As prey animals, horses are very aware of their surroundings. They know what and who should be where and when. They alert on changes, and if concerned, they will almost always run.
If you are lucky, your horse is one of the few “bombproof” equines, but typically horses range from solid citizens to always spooky. You can help your worried horse handle new or frightening (at least to him) situations through Fear Free handling and some tricks. After all, someone may leave the wheelbarrow on the right side of the barn aisle instead of the left side some morning!
Horses love to learn. Since most of them don’t have the luxury of living in a large field 24/7 with compatible companions, they get bored. Teaching tricks provides mental stimulation. In addition, performing a trick can help to calm your horse.
If you show your horse, think how nervous you are before you enter the ring. Yet once you are in the ring, you need to concentrate on performing and many of those nerves go away. The same can happen if your horse is asked to perform a trick he knows well and enjoys when he is in a stressful situation. Concentrating on and performing the trick takes his mind off his worries.
There are many excellent books and DVDs on trick training. Most tricks start with luring or shaping. Luring means you use a reward (generally a treat) to get your horse to perform a certain action—such as holding a treat from behind and through his front legs to get him to bring his head down.
Shaping is used when you wait and observe, then mark a movement or behavior you want to encourage. Shaping takes planning, good observation skills, and patience but can lead to solid behaviors. Once your horse reliably performs the desired action, you can add in a distinct cue or prompt, which may or may not be verbal, and fade the lures and rewards so they aren’t immediately available.
Treats and Rewards
Start by using a treat he loves and combining it with an event marker such as a clicker or a verbal “Good!” to indicate that you like what he’s done. The treat should be something safe for your horse; you don’t want a rotund horse or to tip a horse with insulin resistance into problems. Plain Cheerios work great. And yes, your horse will work for just one. You can also use tiny pieces of cut-up apple or carrot. Emphasis on “tiny.”
If you need to limit the treats your horse receives or your horse is more tactile, you can substitute a withers scritch or play with a toy. Some horses love to shake or tug at toys just like dogs do.
Once you have figured out a reward your horse enjoys, pick a trick. Remember, “trick” is used loosely here. It can be any behavior you choose. Start with something your horse has a natural tendency toward, such as grabbing a rope to ring a bell if he likes to grab at things like hats, mittens, and halters hanging on his stall door. Basically, you are teaching your horse to learn new things. Once your horse catches on that you are training and that it is fun, you can start to develop behaviors that will help him with fears of things like a veterinary or farrier visit.
You can adapt many tricks so that they help your horse in worrisome situations. If he is concentrating on performing a trick for a reward, he will be less likely to panic over the thought of getting a vaccine or blood draw.
One example is to train your horse to “give you a hug.” You stand near his shoulder and lure him to bring his head around to touch you. Start with small steps. Initially, he just needs to turn toward you. As he gets solid with that, encourage him to turn more, then add in duration, so he will turn to you and hold that position. Meanwhile your veterinarian can draw blood from his neck on the other side.
Teaching “touch” or “target” can be useful for introducing your horse to potentially spooky things. Start by presenting an object such as a ball or plastic disc. When your horse reaches to check it out, mark his touch with your previously taught event marker or your clicker, then reward with a touch or a treat.
You can then move the object around—up, down, to the side. Add in some duration, so your horse must touch it and stay by the target (preferably continuing to touch it). Eventually you can put it on the ground and move it a short distance away.
When your horse is solid on this, put the target near something he is concerned about—maybe a bucket in the aisle. After he goes to the target reliably with the bucket a distance way, gradually decrease the distance until the bucket is next to the target. When doing this, pay close attention to your horse’s body language. You don’t want to induce anxiety by putting him in a motivational conflict: “I want to touch the target, but I am afraid of the bucket.” It’s okay to take this very slowly or to move the bucket back a bit until he is comfortable in its presence.
You can follow this procedure to accustom your horse to a variety of things. You are doing all of this “on the ground,” but desensitizing often carries over to when you are riding. You can also practice with a friend who places the target near the scary object. Then you ride close to it but on a loose rein, so your horse chooses to go to it (or not—in which case, you back up a few steps).
You may be concerned if you see horses doing a liberty routine being guided with a whip or crop. But those items are targets that the horses have learned to follow and are not used for correction. If a horse has learned to follow a target, it can aid in getting him to load on a trailer or walk into a new stall at a strange place.
A word to the wise. Donkeys tend to learn slightly differently than horses. A horse worked with a clicker and trick-trained will often offer behaviors on his own. In my experience, a donkey watches, thinks, may try what you want once or twice or may not. Often, donkeys watch and then think about things overnight. The next morning, they may surprise you by having picked up the behavior.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, is a Cornell graduate and the first recipient of the Gentle Doctor Award. She is an award-winning veterinarian and writer.
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Published January 2, 2023