by Nicole Fava

Trick training is a fantastic way to bond with your horse and change up your routine at the barn. There are a few basic tricks that are easy to teach, and a “smile” is one of them!

teach a horse to smile

When I say “smile”, I’m mostly referring to a horse’s flehmen response. This occurs when a horse lifts up his upper lip and inhales, usually to investigate an interesting taste or smell. A horse’s natural flehmen response looks as if they are smiling or laughing, and for that reason, it is often taught as a trick. Here’s how to do it!

Before You Start

Make sure your horse is outfitted in a halter and lead rope, and that you are in an area with minimal distractions. I recommend doing this training away from other horses, that way your horse is focused and you are in a safe space to train. Have some smaller treats or carrots handy, as you will use them as a reward.

Teaching a Horse to Smile: Method One

For our first method of teaching the smile, you need to catch your horse in the act of exhibiting his natural flehmen response. This is the most difficult part of the process, and is the behavior that you will ultimately reward. Here are some tips to trigger it!

1. Present your horse with something that smells interesting, such as an onion, ammonia, garlic, etc. Or, you can try to catch your horse exhibiting the flehmen response naturally. For example, my horse would always do this after eating grain or trying a new kind of treat.

2. When your horse lifts his upper lip and begins his flehmen response, say “smile!” and point up with your index finger. I find that combining the pointing and verbal cues will create the best results, as you are giving your horse two ways to understand what you are asking for.

3. Quickly use your other hand to give your horse a treat as a reward.

4. Let your horse chew the treat and repeat the above steps. Soon enough, he will realize that exhibiting the flehmen response on cue earns him a reward.

Teaching a Horse to Smile: Method Two

The second way of teaching the smile is best for horses that do not tend to exhibit the flehmen response naturally. Your primary goal is to encourage your horse to lift his upper lip, which will eventually turn into the look of a smile.

1. Hold a treat up above your horse’s nose.

2. Using the hand with the treat, tap your horse’s upper lip with your index finger. You should alternate between tapping their upper lip and pointing upwards. You should also say “smile!” while doing this.

3. When your horse lifts his upper lip to grab the treat from your hand, give it to him. You must wait for the upper lip to lift high enough before rewarding.

4. Repeat the above steps. Eventually, your horse will realize that he only gets the treat when he lifts his upper lip.

When your horse figures out that smiling on cue earns him a reward, he will usually be eager to do so. The more inquisitive and attentive your horse is, the quicker he will pick up this trick. I have had some horses learn this trick in ten minutes, while others took a few days of repetition. Either way, the smile is one of the easiest trick to teach your horse, and is sure to be a crowd pleaser!