Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Delights and Dangers of Trick Horses

For centuries, humans have delighted in watching horses strut their stuff. Did you know that the first circuses consisted almost entirely of trick horses, horse races and acrobatics on horseback? It's so interesting to watch a well-trained horse perform tricks. As a horseperson, you have some idea how much time and effort went into teaching those tricks, and the desensitization required for performing them in front of a crowd. Your friends might say, "Eh, my dog does that," or, "lame!" but you know how awesome it is. And how dangerous. Check out these videos below.

This one's in German, but you don't need to speak the language to laugh out loud at the comedy. I loved it.
 ...but I would never teach my horse most of those tricks. 

Horses, like dogs, soon learn that tricks can get them attention, treats or act as an escape from whatever else they're being asked to do. Like the dog that learns to "sit up" and then begs constantly at the dinner table, this can be just annoying. In the video, Scout has clearly taken a liking to pulling blankets off of himself. It's funny, but how funny would it be if he decided to do that every time you went to tack him up? Then it can get dangerous. Rearing, pushing you around, head-butting, the real world, those are behaviors that mean dominance or aggression, and should be discouraged. When they're taught as tricks, you risk bumping into the line between, "Hah hah, that's so funny," and, "Oh my God, my horse just reared up on my niece and threw her into the fence."

This video is the epitome of every little girl's dreams: being some kind of Fairy Queen of the Horses, controlling them without a word as they prance and gambol around you in a sparkly forest glade. But skip forward to 6:45 and you'll see a horse apparently bent on herding and attacking the girl. He charges at her, ears pinned back, "biting" with an open mouth, using his body to block and move her around. When they stand still, he strikes at her with a front foot, which then changes into sort of a prancing dance. Of course it's all an act... until the day he decides to repeat this crap on someone who's not prepared to handle it. 

I can only hope that the horses taught to do these things stay with their trainers forever and ever and ever, so that they remain under the care of people who know what they've doing and have accepted the danger.

Don't get me wrong. Do teach your horse tricks. Tricks are great mental stimulus, exercise and bonding experiences. But unless you're a show-biz professional, don't teach tricks that replicate aggressive natural behaviors, or ones that might put someone else in harm's way. You might be okay with the risk involved, but how about your barn owner, your riding buddy, your friends and family members? What if you sell your horse to a new owner some day? How about the vet and farrier? Other people have to handle your horse too, and they may not want to, or be able to, handle the dangerous tricks you've taught your horse. And what about your horse? Just being potentially dangerous is enough to hurt his chances of finding a new home if he ever needs one. If he ever did cause a serious accident, or God forbid, killed you because of his "trick," there's no way anyone would touch him again. That's a death sentence.


  1. My friend does re-enactment and did some kind of weekend thing with a group that trained it's horses to charge people. Full on straight up charge people - they had to train the horses NOT to dodge around and avoid hitting people - the people jumping out of the way was part of the act. She was telling me about it and I was just sitting there like, my brain is actually shutting down from the SHEER STUPIDITY. It's all fun and games till you have to take the horse home ... and go out to meet it in a paddock ... have fun being dead.


    check this one - you can see with the blanket the horse has only been taught to pull it off when it's rolled over his shoulders, he's specifically not been taught to pull it off when it's flat on his back. Nice. interesting to see the differences between the two acts, actually!

  3. Having trained trick horses for over 40 years, if a problem develops, it's the result of bad training. Tricks are cued behaviors. The correctly trained horse is never to do a behavior on his own, which can catch the handler off gaurd or in a bad position. Just as bad trainers can make table-beggers of dogs, they can make bad-mannored demanding pests of spoiled horses. Correctly done training improves your horse's obedience, submission (lightness to the aids), confidence, relaxation, etc. If the training is not improving them, then you are doing it wrong.