by Laura Crum
I started this series of posts because a few people said that they wanted to hear my views on horse training. By the time I was done with the first post, I really began to dread the scathing responses I felt sure I would be getting, accusing me of cruelty…etc. But I went ahead and put it out there, because it’s what I honestly believe—after forty years of non-stop owning/training/riding horses. Though I am sure many people disagreed with what I said, the lack of ugly, attacking responses was encouraging (in the sense that we can all discuss this subject civilly). I want to begin today’s post by (again) explaining why I used these methods and what they achieve.
I know I’m repeating myself here, but remember, these are just my own opinions. If you’ve achieved a good relationship with your horse through other methods, more power to you. I’m happy for you. If you want to insist that your method of breaking/training horses is “better” than mine, that’s fine, too. But I want to be clear that we’re comparing apples to apples. I want to hear how your system works to create horses that stay reliably obedient even in stressful situations—because that is what I am talking about here. How to train a horse that is reliably obedient—a “broke” horse.
I want to digress for a moment, because I have spent a lot of time thinking about this subject in the last week. Some of my horsey facebook friends have put up quotes from various horse gurus, along the lines of “we don’t properly prepare the horse to accept breaking and training and thus it is frightening to him,” and “the horse is just trying to survive in this sort of breaking situation—he feels his life is on the line.” And these gurus were referring, I believe, to the very method of breaking a horse that I’m writing about here. The more I thought about these statements, the more I understood the point of what we did when we broke ranch horses in a traditional manner. So I’m going to explain it as well as I can in reference to these statements.
When it comes to preparing a horse to accept the breaking process, I want to repeat something I said in the last post. The tying solid is the preparation. In a perfect world, a colt would be tied solid until this was no big deal to him, and this might take months. Once a colt has accepted this restraint, and understood there is no point in fighting it, he has the basic understanding that will enable him to accept the breaking process. Also, in a perfect world, every step that I describe in this series of posts would be done every day until the horse accepted it completely—however long it took to get that done. This doesn’t always happen because in the real world the horse was expected to get ninety days of training and be “green broke.” Most of the time we were breaking horses for someone else—the ranch owner or a client. We weren’t free to take all the time we wanted. With my own horses I always kept the time frame completely open-ended, and I think this is by far the best way to train horses.
The second statement—that the horse is just trying to survive in this sort of breaking process, that he thinks he’s fighting for his life—well, yes, that’s true. At some points that is exactly how he feels. I’m going to explain this concept the way I understand it, and I’m grateful to the person who posted that horse guru’s comment, because it made me think.
A horse is a prey animal. His instinct when he feels truly threatened is to run away, and/or buck that predator off his back. If we are going to ride him and stay safe (and keep the horse safe), we have to change his perception. When he is scared and his adrenaline comes up, he has to follow the direction of his rider/handler rather than those deeply ingrained instincts. And there is (in my view) only one way to create this mindset. We have to put him in a position where he does feel that he’s fighting to survive (hopefully without actually threatening his health/well being) and let him discover that the only way out of his dilemma is yielding to the pressure exerted by the halter or the reins. We want to do this before we ride him, so that when we are on him we have a good chance of staying safely on his back. This is the ONLY way to be sure that when a horse is truly scared/excited/angry that he still remains obedient.
Now here’s the exception. If you are training a horse for yourself, and you have spent a lot of time teaching that horse that it is rewarding to do what you say (whichever method you use), that horse may be inclined to enjoy being with you and he may do as you say in your day-to-day interactions. It is still my opinion that the first time the horse is truly frightened/excited/feeling rebellious, that horse will ignore your leadership and bolt/charge/buck—whatever his instincts tell him to do, and you will be very unlikely to stay in control of him. He simply has no training in being obedient when he is stressed. But let’s say you survive intact and you’re still on him, and you eventually calm him down and he’s listening to you again. Let’s say this scenario happens maybe a dozen times in your first two years of riding/handling your horse—with the same positive outcome each time. By the third or fourth year of your partnership that horse may very well listen to you when the chips are down. He’s grown to trust your leadership even when he’s frightened. For you, anyway, he’s a reliable horse.
I’m sure you can see the hole in this theory. There are a couple of holes, actually. First you have to survive those scary potential wrecks in the early months/years of riding. If you or the horse or both are badly injured, both his trust and your mutual future are gone. And that horse learns to trust YOU. Whether or not he can transfer the trust to another rider/handler is problematic.
When we broke ranch horses we were trying to make a horse that would be safe and reliably obedient for whatever rider was on his back. As I said, most of the time the horses were not going to be our personal riding horses, and we knew that. We also knew it was in the horse’s best interest to become a reliably obedient “broke” horse. And the methods we used worked to achieve this goal. I think the distress a horse goes through being trained in this traditional manner is actually worth it, even from the horse’s point of view (and yes, there is some distress). Far better for him to learn from the beginning how to be obedient even when things are stressful, and thus have a chance at a decent life as a well-loved riding horse, than to spend many years being considered problematic and dangerous, because he has bucked/bolted too many times when he is fresh or scared. Better for him if he were “broke”-- with all that entails-- than suffering the fate that almost inevitably comes to horses that have hurt their rider once too often.
Once again, the first goal of training should be to create a horse that is reasonably safe to ride and handle. A horse that will obey the rider’s cues, even when that horse is fresh, or scared, or pissed off, or whatever. And the most important cue is “the brakes.” And the thing that makes brakes is not response to “whoa” or a seat cue or what have you. This stuff works when a horse is not feeling resistant. But when the horse is resistant (for whatever reason), the one thing that gives you a good chance at control is a deeply ingrained tendency to yield to a pull on the reins.
You are not going to achieve this response by bribing a horse with carrots, or bribing him in any way. Sure, you can get a horse to do “carrot stretches”—no question. But if you think this will translate into the horse yielding to you when you pull on a rein in an effort to stop him when he feels like bolting—well, I’ve never seen this work.
In actual fact, what I have seen when people talk about training a horse without bitting up or checking up, is horses that “may” yield to the bridle when nothing much is going on. They may walk, trot, lope in a ring or on the trail and stop and steer, when nothing is happening to disturb them. I have never seen a horse trained this way that could execute at speed or under stress and still answer the bridle.
Let me make this plain. If you have a training method that you think works, I want to see that your horse will respond to the bridle when running hard after a cow, or when he is in a crowd of other horses that are all galloping off, or if he is trying to bolt because he’s scared. If your horse has never even been asked to go faster than an easy lope, or dealt with any kind of pressure, you don’t KNOW if he’s broke. And if he comes unbroke any time something scares him (or he feels excited, or rebellious) and runs through the bridle (whether he bolts, bucks, rears, or runs sideways), then you and I have nothing to talk about. Because your system isn’t working.
(An aside here—my horses are not machines. They spook and/or prance if they get “up,” depending on the personality of the horse. The difference is that they stay under control. A horse that is prancing or jigging because he’s excited or scared, but still “in your hand,” is one thing—a horse that is bulling through the bridle, out of control, is a completely different thing. A horse that spooks--and my Gunner was a huge spook-- but never tries to run off, is very different from the horse that spooks and spins and runs away.)
For those who say that they don’t need to put this kind of pressure on a horse to get him broke, because their horse is only going to do gentle riding type things and will never chase a steer…etc, all I have to say is you are deluding yourself. Even if you never ride your horse outside of an arena or go faster than a slow lope, there is still the unexpected. Someone else is riding in the arena and her horse bolts, scaring your horse. A tree falls next to the arena, or a helicopter flies over, or a loud tractor your horse has never seen before pulls up to the fence, or the snow slides off the roof with a loud whomp. I could go on and on. The truth is that every horse needs to be broke such that he will stay reliably obedient even when scared or excited, or he is not safe to ride.
So…back to my system. Once a horse was really solid on the tying, the next step was sacking and saddling. Sacking and saddling is either done tied up or on the leadrope in the round pen. There are advantages to both ways. If done tied up, both horse and handler have a greater chance of getting hurt, but the tying lesson is reinforced. Sacking and saddling in the round pen is a bit safer. Both ways take patience. It’s important to work on the sacking until a horse is really OK with it. Sometimes this takes an hour a day for two weeks or more.
And here I must digress again and talk about circumstances. I broke horses on a variety of different ranches. And in every case the circumstances were different. On one ranch we had a nice arena, but no round pen. On another ranch we had a round pen, but no arena. On yet another ranch there was no round pen and no arena, just working corrals and pastures. And some of the time we had both a round pen, an arena, and plenty of good trails. So the way we broke horses depended on the circumstances. In all cases there was (or we created) a safe place to tie. The tying was an essential part of the breaking process. If there was no round pen, the sacking/saddling was often done with the horse tied.
Anyway, sacking is usually done with a light saddle blanket. This is gently run over the horse and gradually escalated until it is flapped and swung over every part of the horse’s body—quite vigorously. When the horse is absolutely calm about sacking, it is time to start saddling.
The saddle can be shown to the horse and dragged up on the horse and taken off and on the horse for as long as is needed for the horse to be comfortable with this. But when you make the call to cinch it up, that needs to happen in one smooth and effective move that cinches the saddle reasonably snugly. Because nothing is worse for a horse’s training than to have him buck with a loosely cinched saddle and buck the thing under his belly and eventually get rid of it. Thus we were always very careful to first have the horse quite calm about the saddle, and then to cinch it snugly in one move the first time we pulled the cinch.
Once the horse can be saddled and is reasonably comfortable with the process, the horse is caught and saddled and left tied with the saddle cinched so it will stay on. He is also taken to the round pen (if you have a round pen) and taught to move at the walk, trot and lope, carrying the saddle. And when the horse no longer has periods of jumping around in a panic when the saddle “catches” him, then it is time to begin checking him up.
In those places where we didn’t have a round pen, the next move (after the horse could be saddled and would stand calmly tied up with the saddle on for several hours) was to pony the saddled colt from another horse. Be warned: it takes skill, a well-broke pony horse, and a saddle horn wrapped in rubber to safely/effectively pony a green colt from another horse. You have to know when and how to dally in order to prevent the colt from bucking/bolting. And your pony horse has to know how to take a jerk and/or drag a reluctant colt along. It does a great deal of harm to a horse’s training if the colt is able to jerk the lead rope out of your hands and run off.
In any case, once the colt could move freely at the walk, trot and lope with the saddle on his back we began the checking up.
The first checking up move that we did was to tie the horse around to the side. First the horse must be accustomed to the bridle. We put a plain smooth snaffle on the horse, making this process as gentle as possible. And the horse wears this bridle, sans reins (or with the very loose reins tied to the saddle horn), along with the saddle, for more round pen work (or ponied work) until the horse is accustomed to the bit. During this time the horse learns to move out at the trot and the lope on cue and stop on cue. There are a lot of different systems for this—I think there is probably something to be said for most of them. At this point the horse is working with his head free. He’s getting used to carrying the saddle at all gaits, and to moving out when cued to do so by a cluck or a “kiss,” and stop at a “whoa.” Some people reprimand a horse for bucking at this stage, some don’t. I think it depends on the individual horse and the circumstances. To go back to what I said in my first post, you need to be able to read a horse. In any case, as long as he is bucking, or seems nervous, he needs more round pen work (or ponied work).
Eventually most of them start to move around that round pen quite freely, and to stop when the trainer says whoa. They quit acting like the snaffle bit is a terrible affront. They ignore the saddle and its flopping stirrups. And this is the point where you can tie them around.
(If we did not have a round pen, we tied a horse around in the arena, or a corral, or in whatever sort of pen we had. At one stable where I broke a three-year-old, I made a round pen in the corner of the arena out of show ring jumps that nobody was using. It wasn’t—obviously-- too strong, so in that situation I also had my colt on the lunge line while I was teaching him to move out.)
We tied a horse around to the stirrup. I have seen it done many ways, but tying the rein from the snaffle to one stirrup was the way I did it. The stirrup gives and moves a bit, which makes it easier on the horse. The first time it is done it is very important that it not be tied too tightly. The horse’s head is very gently pulled just a little to the left and the rein is tied such that the horse must remain with his head slightly cocked to the left. And the trainer observes.
It’s important to stay there and watch. I never left a horse alone tied around (I know some people do this, but I don’t believe in it). It’s important to see exactly how the horse responds and to either tighten, loosen, or release the horse, as the situation calls for.
If you have done your previous work tying solid with a halter, your horse will probably accept the tying around without too much struggle. And it may sound paradoxical, but we liked to see the horse resist the tying around—at least a little bit. If he didn’t struggle with it a little, we were never sure the message had been received. Said message being that if the rein pulls you to one side, you must yield. No matter how scared or mad you are. Fighting won’t work.
Like the initial tying solid, all horses respond differently to this tying around. Some fight a lot, some fight very little. If a horse seemed scared, I would loosen the tie, but the horse stayed tied around until he “gave.” If that was a struggle for the horse, then he was untied the instant that he did give (the first time).
There were two kinds of problematic horses. The kind that fought too much and the kind that fought too little. The kind that fought too much got beside themselves with fear or sometimes anger. Such that they would throw themselves down. Just like with the tying solid, we did not release a horse for such behavior. It just doesn’t work to do this. But I would loosen the tie, and encourage the horse to give, just a little, and as soon as he did give, he was released for that day.
The kind that fight too little are more of a problem. They feel the tug and give their nose—no big deal. But they didn’t learn the important lesson—you must give even when you are scared or mad. So we would often encourage this sort of horse to keep moving, until at some point he wanted to throw his head or stick his nose out—but couldn’t because he was tied around. If he struggled with this, even a little bit, and then gave, that was enough for the first session.
Tying around was repeated every day, on both sides, until the horse would reliably give his head. Again, sometimes this took a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks—depending on the horse. The ties were tightened over time until the horse’s nose was almost tied to the stirrup, and when the colt was encouraged to move he had to go around in a tight circle. When the colt would do this calmly in both directions, even under a bit of pressure, he was ready to ride. Because you had your one rein emergency brake in place—what we called “doubling” the horse. If you could double a colt—pull his head around such that he went into a tight circle—you could stop him from bucking or bolting or rearing. But that response had to be solid—thus the tying around.
I should point out that when we had reached the point in the tying around where the horse was tied pretty tightly, we did not leave him that way long. Maybe a minute on each side, if he gave to the pressure. Any time a horse resisted the pressure in a significant way, we would re-tie him, a little looser this time, and wait until he seemed OK with it. Then try him again tied more tightly. For those who wonder why they had to be tied tightly at all, well, once again it comes down to safety. If a colt wants to buck and/or bolt with you on his first or second or third ride, your only real chance of controlling him is to pull his nose right around to the stirrup before he gets going. So essentially you’re training him to accept this “emergency brake.”
In the next post I’ll talk about putting a first ride on a colt…
PS—And here is a pretty photo of my last trail ride on Sunny. Sunny is a product of the sort of breaking and training I am talking about here, and I think those who own such reliable horses will understand the pleasure I take in going for a two hour ride in which my horse does nothing but behave calmly and obediently and enjoy the ride with me. No spooking, no jigging, no balking, no resistance or overly “up” energy. Yes, broke horses are worth their weight in gold (especially for those of us who are old enough that we dread coming off).