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Learning new tricks – want to know how your horse feels?

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Do you want an eye-opening insight into what it feels like to be a horse trying to learn something new?

Then I challenge you to try the following exercise…

You need these items:

  • A friend
  • A place where you can both sit opposite each other
  • Some small toys or items such as a pen
  • Some small pieces of treat that your friend really likes – chocolate, cheese, biscuits, etc
  • A word (or sound) that you both agree will be the signal that your friend has done the right thing. This is called a ‘Marker‘.  I click my tongue when training my horses but a word like ‘Bing!’ or an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ works well too.
Training tools

Decide who will be the ‘trainer’ and who will be the ‘horse’.

Sit opposite each other at a table and place the toys in front of you both. The ‘trainer’ has a small bowl full of treats.

The ‘trainer’ then thinks of something simple they would like the ‘horse’ to do with the items in front of them. For example, they might like the ‘horse’ to pick up a particular item and move it to the right-hand corner of the table.  The ‘trainer’ mustn’t tell the ‘horse’ what they want them to do or talk to them. Make the first tasks VERY simple until you have practiced a few times.  It’s harder than it sounds!

The ‘horse’ then tries to work out what the ‘trainer’ wants. The ‘horse’ must try different things.

When the ‘horse’ does something that is moving toward the end goal the ‘trainer’ will use the Marker and then give the horse a ‘treat’. For example, the ‘horse’ might touch the correct item.

The ‘trainer’ needs to think carefully about what they are going to reward the ‘horse’ for. If the ‘trainer’ doesn’t reward small steps toward the end goal the ‘horse’ will get confused and try something completely different. But if the ‘trainer’ continues to reward the same step and doesn’t ask for a little more before they reward the ‘horse’ then they won’t get closer to their training goal.

Once the ‘horse’ works out what the ‘trainer’ wants then swap roles.

I recently attended a Terry Ryan training course where we had a go at this exercise. I was surprised at how difficult it was! I got confused and frustrated at times, but felt great when I finally ‘got it’. I highly recommend you give it a try. It will really improve your training skills and it will give you an insight into how your horse might feel when you try to teach them something new.

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