Teaching Your Horse One Step at a Time

When audiences watch one of my horses performing what are usually called "tricks" -- things like performing Spanish Walk in hand, fetching an object, bowing, or mounting a circus drum or platform -- they  will often ask "how did you train him to do that?" And I smile and reply, "now I am going to warn you that you should take my answer to your question absolutely literally. The answer is -- I train my horses one step at a time."

Painty Deb Bow Big Try no1 ADJ2 SM.jpg
Painty Deb Bow Big Try no2 ADJ2 SM.jpg

Painty Horse and me in 1992. These photos do not show steps in the process of teaching the horse, but the finished product, a plie bow. This is what the audience sees: a charming display of willingness, sweet-mindedness, and intelligence. Once a horse is confident that he's doing exactly what his human wants, he will continue to perform it enthusiastically until the day he dies.

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Sometimes when they hear this answer it seems they think I am being cute or avoiding giving a real answer. But "one step at a time" IS the real answer, and I really mean it literally: after you make sure that you have your horse's attention, you address his feet. Because wherever a  horse goes, and whatever he does, he must do it by moving his feet -- taking steps -- and so having control of the feet means having control of the horse.

On this page I'm going to show you a couple of examples -- I happen to have decent sequence photos of these -- of skills and understandings that my horses gained through having been taught one step at a time. In a few cases where the photos didn't come out, I've filled in with drawings. Perhaps this will help you get a better idea of exactly how educating a horse works.

Training (Routinizing) vs. Educating


There is a huge difference between training a horse and educating him. "Training" usually means "repeating over and over again what you want the horse to perform". But mere repetition not only does not work, it tends to create dull or even sour horses. No; the teacher has a great deal more responsibility, and must go to a great deal more thought and effort than merely showing the horse repeatedly what the final result is supposed to look like. When all the person can visualize is the final result, it forces the horse to guess HOW he's supposed to do it -- he must guess because the owner-rider-handler has not shown him each and every step, but only the final result.

What is "Task Analysis" ?

The most important effort that the rider who intends to educate her horse must go to is THINKING. Before beginning, she must sit down and clearly visualize what she wants the horse to perform. The audience perceives only the final result; they take it in as a whole. But the horse's teacher must be able to clearly visualize every single little thing that the horse must do or know in order to create that polished final performance. As I have said, this literally means knowing what steps you are going to ask the horse to take, but it also means separating out each step in the process. This effort of breaking the task down into smaller steps, each of which must be mastered, is called by educators "task analysis."

To repeat: All tasks -- all "final results" -- manifest as the result of a sequence of smaller sub-tasks or sub-movements or steps. The final result is the sum-total of these steps taken one at a time in the proper order. In order to perform a dressage movement, clear a jump safely, speed through a barrel race, help the rider open a gate, load into a horse trailer, or calmly cross a stream when out on a trailride -- just to give a few examples -- the horse must first have mastered each step of which the final task is composed. To do that, the owner-rider-handler must help her horse by teaching him -- showing him each step, helping him get the idea of how to perform that step, and then practicing with him until that step is polished. Only when Step One in the process is mastered does the teacher introduce Step Two.

No Such Thing as a "Trick"


One other thing needs to be emphasized: there is no such thing as a "trick". The word "trick" implies something trivial, something done by sleight-of-hand, something done almost, in a way, by cheating. But horses have no concept of cheating, and horses never try to fool anybody. It's people who do that, and circus, movie, and TV performers raise to a high point of perfection the art of mis-directing the audience's attention so that they do not perceive the sub-components of which the final "trick" is composed.


An excellent example of mis-direction is the delightful circus act which features a horse who sorts colored scarves. The horse, at liberty, is let into the ring where three tables have previously been set up. On each table there is an upside-down top hat -- one red hat, one yellow hat, and one blue hat. In the center of the ring there is a basket filled with silk scarves colored red, yellow, and blue. At the handler's invitation, the horse goes to the basket, picks out a blue scarf, carries it to the blue top-hat, and puts it in. And he does the same for the rest of the blue scarves, and all the red and yellow scarves also. After five minutes all the scarves are in the hat of the same color.


The audience thinks they've just seen a horse who is so smart or talented that he can see more than yellow/green which science says are the only colors a horse can perceive. But the art of the circus is exactly to fool the audience by making them forget that the horse's sense of smell can be more discriminating than its vision and is, in any case, far more powerful than the audience's sense of smell. If the audience were given the opportunity to come close enough -- which they certainly will not be -- they would discover that the red scarves have been doused with Chanel no. 5, the blue ones with essence of skunk, and the yellow ones with lemon juice. Yes, the horse is smart and yes he does sort the scarves: but how he really does it is obscure to the audience.

"How the horse can really do it" is also obscure to most people who own horses, and this creates great frustration for people because unless you know how to first analyze the task and until you become committed to teaching each step, one at a time, you will be guilty of rushing your horse -- throwing too much at him all at once. Rushing the horse frightens him and at the same time, his failure to perform often makes the handler impatient or angry. She then may get to thinking that it's justified to punish the horse, which just shuts the horse's brain down further.

A trick is nothing more than something that the horse has learned, and, by the way, there is no difference between a trick and a "movement", i.e. as in a shoulder-in or a sliding stop. Whether the horse is opening a stall latch like a perfect Houdini, rolling a ball with his nose, striding perfectly between elements of a sequence of jumps, or performing a shoulder-in, if he is successful he must use his brain to respond to aids or cues, and to learn each and every element of the task and how to string them together in the proper order to produce the final "movement" or "trick".

Talking Down to Your Animal

Makes You Deaf

Once you realize that both "tricks" and "movements" are things that the horse can do because he has learned how to do them, you will realize that we regularly demean horses and dogs by labeling things they have learned as "mere tricks". Let's say that someone's daughter has been taking piano lessons. One day gramma comes over to visit and the girl's mother says, "darling will you show gramma the song you just learned." The girl hops up on the piano bench and plays "twinkle twinkle little star" perfectly. Do the child's parents and grandparents then say, "Oh how delightful ! Little Suzie has learned a new trick !"

A central text of this school of horsemanship is the book, written in the 1920's by J. Allen Boone, entitled "Kinship with All Life." That book's central message encourages you not to call your animal's learned skills "tricks". It teaches what a huge mistake it is to regard horse or dog intelligence -- or even fly intelligence -- as less than our own. The message of "Kinship" is: make the bridge level. If you make your end higher, then communication can only go in the form of arrogant commands from human down to animal, and you will be deaf to any complex or subtle input that the animal might have been desirous of communicating to you.

And this is the final point: you MUST learn to read your horse; you must learn to hear him -- because there is no other means by which you may know when the penny, so to speak, has dropped for him in mastering any given step of a task.


The effective educator is the one who can perceive when the pupil  has had an 'aha' moment. This is the crucial moment when pressure or demand must be released and reward thereby given. It is essential that you understand that I am not merely encouraging you to reward your horse more generously and more often (although I am doing that). What is crucial is that you reward at the right time, so that the horse knows exactly what he's being rewarded for doing. That's the moment to give to the horse the most powerful of all rewards, the one he values above all else: peace and ease.

Perception at this level is subtle. In fact it is so subtle that most horse owners never get it unless they voluntarily sign up for instruction by someone who can teach them personally, one-on-one. It is an ability that must be transmitted directly from master to student. This is a major reason why I continue to offer Horsemanship Improvement Clinics.

"Make the wrong thing difficult (not 'hard') and the right thing easy" -- Ray Hunt