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Teaching a Horse to Retrieve

Fetching an object is certainly not a natural behavior for most horses as it is for dogs. While it is common to see horses pick up objects and move them around, it is a different matter to get most horses to retrieve on command. Retrieving is not a move that a horse can be forced to do... he must decide to do it of his own free will.



Folks often ask if teaching a horse to retrieve will make a mouthy horse even mouthier and usually the answer is "no". A lot of horses that are naturally mouthy actually get less mouthy when they learn useful taught behaviors such as retrieving as it can give them an outlet for the behavior.



Not all horses are mouthy enough to enjoy retrieving. We have had horses that absolutely would not mouth an object and others will learn to

pick up an object in very little time. It is best to choose the horse(s) that enjoy being a little mouthy as retrieving horses.



A Behavior Chain is just as it sounds - linking together of several tricks or moves, which changes otherwise stand-alone tricks into a real performance.



While we do not advocate the indiscriminate use of food treats ("cookies"), the use of treats will keep the horse motivated while learning this trick. When the retrieving becomes confirmed, praise is usually a sufficient reward.



Equipment Required - A baseball cap, an old sock to put sweet feed in if necessary, a specially modified Frisbee (leather tab sewn on top for the horse to pick it up with), a toss and retrieve ball (available on our web sites) or other familiar object.



Goal - Teach a horse to retrieve objects.



Benefits - A great trick to help build simple Behavior Chains, teaches a horse to accept an object in his mouth and think at the same time, helps prepare him for carrying the bit.



Helps to increase the attention span, concentrate on a goal and to willingly interact with the handler.



Cues - Vocal cue is "Pick it up" or "Pick up the________.



Proximity cue (at first) is placing the object in a horse's mouth. Later it can be to stand very close or as far away as your horse will respond. Physical cue is drawing attention to the object or pointing the horse's nose (with the halter).

Steps - Touch the cap or sock with feed in it to the horse's mouth to see if he is interested enough in it to perhaps nibble or even take it in his mouth. If he does, offer the bridge cue of "good" and reward him as quickly as possible with praise and/or a treat. Mouthy horses will catch on to this very quickly as it is an easy way for them to get a cookie without much work. At first, if the horse will even let his nose be guided to touch the object, use the verbal cue "pick it up" each and every time he touches or lips the object.



A few repetitions per session are all that are necessary to confirm the trick. Ending the session while the horse is still interested is a good strategy. After the horse is proficient at holding the object for incrementally longer periods of time, lay it on a pedestal or other slightly raised place and ask him to "pick it up." If the horse drops it, do not give him a cookie. Say something like "no" or "no dropping" and ignore him and pause for a few seconds, then repeat your request. Work to perfect your timing so that you can trade a cookie quickly for the object.



When he is confirmed in picking the object up from a close location, you may begin asking him to take a step toward you while holding it. Ask him to "come here," as you take a step back. At first, a horse may only be able to turn his head a few inches from a straight ahead position to hand you the object without losing his concentration. Move back (physically) a little more with each session until the horse can pick up the object and turn his head toward you while holding it in his mouth. Increase the distance slowly and take a step away from where he picks up the object. Go slowly. What may seem like a reasonable increase in holding time of the object or steps toward you with it may be beyond the horse's ability at any given time. Pay attention to your horse's learning style.



Fetching an object that is directly in front of the horse is completely different than if he is asked to fetch to the left or to the right. Each direction is taught separately until the horse becomes confirmed in the behavior. Again, go slowly. If a horse is pushed beyond his understand he could easily lose interest. Lessons can be frequent but keep them short.



Common Problems - Some horses are not curious and are difficult or even impossible to teach this trick to. If a horse is over trained he may lose interest completely.



Tips -



* Horses will often pick up anything and everything to try to solicit a handler's attention, if this describes your horse, use it to your advantage. * Only do a few repetitions before taking a walkabout otherwise the horse will get bored and lose his focus. * Be quick to offer a cookie in exchange for the object.



* Teach the trick on each side of the horse. Wait until the horse fully understands the sequence on the first side before you switch and teach to the other side. * Never leave the object you are using to teach the retrieve in the horse's pen between sessions as he may tear it up. * Not all horses are drawn to the same type of objects so experiment. * If you desire to teach the Retrieve to a totally non mouthy horse, use an old sock with a small amount of sweet feed in it instead of a Frisbee or cap or put the sock under the cap.



One horse who had absolutely no interest in learning to retrieve was Turbo who belongs to Sister Creek Ranch. When he came for Trick Training, what his owners wanted most was for him to retrieve. We worked with him every single day for three weeks trying to interest him in the leather tab on top of the Frisbee. We even tied a little sweet feed up in a hanky for him to nose... absolutely NO WAY was he interested. One day we had guests at the barn and when I had walked away to greet them I left the Frisbee laying on the ground near Turbo. While visiting with our guests, I heard a racket behind me and turned to see what was going on. Turbo had the Frisbee clenched in his teeth by the tab and was playing it against the wire fence like it was an instrument. He obviously desired interaction and decided playing Frisbee was a good vehicle. I immediately rushed to him and started praising him enthusiastically. When I returned to my guests one of them mentioned that Turbo had been carrying it around in his mouth for about ten minutes before he started rubbing it on the fence. My back was turned so I didn't see it. Until that day, fetching had been my idea not his. When it became his idea, he really wanted to retrieve. Since that breakthrough Turbo remains one of the best fetching horses we have ever known!



Another horse that we trained to retrieve was Lady "C", one of Sheryl Crow's Trick Horses. It took 3 solid months to interest Lady in picking up a Frisbee. After she finally decided it was HER idea, it only took three days to teach her to retrieve it from whatever distance or area of the round pen that I tossed it for her. She also will retrieve the Frisbee and step up on the pedestal and Salute with it in her mouth or Rear to the pedestal as she retrieves. Today, I still do not know what actually made the desire to retrieve HER idea!



Variations on retrieving are only limited by your imagination. For help with teaching the Retrieve or any other trick contact the authors at suesmonet@aol.com.



You may also visit http://www.imagineahorse.com and http://www.redhorseranch.net.



Remember that you don't have to run away to join the circus, with a little imagination and a willing horse or two, you can have one in your own back yard!

 

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