Rearing, Bucking, Pawing… all that bad stuff can make a great Trick Horse!

A very wise old Hollywood horse trainer, Rudy Ugland,  once told me – when referring to his famous trick horses – that it isn’t the horse who is particularly talented, it is the talented trainer who can pick the thing the horse likes to do, and then develop it. If you have a horse that paws, teach him to count.  If you have a horse that rears, teach him a cue.  If you have a bucking horse, teach it to buck off a dummy… teach them to refine what they already like to do and you’ll have a happy horse and a reliable trick horse.

He also told me to never put a horse into a position where he didn’t belong.

Since Rudy Ugland was ridiculously successful and all of his horses loved him, I figured he probably was onto something…

Rudy Ugland


I’m not saying that every horses should be a trick horse.  I’m merely suggesting that if you have a horse that does something well… or even if he does something untoward well – you can turn that behavior around and control it in a positive way.

Or maybe more practically for all of us who don’t make a living at this…  if you have a horse that doesn’t particularly like to trail ride or a horse who is only pasture sound, his or her career might not be over.   Maybe, together, you could spend time finding your horse’s shiny nugget of interesting behavior and then expand upon it.  That nugget could become that thing that draws you closer together.  It could become a shorthand; a little shared event between the both of you!

Hmmm. What talent could we make out of this?...


Looking in my own backyard, I have a horse who was born with the rear/buck tendency.  Great. Yup, she bucks when she’s frustrated, she bucks when she feels water on her legs, she bucks (with an added twisty move) when dinner is late and she bucks with a snaky-neck stinkeye when dinner is finally served.

I don’t know what I could do with that… but luckily she was also born a natural mimic.  Not like she can do an impression of me, but that she does whatever I do in her own horsey way.

Truth to tell, this behavior is Trick Horse Heaven.  I should have capitalized on her innate ability.  But, alas, I didn’t and I kinda kick myself.

Sure, I’ve taught her to do exactly what I do, but I don’t really do anything particularly entertaining.  In our defense, I will say she is a whiz at Parelli Games.  But, I’m not sure that had anything to do with me… she just watched the tapes a few times.

Anyway, where I’m going with this is that most people would think Gwen was a ‘challenge’.  Most people would probably be totally done with her after a few of her bucky/rearing days.  And, truth to tell, I’ve had my gawdawful days with her, believe me.  But, the fact that she also has this wonderful and intimate behavior, I could never not have her around.  We’ve bonded over her desire to do what I do.

My Gwen. She came our rearing and bucking...


Do you see any tendencies in your horse(s)?

Well, let me tell you a story…  I have a friend who I greatly admire.  He is a trick rider/trainer that comes from a long line of trick riders/trainers.  His name is Tad Griffiths and he is remarkable.

I had the great fortune to watch him work his trick horses.  He had his pair of Roman Riding mares who were perfectly in sync and also 30 years old!   He had his trick horses that he rode and performed off of their backs or while dragging along their sides – you know how that goes.  So scary!

But the horse I want to tell you about was named Palomo.  He came to Tad as an unwanted newly captured Mustang stallion.  Palomo was scary with super intelligence who challenged men and carried the ‘rank’ description well.  Palomo was just 3 years old when Tad rescued him from the kill pen.

To be honest, Tad grabbed Palomo because of his beautiful, pure white color.  That is good for a performing horse but… I asked Tad if he knew of Palomo’s reputation when he procured him.  He said, “Yeah, but every horse is good at something”.

I asked Tad if he knew what he was going to do with Palomo after he got him.  Tad replied, “Whatever he’s good at.”

Hmmmm.  Tad sounded a lot like Rudy Ugland.  I could see a pattern here…

The day I visited them. Here is Palomo counting...


As Tad told me about Palomo, it became clear that the huge white stallion was very intelligent.  And, as Tad put it, “He didn’t like to do anything.  We couldn’t trick ride him, we couldn’t Roman Ride him so we had to figure out something he liked and we decided that he liked to buck.  So, we put a beach ball behind him and let him buck-kick the beach ball.  He loved it!  That was the start. That was our connection.”

After that breakthrough (reminds me of that pivotal scene when Annie Sullivan finally breaks through to Helen Keller in THE MIRACLE WORKER), Tad couldn’t think of enough things to teach this boy.  Palomo loved the laughter and the applause.  He thrived on making the crowds roar.  He loved to have FUN!  They were awesome together.

Palomo and Tad sharing a moment

One thing that I remember clearly when I visited Tad and Palomo was that Tad let Palomo into the arena by himself.  And, do you know what Palomo did in there?  He did his routine.  I swear to God.  That horse was grinning ear to ear as he did all of his tricks and maneuvers.  I was glued!  I couldn’t believe it.

Tad told me that Palomo always did his routine.  He’d do his routine when he was alone in his paddock.  He’d do it at feeding time.  He’d do it whenever anyone was looking – and even when no one was looking.  “He loves what he does.  That’s the best thing about trick horses, you just train them to do what they love to do and they do it!”

As my eyes were glued on Palomo, he came over to me and threw his ball at me.  I looked at Tad.  Tad looked back at me and said, “Yup, that’s Palomo, always changing it up!”

I swear they both shared a smile.

So here was this horse who had totally captivated me.  The same horse who was picked off the slaughter line due to his bad behavior.  The same horse who was considered ‘rank’.  But just like Rudy Ugland said, it takes a talented trainer to find what the horse likes to do.  Finding that ‘nugget’ transformed this horse.

Sitting... Look how big he is compared to his trainer...


Tad lost the very elderly Palomo last year.  It was devastating for the whole family.  Tad still chokes up when he thinks about his gorgeous pure white Mustang.

As for Palomo, Tad said he was doing his tricks until the end… “He loved to do what he loved to do.”

Yup, it showed…

God Speed, Palomino. You were an ambassador to all 'throw-away' horses.

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4 comments have been posted...

  1. William Paull

    Does anyone know anything about the horse Rudy trained for Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales?

  2. Corinna

    It’s like making lemonade out of a lemon! great post! Also, I shared your bucking/ kicking horse photo on my blog, please let me know if you would like it removed- thanks! Corinna

  3. D Ritenor

    What a great read!! So, out of our 7 horses and 2 donkeys I simply need to find out what each one likes to do, develop it and I’ll be the best trainer ever, is that right?!? Well, that should be a piece of cake!!
    I really enjoyed this post and it carries so much truth!

  4. JM Friedman

    Yes, yes, YES! The key to training is catching them doing something and rewarding it. Excellent post and timely given the number of recalcitrant equines being abandoned to fate because they’ve got a few frizzy brain hairs and an owner who can’t appreciate them. :)

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