training a playful horse
Q.My 5-year-old spotted Saddle Horse gelding is very playful. How do I turn his playfulness into an advantage when I train him? He turns scolding into a game. He overturns his grooming box by pawing, nips clothes to get a reaction, and invents new antics all the time. It’s important to note that I do not give him treats. He is a brat, but could his focus on interacting be an advantage?

—Susann Dye, Montrose Minnesota

A.Yes, in many cases in skilled hands, playfulness and a focus on interacting can be an advantage for training. You might do best consulting with a trainer—one with experience and skill working with young colts and stallions in a nonconfrontational style, incorporating good behavior modification practices. An experienced trainer can often very efficiently figure out how to best direct the particular animal’s interest and curious energy toward the task at hand.

One of the tricks to efficient behavior modification is to avoid any scolding, which to most stallions, some geldings, and even some mares essentially translates into play initiation gestures that inadvertently distract the horse from the task at hand and bring his or her energetic focus to the handler.

For the antics and exploration of objects and people, I think the best tact is to think ahead so as to avoid presenting opportunities for the horse to get into trouble. As you probably have learned, that can seem impossible at times. So when the inevitable happens and he does get into something, it’s best just to try to resolve the situation without much reaction.

In addition to inciting play, our instinctual reactions meant to discourage the behavior often seem to only reinforce it. Some specific training to stand still and not to fidget with everything in sight can be helpful. The idea is to wait for a moment of relaxation when the horse is not investigating and reward with a small treat or with a scratch in a favorite spot. This puts your focus on recognizing and rewarding the desirable behavior, rather than the undesirable.