It's Not Just Tricks

March 26, 2010
It's Not Just Tricks

Trick Horses are a much loved part of classic western movies. Trigger, Roy Rogers’ ever-famous horse companion, was often billed as “the smartest horse in the world”. With some clever off-screen coaching by Glenn Randall his trainer, Trigger always saved the day. Even youngsters today know who Mr. Ed is and many of us remember Francis The Talking Mule. Episodes of My Friend Flicka and Fury often included horses performing amazing feats and tricks. When we were growing up the Saturday afternoon cowboy matinees all included an equine co-star that often was as popular, or more so, than the cowboy hero. Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger and Gene Autry’s Champion, are probably the two most well remembered equine stars of both TV and movies.

While many horse enthusiasts are curious about trick training, few know how, where, or even why to pursue it. Trick training is not an end point but rather the beginning of a journey that will create a high school or finished exhibition horse.

Imagine a Horse that is dedicated to enlightened trick training and our philosophy is inspired by Alois Podhajsky, a past director of the Spanish Riding School whose motto is, “The goal of all training is to make the horse more beautiful.” The horse naturally is a noble being and its beauty is enhanced by individual expression, obedience, cooperation, and inspiration. Visible enjoyment of a performance expressed by a horse is a noble but fleeting goal of most handlers. Under saddle disciplines allow for inspiration only within predetermined boundaries that are NOT usually open to interpretation by the horse.

Trick training, especially Liberty training, allows for generous latitude and inspiration by the horse which magnifies his beauty while showcasing his intelligence and aptitude for improvisation. In Horses of the Sun by Robert Vavra, one particular verse dramatically explains in part our obsession with the horse; “even without a rider I will always be a charger of the gods, but a man without a horse will only be a man.”

Most horses are capable of much more than is ever asked of them if they are systematically and creatively educated. Trick training helps humans to cultivate each horse’s personality and intelligence with a logical training methodology that actually makes sense to the horse. As trainers we strive to bring forth inspiration, generosity and obedience from our horses. This requires thought, empathy, calculation, and great understanding of your horse’s mental and emotional capacity.

Knowing how to teach a few fundamental tricks is not only highly enjoyable for individuals, but it could help to save your horse’s life or at least make medical treatment easier. In the book about Ruffian titled Burning from the Start, it is told how this famous race mare came to her untimely end because she was so hot and difficult to handle that successful treatment of a broken leg was impossible. What if Ruffian had been taught as a small foal to lie down and remain down quietly? Would it have taken away her desire to run and to win? We do not know the answer, but lying quietly would have allowed her to be treated when her life depended on it.

All breeds of horses have playful tendencies and desire to interact especially if their training and contact with humans started early in life. Horses that seem dull or uninterested in human interaction may not be the first choice as trick horse candidates but many horses actually perk up considerably when introduced to this training. Folks often call wanting us to train a horse they feel is a perfect prospect for trick training because of his mischievous nature or a horsy sense of humor. Houdinis of the horse world are those who open gates or pick up objects to chase other horses with are great candidates and usually fun to work with. Trick training comes easiest for the most personable, intelligent and energetic horses. We are pretty sure that Trigger’s on stage presence was greatly enhanced because of his beauty, athleticism and intelligence.

If you plan on teaching your horse tricks, preparation requires the same good manners and respect that would be expected before beginning training for any other formal discipline. In trick training any gaps in his basic ground training will show up quickly and so will resistance of any kind. Trick training is often a good vehicle to resolve resistance issues and reduce a horse’s stress level because the steps and sequences are easy for the horse to understand.

Trick training requires some special stage type props and equipment but the benefits are well worth the effort. Pedestals serve as a horse’s mark, place, or target. Horse Friendly whips do not sting but rather transfer touch between horse and handler and are essential in helping a horse to understand touch as a method of communication. Large Horse-TUFF balls can be great training aids that help to develop a horse’s herding instinct and sense of play. Leather tabs sewn to Flags and Frisbees make it easy for the horse to learn to pick up different objects. Ultimately, tricks are not the goal but rather building blocks of a sophisticated learning system. An educated trick horse can complete long and fairly complicated Behavior Chains including high school moves.

Let’s look at tricks as categories.

Tricks of Submission
In today’s age of political correctness, the word submission often carries negative connotations. Submission here means that a horse is agreeable and willingly responds to our requests and position as his herd (of two) leader. A simple example of submission is when a horse lowers his head willingly to allow the handler to place a halter or bridle on. Tricks that enhance a submissive attitude are moves in which a horse lowers his body to that of the handler. These moves include the obeisance, bow, kneel and lay down.

Pedestal Tricks
Pedestals serve as a place or mark for the horse and give him a home base from which to work and await a command or cue. Pedestal work helps to develop physical dexterity while increasing self-confidence, boldness and a sense of security.

Tricks of Engagement
In retrieving an object such as a frisbee, flag, or cap a horse willingly chooses to engage in the activity with his handler. A horse cannot be forced to do these tricks, but rather he chooses to do them. By teaching simple tricks that engage a horse his overall personality can be and enhanced and this is the process of creating a “can do” attitude that develops into a “want to do” work ethic.

Tricks of Agility
The Rear and Hind Leg walk, the Salute, crossing the front legs, the Sit Up and Sit Down, gymnastic challenges on pedestals including leaping from pedestal to pedestal are all good examples of Agility moves. We feel compelled to add that we teach the Rear only in association with a pedestal and we never encourage teaching it when mounted.

Tricks of gait would include amplifications of natural gaits. The Circus March, Spanish walk and The Three Step as well as classical movements of Piaffe, Passage, Terre a Terre even the airs above the ground including , Levade, Courbette and Mezair.

Liberty Training
Liberty schooling is one horse or a troupe performing without any attachment to the trainer in a confined space, typically a small ring. One method of Liberty schooling includes horses that are trained to perform various patterns solo, in pairs or in sets of pairs. Another variation would be horses that know numerous moves or elements of an act and then perform these in a routine as cued by the handler. Our (IAH) style of Liberty performances differ from traditional circus acts with the addition of numerous pedestals which are used to define the patterns and as a place for one or more horses to stay while others perform.

Where to Start?
There are several starting points mostly dictated by the personality traits of the horse. For a horse that is somewhat flighty, pedestal work will help him learn to be grounded, literally and figuratively. A horse that lacks respect or compliance can be helped to gain these virtues with tricks of submission. Herding the big ball or learning to retrieve is a good way to channel his curiosity. If you have a horse that investigates his surroundings with his mouth, you may want to start with holding and then retrieving a dedicated baseball cap. Later he could be taught to retrieve other objects and link this to pedestal work.
Most domestic animals except horses are trained using a mark or home base. This is a safety, resting and waiting place for the animal. Of all species that could benefit from the utilization of a home base, a flight animal like the horse seems like a logical fit.

Pedestal training starts with teaching a horse how to mount and dismount a large, low pedestal in the secure confines of a small schooling area. By placing the pedestal next to a wall and close to a corner, the horse’s instinct to evade is diminished considerably. As the horse becomes accustomed to pedestal exercises, it can be repositioned to allow more training options. Revolving pedestals and multi-tiered pedestals can provide challenging variations. A horse can pivot his hindquarters around in a full circle while his front feet are on the pedestal or he can pivot the front end around while the back feet are “up”. Over time, lunging a horse on a working length line helps to make mounting the pedestal the reward rather than the work. Movement between mounting pedestals even with a horse on a lead can be very interesting and fun to watch.

When a horse willingly and reliably mounts a pedestal and comes to understand it as his reward (rest) the next step is to develop the ability (you and the horse) to send the horse to a pedestal. This is a useful training strategy because the horse chooses to comply.

Good horsemanship principles apply to Trick Training and an astute horse handler will soon find that really knowing and understanding your horse’s basic nature and personality will yield big results. There is so much fun that arises from working with talented horses and nice horse folks that sometimes we feel as though we are in a wonderful dream. Each horse has special gifts that they bring to our world of Trick Training and it is up to us to help each on be all that he was meant to be. In working with your own horse, we dare you to just Imagine!

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The authors will make available pedestal construction specifications upon email request at

Short Bio
Allen Pogue and Sue De Laurentis founded Imagine A Horse in response to requests from around the globe to share their Trick Training and Equine Agility methods. Imagine A Horse blends modern and classical horsemanship to make Trick Horse Training understandable and fun for horse and human. Sue and Allen live in Dripping Springs where they own and operate Red Horse Ranch a boarding and training facility.