by Laura Crum
Back in March I did a post titled “Finding A Been-There-Done-That Broke Horse”. Subsequent to this someone emailed me with the question, “But what if you have a green horse that you love and don’t want to sell, and you want to put in the time to turn that horse into a broke horse. How do you do it? How do you get from here to there?”
That is a really good question. There is, of course, no simple one-size-fits-all answer. But I studied on the question for awhile, to see if I could come up with something helpful. And thus today’s post was born.
First of all, I want to clarify a couple of things. A green horse is very different from a spoiled horse or a problem horse. For the purposes of this post, I’m gonna speak from the perspective of having a green horse—a horse who hasn’t had a lot of training—rather than a horse that has some bad habits that he’s learned and is attached to. Retraining a problem horse is a lot harder than training a green horse—in general. Its not that you can’t (sometimes) cure the horse of the problem behavior such that he acts right. Its just that the horse will tend to revert to said problem behavior when stressed, or when he thinks he can get away with it. So today we’re talking about green horses.
Green horses will have problem behaviors, of course. It sort of goes with the territory. But a green horse behaves as he does because he doesn’t know what is wanted, and hasn’t been convinced he needs to do what is wanted at all times. Green horses are (or should be) young. If a horse is a green horse and he is older than eight (or so), then you have a problem horse. Because horses tend to get a bit set in their ways after eight, and it is harder to train them. So, for the purposes of this post, let us say you have a green horse between four and eight (I don’t believe in riding three year olds hard, and I’d be thoughtful what I did with a four year old). How do you train your green horse such that he becomes a reliable, broke horse?
There are quite a few variables here. Some horses are gonna be a lot harder to train than others. That’s just how it goes. And there are tons of different training methods. So I’m not going to talk about individual personality types, and I’m not going to talk about specific training methods (much). I’m going to try to find some approaches that work across the whole spectrum.
All right, I do have to say that in my experience some training methods work better than others. I have never seen a horse that came out of a natural horsemanship/Parelli-esque program that impressed me as a well broke horse. But maybe I just haven’t seen enough of them. On the other hand, I have seen a good many horses come out of traditional horse training programs that sure could execute—but they were treated so harshly that they were physically crippled and/or emotionally blown up. This did not impress me either. So I am going to simply say that you can pick your own training approach and/or specific trainer—just make sure that what you do is consistent, not abusive, and keeps you in charge. And I’ll give you three basic principles to follow that I think will turn almost any horse from a green horse to a broke horse.
The first one you will have heard before. But it is absolutely true and you won’t succeed without it. Wet saddle blankets. You’ve got to ride your green horse often and hard enough that he gets tired. The saddle blankets must be wet. You cannot train a green horse in twenty minute increments of walk/trot work (in hand or on his back), where the horse doesn’t even crack much of a sweat. You will simply frustrate each other.
A green horse needs to be worked five or so days a week for at least an hour and he must get sweaty and tired enough that he doesn’t carry around a lot of excess energy. No, turn out will not do the trick. Wet saddle blankets are essential if the horse is to become a reliably broke horse. If you are willing to do longer rides (and the horse is old enough and strong enough for this), you may not have to ride five days a week. Young ranch horses would get maybe two days a week. But they went all day a lot of the time (with breaks).
Wet saddle blankets means you are RIDING the horse. I don’t fault anyone for doing lunging or round penning if they are afraid a horse might buck them off or run off with them, but as soon as you can safely get on, get on and ride. You will not achieve the goal by playing games of any sort (including lunging and round penning) on the ground. You need to ride the horse. If you are afraid to ride the horse, send the horse to a trainer you have confidence in and make sure they ride the horse. Its perfectly OK to get your wet saddle blankets with someone else in the saddle. But green horses need lots of miles with a rider to become broke horses and you must make sure the horse gets those miles.
Now I could say a lot here about the difference between miles with a competent rider versus miles with a dude, but you know what? In my view, the miles are the most important. I have known quite a few horses trained by fairly ignorant people who put in the time and miles—and the horses made good, reliable broke horses. Maybe not well trained horses, but broke horses (see my March post “Finding a Been-There-Done-That Broke Horse” for the difference between well-trained and broke). So on to the next principle.
Give the horse a job. The absolute worst thing you can do with a green horse is to hold no more of a goal for him than he let you walk/trot around the ring on him, with maybe the occasional lope down the long side. No. If you don’t want to do anything more “exciting” than this, then take up beginning level dressage, or western pleasure, or reining. You can still stay in the ring and walk/trot, a little lope, but you have a defined job you are teaching the horse to do, and you make him work at it until he gets it right.
Trail riding can be his job. Jumping, endurance, cutting, whatever you like. But it needs to be something where you can challenge the horse a little and ask him to work pretty hard at learning and executing his job. You need to be focused on getting the job done, not whether little Fluffy is in just the right mood today, which is what happens when people dink around with horses endlessly with no real goal in mind other than the horse do what they tell him. Yes, he must do what you tell him, but it goes much better if it is for a purpose—part of a job he must learn and do. Remember—you dink around, you make a dink (a quote from cutting horse trainer Leon Harrel).
It is your “we need to get this job done” attitude that will do the most to turn a green horse into a broke horse. In essence, you ignore or correct his little shenanigans as needed, but you keep your focus on getting the job done. And pretty soon the horse will, too.
And finally, as in most things, persistence is key. You have to persist. It won’t happen overnight. You’ll have good days and bad days, and if you ride green horses, be prepared for some drama. Because you’re likely to get some. In fact, you’re almost sure to get some drama of some kind. And just when you think the horse is done being a drama queen, you’ll have another “drama day”. You just have to persist. More wet saddle blankets, keep your focus on getting the job done. Correct, reprimand, ignore, show what is wanted, encourage and reward…all in turn as seems needed.
If you become afraid of the horse, you need to get help. Fear is not a good position to come from, though I think most of us get a little anxious at times when working with green horses. But you need to be clear that you are up to the task, anxious or not, or you shouldn’t be doing it. You can send your green horse to a trainer (no shame in that) and persist that way, but you must persist in some form or other in a steady way—and again, it takes awhile. Realistically, if you have a six year old green horse, expect him to be eight before he is a solid broke horse. And in those ensuing two years, lots of wet saddle blankets as he learns to do his job reliably. Be sure that you are prepared for the occasional exciting moment and are willing to forgive and get on with the job. This is what training a green horse amounts to.
OK—these are the best insights I could come up with. I can think of a few other good tricks that are helpful—the tie-up trick being one of them, but the last time I posted on that, I got a certain amount of flack from folks who thought I was cruel, so we’ll just leave that out for today. If anybody else has a contribution on this subject, chime in. I’m sure there are many things I’ve forgotten that might be helpful to discuss.
And on a somewhat unrelated note, my seventh novel, Hayburner, is now up on Kindle for 99 cents. Its not totally unrelated, because the “background” horse theme in this book (all my books have a slightly different background horse theme) is breaking a colt. I’ve broken/trained dozens of colts in my life, and have tried to weave a few of the insights I’ve learned into this story. Hayburner is overall a good read (says I), but there is one thing that really bugged me while I was going over the ms to get it ready for Kindle. And I want to know if anybody else has this problem. I hated reading the sex scenes.
Don’t get me wrong, its not that I don’t like sex and I can enjoy a well-written erotic scene—written by someone else. But I absolutely HATE writing these scenes, and I find I hate re-reading them even more. Since mine is a more or less classic mystery series, sexy scenes are not obligatory (thank God), though a touch of romance pretty much is. But I know from my own reading that one gets a little bored of the sleuth who continually teases but won’t get in the sack. So in this book, I decided that Gail was going to get some action. Well…its not badly written and all that—I seem to have improved somewhat as a writer in these later books—but I cringe when I read the bedroom scenes. Not that they are so explicit or anything. From a romance writer’s viewpoint they are dreadfully tame, I’m sure. So here’s my question. Do the rest of you, especially the romance writers, have a hard time reading your own bedroom scenes? Or is it just me?
Anyway, Hayburner is a good story (bedroom scenes and all) and it is now available for 99 cents, if you read on Kindle. Here is the link to buy it. And here is a brief synopsis.
HAYBURNER: Veterinarian Gail McCarthy is called out to treat injured horses when the biggest boarding stable in Santa Cruz County catches fire. When a second barn fire occurs nearby, the California horse vet finds herself in the middle of the search to catch an arsonist—before any more horses or people die.