equine clicker training

using precision and positive reinforcement to teach horses and people

How to teach your horse to bow on one knee

When I was a kid, I was always very impressed when I saw someone who had taught their horse to bow. I had no idea how to do it and my attempts to lure the horse with a carrot resulted in some interesting positions, but nothing that resembled a bow. When I was older and had the opportunity to spend more time teaching tricks (what I now think of as my “circus phase”), I taught four of my horses to bow. It turns out that it’s not that difficult, but it does require some coordination (by both horse and trainer) and is best taught by practicing a little bit at a time.

There are different forms of the bow. I’ve seen the term applied to variations where the horse is on one knee, on both knees, or has both front leg extended so that the front end can be lowered. The version I have most often taught is the one where the horse goes down on one knee (usually the left) and tucks his nose behind it, close to the ground.

The head position can vary. Some horses have a preference or you can shape it to whatever you like. Common options are with the nose touching the knee, with the head between the front legs and parallel to the ground (tucked behind) or anywhere in between.

The bow can be broken down into several stages and/or component behaviors. The first one is optional but I find it’s easier for most horses to learn to bow if they are standing over more ground. In order to bow, the horse needs to be able to do the following behaviors:

  • Stretch out (optional) so the front and hind legs are slightly farther apart than normal.
  • Pick up a front leg and hold it up.
  • Rock back and lower the shoulders. Some horses will need to step back with their hind legs in order to do this. You can teach the step back separately if the horse doesn’t figure it out on his own.
  • Finish by bringing the folded front leg on to or near the ground. If the horse actually places his leg on ground, it is important that the cannon bone is parallel to the ground to avoid injury to the knees.

When I am teaching the bow, I cue and/or guide the horse through each of these steps. Once the horse has practiced these steps enough times, I can usually reduce the amount of assistance I provide. In the finished behavior, I can give the bow cue and the horse will adjust his legs if necessary. In many cases, once a horse has learned to bow, he may also be able to do it without as many adjustments but it will depend upon his strength and flexibility.

 I learned how to teach a horse to bow from several resources (books, videos) including those by Chuck Grant, Mari Monda Zdunic, and Allen Pogue. This was before I learned about clicker training and my initial work was all done with food, but no clicker. I also used a whip as a cue. Later, I modified my approach to use clicker training and a target stick instead of a whip. Most of the pictures I have were taken before I switched to using a target stick so you’ll see me holding a whip in some of them.

Steps to teach the bow

The following steps can be broken down as needed. You may find you need to spend more time on some than on others and there are different ways to shape the behavior at each step. I’ve included some ideas but you can use whatever is in your horse’s repertoire and your favorite training strategies (targeting, molding, luring, etc.).

1.   Start with your horse standing square in a quiet location with deep shavings or soft footing. You may also consider wrapping the left front leg with a polo bandage to add some cushioning. 

2. This step is optional. Ask the horse to stretch. An easy way to teach a horse to stretch is to teach him to stand with his front feet on one mat and his hind feet on another and then slowly increase the distance between them. You’ll have to decide if it’s easier for the horse to move his front feet forward or hind feet backward as you slowly increase the distance between the two mats. When I do this, I use the mats as prompts while I am teaching the “stretch” behavior. Once the horse has learned to widen his stance, I add a cue, and fade out the use of the mats before I use the behavior as the set-up for the bow.

How do you know if you need this step? At this point you can only guess. but if you horse knows how to stretch, I would ask him to do so before going to step 3. If your horse doesn’t know how, you can do steps 3 and 4 without asking him to stretch first and see how he does. If he seems to have a lot of trouble rocking back and down, then go back and ask him to stretch before you ask him to pick up his leg.

3.  Ask the horse to pick up his left front leg and hold it up. I teach this using my regular “pick up your foot” cue and a target stick. I hold the target stick so the horse’s knee touches it when he picks his foot up. I click when the horse’s knee touches the target. Once he is reliably touching the target, I extend the duration. I have a blog post on body part targeting that describes this process, if you are not familiar with it.

4.   Once I have the horse holding his leg up (I may assist here if necessary), I ask him to rock back. One way to do this is by gently drawing the folded leg backward, marking and reinforcing any weight shift. Another way is to hold a long piece of carrot or a target stick between his front legs and click and reinforce him for touching it, or eating the carrot. This stage can take a while if the horse finds it physically difficult. Also, remember that the horse can’t see down there so you have to guide him.

5.  Continue to ask the horse to shift back and lower his shoulders.  If you are supporting the folded leg, make sure that the horse is dropping his shoulders down, and not just straightening the elbow joint to allow the leg to move back. If the horse is keeping his leg folded on his own, just monitor to make sure he doesn’t try to unfold it as he nears the ground, or he might end up bearing weight on it in an awkward position.

It is okay if your horse moves his hind legs back. Some horses do this to give themselves room to drop down.  If I am using targeting or luring to ask for the weight shift, I can start by reinforcing the horse for reaching down and under, but what I really want to reinforce are moments when the horse lowers his shoulders. Some horses are very flexible in their necks and will reach way back (turning into a ball) instead of lowering their front end. I may have to play around with where to position the target stick or food.

6.  As the horse drops lower and lower, I work up to getting the cannon bone close to, or flat on the ground. This will take many sessions as I don’t want to rush the horse. If he becomes unbalanced and scares himself, it can take a while to rebuild the horse’s confidence.

If I want the horse to bow by resting on his folded leg, I need to teach him that the goal is to end up with his leg in contact with the ground. To do this, I often make a pile of shavings under the expected landing spot (for the leg) so that there is extra padding, and the horse has less distance to drop to the reach the ground. I click for contact with the shavings pile. The pile of shavings makes it easier and I can decrease the size of it over time. I’ve also made a pillow by stuffing a pillowcase with bedding so there’s more support.

It’s not necessary to have the horse bear weight on the folded leg. I find that many horses will hold it slightly above the ground. I think there may be some physical preference here. If the horse holds it above the ground, he is supporting his front end entirely with the other outstretched leg. If he places his leg on the ground, his weight is shared by both legs.

7.  Once the horse’s general position meets my criteria, I can shape or reinforce a specific head position. In most cases, I have taught my horses to put the nose tucked between their legs, or next to the bent leg.  I can teach the head position with shaping or I can use my target stick to guide the horse’s nose into position.

Some other tips.

Every horse has his own style of bowing and preference for how to lower himself into the bow. The final position should be one that the horse finds it easy to assume and easy to exit from. If your horse is really struggling to get out of the bow, you might want to make it shallower.

Some horses will kneel when you want them to bow. Kneeling is a more natural behavior and it might be more comfortable than having one leg extended out in front. If you don’t want the kneel, then just ask the horse to stand up and go back to reinforcing the folded front leg and build the rock back more slowly. Or you could just decide you like the kneel and teach that behavior instead.

Remember to be satisfied with even a little improvement in each session.  If the horse goes down too fast and scares or hurts himself, it will take a long time to rebuild his confidence. Bowing can be physically difficult for some horses. The extended leg has to stretch a lot and bowing requires some mobility in the back. If you think your horse has physical limitations, you might want to teach him a modified bow, where he doesn’t go as far down.  I would be careful about teaching it to a horse that has shoulder or back issues.  For these horses, it may be a useful exercise but you will want to observe the horse carefully for signs of discomfort.

Here is Willy demonstrating the finished bow.

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