You’ve seen horses and ponies perform tricks at shows, in exhibitions, on tv, in movies, and online. But have you ever considered teaching your equine a few tricks at home? It turns out that doing so can help improve your relationship with your horse, develop trust and bonding, and keep you both motivated by trying new things (especially given the winter arena months).
Shereen Jerrett, a lifelong horsewoman who lives near Winnipeg, Manitoba, started training her Ontario-bred Morgan mare JDH Gambling Hand (barn name Rowan) when she was only an eight-month-old filly. “I clicker trained Rowan from a baby to do obstacles, kick balls, etc., and she was very good at it,” Jerrett explains. “It was a great way to build a relationship with her and lay a foundation for her to develop a working relationship with me.”
Recently, Rowan was dealing with a health setback that required time off from riding, so Jerrett upped her trick training game. “I wanted to do something with her that would keep us in sync and enjoying our relationship,” Jerrett says. “This has been a great boredom-buster for Rowan, and a welcome break to the routine of riding. And I do find mares in particular really need to relate to you and trick training is a way to develop your dialogue with them. So, I thought hey, why don’t we go for a trick title?”
Now, five, Rowan, just completed her Novice Trick Horse title with The Do More With Your Dog (DMWYD) program, founded by stunt dog trainer, performer and best-selling author Kyra Sundance. The DMWYD is an Internationally-recognized sanctioning body for the sport of animal tricks, offering official titles for animals that can perform a variety of tricks. Though started with dogs, today the program has recognized a wide variety of trainable animals, including cats, horses, goats, guinea pigs, birds and many more. There is even an Animal Actors Registry on the website!
To earn a title, a trick team (handler and animal) needs to correctly perform a specified number of tricks and have them approved by a certified evaluator. There are about 250 possible tricks to choose from, divided into four trick levels with accompanying tutorials. With so many tricks to choose from at each level, there is something for everyone!
One of the user-friendly features of DMWYD is that tricks may be submitted by video. “This allows teams to participate from anywhere in the world and any time. They simply record their tricks and submit them for verification,” says Suzanne McKay, a certified trick dog instructor and evaluator, who verified Jerrett and Rowan. “Each trick has specific behavioral expectation and criteria. As an evaluator, I review the tricks submitted and can approve them when performed correctly.” She adds that the review process is the same whether it’s a horse, a dog, or any other animal.
Jerrett said the hardest part of the certification process was trying to figure out what tricks applied to a horse, and how to accomplish them. “I went over all the tricks and highlighted the ones I thought she could pull off, and when I got more than 15 on the list, I felt confident I could achieve it,” she said.
One of the tricks she chose, the teeter-totter, proved a bit challenging, “But she was actually a real sport about it, gamely giving it a go because I was asking her to.”
Of course, not every dog trick can be reimagined for a horse. “There was one dog trick that is “jump over your leg” and I wasn’t about to try that with my horse!” she jokes.
Clicker training is something that Jerrett began using on her dogs, and quickly saw the practical application to doing the same with her horses. It’s the same technique used for dogs, chickens, and dolphins. Even Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo – and many others – use these techniques to get their wild animals to participate in their vet exams, making it less stressful to do routine vet work.
But how do you start clicker training? Jerrett says it’s as simple as teaching your horse that when they hear the click, they get a small treat. Every single time. Once they understand that, you introduce the concept that if they do something that makes the click happen, they will get another treat. “I start off with ‘touch this mark’ [usually a frisbee]. The first time they poke it with their nose to sniff it, I click, then give a treat,” Jerrett says. “They are stunned. Slowly, depending on how smart they are, they try it again. Click, treat.”
She adds that there is usually a phase she refers to as, “shaking the vending machine” to see if “mugging” you for the treats will have an effect. But when the horse gets nothing, they slowly turn back to the idea they have to do something to get the magic click and treat. “It instantaneously tells them that what they are doing at that exact moment is correct,” she explains. “And by doing the correct thing, they are now owed a treat reward, which they receive.”
Clicker training isn’t only for tricks, either; the method can help soothe a panicked, spooky, or reactive horse. Jerrett learned this firsthand on a four-year-old she purchased who had been through a negative backing experience. “I had to get through to him what I wanted very clearly so he would stop panicking that he was doing it wrong and look forward to getting it right,” she says. “So, I clickered everything, coming to me, walking over poles, cardboard, tarps, obstacles. And the basics too, like saddling, hosing, and standing still.”
It worked so well with that particular horse that eventually Jerrett was able to do an umbrella exercise where if the horse touched an opened umbrella, he would get a click and a treat. “I got my spooky horse to a point where I could pop open an umbrella in his face, and he would just see it as an opportunity to touch it and get a treat. As soon as he heard the clicker he was like, ‘oh okay, this is a clicker exercise, well then, I’m in.’”
Above all, when it comes to teaching your horse tricks, Jerrett says you have to have a sense of humour and be okay with holding up your prize ribbon that says Novice Trick Dog. “But my certificate does say Novice Trick Horse, so I am okay with it,” she adds, laughing.