The idea of training a new horse is fun and exciting and, of course, you want to ride right away! But breaking a horse to ride is not as easy as they make it look in the movies.
You can't just jump onto the back of a majestic wild stallion and expect to gallop off into the sunset.
It takes baby steps.
Breaking a horse to accept a rider requires patience and, most importantly, a lot of respect. That's generally done by gradually introducing the horse to the necessary riding equipment one piece at a time.
So before you take on this rewarding, but difficult task, let's go over the basics.
Breaking a Horse
A broke horse is one that's considered safe to ride or drive a cart. Many people dislike the term broke or broken because it suggests training done by force or by breaking the horse’s will.
While this may have been true in the time of the old wild west, we've learned from our mistakes of the past.
As horse owners, we know that it's better to train a horse in a more thoughtful and caring manner. There's no need to break a horse’s spirit to teach them.
The Difference Between Breaking and Training
Usually, when we talk about breaking a horse, we are referring to training an unbroken animal. One who, for some reason, was never handled and left to run wild. When you break a horse rather than train it, you're forcing the animal to do something instead of teaching it. Although we still use the term, we no longer use force.
The act of Natural Horsemanship works with the horse's wild instincts and communication methods instead of force. When breaking a horse, the trainer follows the philosophy of using body language and gentle pressure to get the horse to respond.
This body language is the initial groundwork for establishing important boundaries between you and your horse. That way, your horse feels safe and secure throughout the training process.
This type of training is more psychological than physical.
The best action to take when breaking a horse is to approach and retreat. You want to slowly move towards the horse and retreat when the horse doesn’t like something. It will eventually teach your horse that you're not a threat.
Give the horse time to process something new, cozy up, and then reintroduce.
That works through the application of pressure and release. Using gentle pressure motivates your horse, but they learn from the release. The release is basically a reward for your horse when they complete the desired goal.
Always encourage your horse with rewards, but try to stay away from treats, as they can be distracting. Praise, rest, and petting are the best rewards you can give a horse. So just pet your horse and let them stand for a minute before asking them to continue with training.
The best age to break a horse
There's honestly no best time or age to break a horse. Every horse is unique, and you must take factors such as the size, body, and mental condition into consideration.
The temperament and reaction to the training of each horse can differ considerably. Some horses will take to the breaking easily while others may refuse your cues and advances for a longer time.
It’s common practice to start breaking a horse around the age range of three to four years old. Although some may begin conditioning as young as one or two, it's not advised to start any younger. If you attempt to train too young, it can cause your horse to suffer from future joint problems.
Attempting to break an older horse will likely take much longer, but it's not as uncommon as you might think.
Most older horses are more than capable of learning new skills. The mental maturity of an older horse gives them a longer attention span than that of a younger horse. You just have to remember that an older animal already has defined opinions which could make it harder to break bad habits.
No matter what age you begin to break a horse, it's important always to remain respectful of their equine's nature.
The stages of a broken horse
There are a few different types of broken horses you should know.
Green broke horses
These have had a saddle on, but are only ridden a few times. They require an experienced rider and tons of work and usually refuse to respond or follow simple cues. Prone to bucking or fighting against their rider.
They need an intermediate rider and a lot of training. They are better behaved, but not particularly soft or responsive to all cues. There's still a high chance of the horse getting spooked or refusing commands.
Well broke horse
A well broke horse listens to leg, rein, and vocal cues but may misbehave under the saddle. Although considered tame, they can still be mischievous and unpredictable. Most riders can ride them, but they're not recommended for beginners.
This is a horse who is entirely tame and calm or gentle in most intense situations. Safe for beginners and responds obediently to all rider cues.
The Gentle Way of Breaking a Horse
Horses might be smart, but they have straightforward minds. They can only connect a cause-and-effect sequence of about two steps. So, the next thing you teach them can never be more than one step away from the lesson they just learned.
During the process of breaking a horse, it's essential to gain trust. You'll be able to do this through your touch and body language, which is why gentle breaking works best.
This communication is vital and helps a horse bond, which builds a lasting and positive relationship with its rider.
It's crucial never to get angry with a horse when you are trying to break it. You don't want your horse to view you as the enemy.
That said, it's equally as important never to give up. You should always end each lesson with some success, even if it isn't exactly what you wanted.
If you’re not prepared to deal with the misbehaviors, we recommend that you let an experienced horse trainer assist you. But if you think you're up to the task, here are some tips for getting your horse started.
Step 1: Halter and lead training
Once your horse is comfortable with being touched and petted, you can gradually introduce a headcollar. It's essential for your horse to accept wearing a halter and lead.
The best method is to show the halter to your horse before it ever touches the face. When your horse can be around it without spooking, you can lightly touch the head with it. But don't try to put it over the nose just yet.
When you think your horse is ready, slide the noseband over the muzzle, and then immediately take it off. Repeat this several times until your horse is fully accustomed to it.
You can then slowly and gently slide the halter up and fasten it loosely behind your horse's ears.
Once you're sure your horse is ok wearing a halter, you can add a lead rope and begin more training. However, work slowly, taking everything one step at a time.
To see this in action, check out the excellent demonstration video below.
Step 2: Practice lunging
When you lunge a horse, it moves around you in a circle at the end of a lunge line within an arena or round pen.
Lunging is a useful 15 to 20-minute training exercise for both horse and handler. It's the best way to teach an unbroken horse balance and obedience without worrying about a rider on its back. It can also take a little of the hyper-ness out of a horse at the beginning.
The best way to practice lunging is to establish a cue for your horse to understand. These actions will teach your horse to focus on you, recognize commands, and not think you are just driving it away.
Most of the cues you give will be done through a lunge whip. The whip should never have to touch the horse. It's for pointing or popping the ground, depending on what you're asking your horse to do.
If you're still uncertain about lunging, have a look at the video below.
Step 3: Bit and bridle training
The first bit a horse carries in its mouth when you begin training should be as mild and as comfortable as possible. Logically, an eggbutt snaffle with small rings would be a good choice.
A horse new to wearing a bridle will want to chew on the bit and may fight against it. The snaffle bit is unlikely to catch on anything if the horse tries to rub the bridle off.
Some people refuse to make their horse carry a bit, but it’s wise to consider the future of your horse. A horse will appeal to a broader number of people and have a better chance for a good home if it's able to accept both a bitted and bitless bridle.
The video below demonstrates the particular way of introducing your horse to a bit and bridle.
Step 4: Saddle training
When breaking a horse to wear a saddle, you must keep in mind that it might get spooked.
In the wild, predators jump on the horse's back, exactly where the saddle goes. So it's only natural for horses to respond fearfully when wearing a saddle for the first time.
If you advance too quickly, your horse will respond negatively.
It's good to gently touch the back and belly of your horse simultaneously to enhance body awareness. Doing this will prevent your horse from overreacting when you touch it later with the saddle and girth.
Another useful method is to temporarily wrap a thin cloth around the area where the girth of the saddle will rest. That can help better prepare your horse for the added pressure.
When ready, allow your horse to sniff the saddle and saddle pad before approaching. After you're sure the situation is under control, you can gently place the pad and saddle on the back of your horse.
Gently rub the saddle pad all over the horse if needed. Your goal is to teach your horse not to fear the equipment.
Similar to the halter and the bridle, you want to place the saddle, then immediately remove it. Repeat this process until you're sure that your horse is comfortable enough for you to strap on the seat.
Below is an excellent video to watch when learning about natural saddle breaking your horse.
Final Step: Be Patient and Responsible
Communication between horses and humans calls for lots of patience and effort, especially if the horse is unbroken. When breaking a horse, it's always best to keep an open mind to help your horse settle and build trust.
Everything varies significantly on the horse, the experiences that horse has had, and the experience of the breaking.
Take things slow and always treat your horse with respect. The relationship you build during this time is the most essential. It's the foundation for a positive and successful future with your horse for years to come.
If you think you have the resources and patience to train horses, we encourage you to do so. And don't forget to let us know about your experiences in the comments section below!