Imagine a Mini: Miniature Horse Training Basics

Posted by Suzanne De Laurentis, Wed, Apr 6, 2016

If you own a miniature horse, you can successfully train them with horse treats. We bet you already know how clever your miniatures are! Their cleverness combined with the fact that they’re every inch a horse makes for fun training.

While miniature horses and donkeys (miniature mules, too) are totally equine, there are some slight differences between them and the larger-sized equines. We’ll tell you what we’ve found, and we’d love to hear what you’ve found, too.

Our miniature horses are highly tuned in to the slightest nuances of their interaction with us. They’re especially adept at reading human body language. We train ours with a combination of verbal, physical and proximity cues, yet they’re ultra-responsive to body language. They read my body and focal cues (intention) almost before I can articulate a verbal cue!

Some miniatures are food sensitive. Many folks are hesitant to use treats when training for fear of impacting their dietary requirements. This is why we start immediately with a variable reward system, which we’ll explain later.

Miniatures seem to have a heightened sense of fairness. Mine know, in no uncertain terms, when they deserve a reward and can be quick to let you know if you fail to reward adequately with food or other positive reinforcement. This makes it important to learn how to use treats both effectively and responsibly to maintain your miniature’s good manners. It can be a temptation to physically place them in the desired position or stance because of their stature. Don’t do it, as they can become resentful or sullen. Don’t think about skipping training steps with a mini because of their size; they require the exact same training detail as large horses.

Miniature donkeys live in what we laughingly deem a parallel universe, or “donkey time.” Don’t get in a hurry and don’t skip steps, because they will learn on their own timeline. Clarity of your requests combined with a clear reward system are needed. They also don’t require the same number of repetitions as horses of any size.

Small equines can exhibit quick responses, which require excellent and consistent timing by us humans. My minis often execute a move almost more quickly than I can take it in! We’ve found that Manna Pro® Bite-Size Nuggets are just the right size for minis. Most of ours prefer peppermint, but you may want to experiment with the different flavors to find your mini’s favorite.

Most expert animal trainers use a diminishing reward system, as do we. This means we use treats liberally in the beginning, then as a behavior or response becomes reliable we gradually diminish the number of treats and employ other forms of positive reinforcement, such as stroking and verbal praise. By doing this, we are instilling a new response mechanism in which the treat, given even occasionally, is the “light at the end of the tunnel.” It’s the expectation of an occasional reward that keeps them focused and eager.

Reward basics

The success of any reward system depends on your delivery, timing and consistency. Begin by teaching your miniature horse what verbal praise is about. Choose the word that you will use as a praise word, such as “good” or “good boy/girl.” When the two of you are spending time together, stroke his neck and tell him “good boy.” Make it clear through your touch and tone of voice that your intention is to praise. Repeat this often; if you can associate it with a good behavior that they offer, that’s even better. 

“Good boy” will become a bridge signal and will be used to both reward him verbally and let him know a treat is coming. It bridges the few seconds of time between his response to a request and the actual giving of the treat. The treat must be forthcoming in three seconds or less and the sequence must always be the same.

We use “cookie time” immediately following the bridge signal to let the horse know that they are getting a food treat and invite them into our space to accept it. The only time it’s acceptable for them to come into our personal space is when we invite them to do so. If you doubt a horse can learn to respond to words, just form your own experiment. Try dropping a few Manna Pro Horse Treats into a small container or bucket, shake them and pair that action with “Cookie Time” or the word of your choice. We promise you will have their attention when they hear the wrapper being opened after just two or three repetitions.

It’s important to teach new or complicated behaviors by separating them into very small steps or increments and using the established treat sequence when they at least try to respond. Learning to respond is more important than any one trick or move. As their understanding is solidified, reward with a food treat for improvement. When you are certain they are understanding your requests, begin to praise them with your voice accompanied by stroking and begin to decrease the frequency of the food treats. Use small pieces so they can be chewed quickly.

When your horse has given an approximation of a behavior for which you have asked, immediately say “good boy,” pause a second, give the signal “cookie time” and then give him a treat…within three seconds. Do this intermittently for a day or two over multiple short sessions until you’re satisfied that he understands the system. To turn this into a diminishing reward system, occasionally stroke his neck as you tell him “good boy” and forgo the food treat. Most individuals are completely happy with occasional treats and lots of praise.

If your horse starts to get in a hurry for a treat, try walking away for a few minutes and paying them no attention. Their success and good manners will depend on your consistent performance.

A miniature can learn any non-mounted behavior that can be taught to the larger species. You are limited only by your own imagination.

Teaching the Smile convinced Ben (pictured) that we were trainable. The Smile helps our minis to learn our reward system. When they offer a try or response to our requests there is something in it for them.

Remember, Miniatures:

  • Are ultra-responsive to nuances and body language
  • Are every inch a real equine
  • Require consistency and attention to detail from the handler
  • Have an individual timeline for learning
  • Have a rather heightened sense of fairness

Happy training!!

Suzanne De Laurentis

Alan Pogue and Suzanne De Laurentis, authors of the book "The Trick Horse Companion" and owners of Imagine a Horse, have spent a quarter of a century perfecting modern trick training methods. Enlightened Trick Training is intended to increase the intelligence, adaptability and predictability of today's companion horse as well as enhance the relationship between horse and rider.