting messages. Teaching a horse to snatch a ball cap off of someone's head yet yelling at him when he gets mouthy when people pass his stall only confuses him, and can lead to safety issues. Spend that time bonding with your horse over safe, simple, and useful exercises and training tasks that will make you a stronger team and your rides together more enjoyable.
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