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TRICK TRAINING IS WRONG, OR IS IT?

Don Jessop

I've gone under fire recently from a few of my colleagues about trick training. I keep hearing and have been hearing for years from certain groups across the horse industry that trick training is bad or wrong. That you shouldn't do it. Just so we are on the same page, trick training is usually defined as signal, response, reward training with repetition as opposed to constant subtle communication with your aids for specific tasks. Example: rearing, bowing, sitting, Spanish walk, etc.

Well.... guess what? It's a narrow lense to view horse training as one type is better. I LOVE trick training and I'll tell you why. But first I have to tell you why some people don't love it.

One reason some people don't love trick training is because horses that learn tricks can also learn to use them against you. For instance, if you teach a horse to rear, they can rear when you don't want them to, causing unwanted risk. Or if you teach them to lay down, they might try it while the farrier is holding their foot. You get the point. There is risk in trick training.

Another reason people don't love trick training is because the horse that learns tricks often fails to understand finesse based communication. In other words, asking for half passes (laterally passing from one point to another with very specific foot work and flexion) requires a dialogue between horse and rider with flexible amounts of pressure and timing and feel. Tricks are signal based communication. And what I mean by that is... you send a signal, the horse responds, you give a reward. Finesse based communication is more like holding a signal until a desired result. Think of it like holding the gas pedal down to keep driving forward in your car. You don't just push it once and the car carries on without further input. You keep a constant conversation between your foot and the car's wheels. Trick training would be like pushing the gas pedal once and the car drives itself. It's just too simplistic for some trainers. It's too basic for complicated, dynamic interactions between hands, feet, legs, flexion, the bit, the saddle, etc.

So now we understand why some folks don't like it. Let's go a little deeper and try to understand why we should value trick training. Because, I believe, and the more you to know me you will feel this..., I believe there is value in both using tricks AND using finesse based communication. It's not a "one is better than the other" game we should play. It's a "both are valuable at different times" game we should play.

So, what's the value of tricks?

For one, tricks change the way horses think. Literally. The brain's wiring shifts when they see rewards relative to responding to certain signals. Tricks, if done right, can literally calm the brain and focus the brain. Finesse riding can too, if done right, but in different ways. Trick training can bring happiness to the brain because it often involves massive positive reinforcement. This allows for the brain to anticipate rewards and put effort into behaviors more organically.

But there's another reason to train tricks. They are FUN!!! People love them as much as horses. I get a real kick out of seeing my horse lay down or rear up or march on cue or stand on a pedestal on cue. It's a huge crowd pleaser too. People go gaga for tricks because they inspire the imagination. They help us dream a little.

So... horses love them, people love them, they are fun, creative and easier than you might have ever thought. (More on that later.) We should definitely make trick training part of our repertoire. We need to learn to do it right so horses don't carry emotional baggage into the trick. (More on that later too). But... we need to also keep our minds open to why tricks are problematic. We all have our stories to tell so let's learn from each other and embrace the value of tricks and other styles of training.

The irony in all this is that trick training and finesse training are actually quite similar. They both require feel, timing, repetition, skills built upon layers that start at the smallest level. In a way... all horse training is trick training. It's conditioning the horse to respond to signals. Trick training just gets a bad rap because lesser skilled trick trainers miss the value of guiding the horse to the right mindset and posture. But the better you get at understanding all of this the better you serve your horse and the horse industry as a whole.

Thanks for reading. Love your comments and thoughts.

Have a great day. Don

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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