Teaching a horse to pick up a hat- or any object- is not that difficult. With frequent, short sessions you can have horse horse picking up or retrieving items in a matter of days or weeks.
In this article, we’ll use a clicker & treat and our reinforcement method, but treat or verbal praise alone will have the same effects. Just reinforce with your chosen method when directed to click.
Teaching dogs to fetch is easy, throw a ball, and they, often as not, return it right to your hand. With horses, who lack this particular instinct, we turn it around a little. Instead of beginning at the beginning- fetching or picking up an item, we’ll begin at the end.
If your long term goal is teaching your horse to pick up or fetch something, begin by teaching them to "give" something. Once the horse understands the reward is in giving you the object, they’ll happily retrive any object in order to give it to you.
Begin with your horse and your chosen object- we start teaching this trick with a dog-sized Jolly Ball (as pictured, we prefer the smaller size as it is easy to hold in one hand, and not a heavy weight for a horse to learn to lift) whatever object you choose- be sure to keep it put away outside of training sessions. This helps keep the object interesting and attention-catching.
Break the horse trick into several smaller tricks:
1. lipping and mouthing the most accessible surface of your object. (in our case, the handle of the jolly ball) when the horse shows interest and lips at the object, click and offer a treat. After horse is comfortable lipping, offer the object in the same way but withhold praise until horse opens mouth and bites down on object.
2. When horse is biting down comfortably on object in your hand, begin waiting for longer periods of biting before you praise. Try removing supportive hand so they bear weight and praise if they hold the onject. Praise strongly if horse tries lifting or snatching object on their own, but absolutely avoid letting them drop the object anywhere other than back into your hands. Dropping the object is not acceptable.
3. When horse is biting down and bearing the weight of object in their mouth, start withholding praise till horse drops the object back into your hands. At this point, horse should understand the trick for which they earn a treat is "bite, hold, drop into hands."
4. After the last step is solid, begin manipulating obect and holding it in different places. If you were holding the object at chest height for horse to snatch, begin offering a different surface of the object, or holding the object above your head or by your knee. Always withhold praise until the horse has taken object, help, and dropped into your hands back in the normal position.
5. Gradually move object farther and farther from yourself. At first, this may mean setting the object next to your shoe, then 1 foot to the left of you, then 2 foot to the right, etc. Eventually you should be able to increase distance until you are able to toss the object and the horse returns it to your hands.
Please remember that teaching a horse to pick up a hat or any object is a complex trick that needs to be taught over many sessions. Horses lose interest in this sort of training quickly, so the best results will be achieved through 5 minutes 5 days a week rather than 30 minutes once a week.