by Laura Crum
CAUTION—this post may be quite upsetting to those of you who view horse training very differently than I do. In fact, I had almost decided not to do this series of horse training posts. I really don’t need to convince anybody of anything, and I feel nothing but admiration for those of my fellow horsemen who achieve a happy relationship with their horses. I don’t care how you get there if it works for you and your horse. So, yeah, I had almost decided not to rattle anybody’s cage (even inadvertently) with this post.
But…I got an email after I had posted my last blog post (which was about a nice trail ride that I had on my reliable horse). And this young lady very sincerely wanted to know how my horse got the way he is. She loved her horse, but she was afraid to ride him on the trails because he was so unpredictable—and on his bad days he did violent, scary things, which she quite rightly felt were putting both of them in danger. In the course of our conversation I became aware that she didn’t even know that these methods that I planned to write about existed. And, of course, the way all of my horses became reliable riding horses was through this particular breaking/training process.
So I am putting my experiences out here in case they help someone who isn’t happy with how his/her horse is behaving and doesn’t feel that the methods he/she is using are helping the horse all that much. I was raised (in the horse world) by some pretty handy cowboys, and the horse training methods I learned are, by and large, the methods used to turn out a reliable ranch horse. Those of you who have ridden a good ranch horse will know that this is a pretty dependable sort of critter—these posts are aimed at explaining how we “made” such reliably broke horses.
Also, the “your” in this title doesn’t mean you. It doesn’t mean anyone in particular. It is a generic “your.” I absolutely wasn’t thinking of anyone when I wrote it. And again, this post is just my opinions. No need for anyone to agree. I have no wish to convince you that my way of thinking/training is right.
If you are happy with how your horse behaves, more power to you. If what you are doing works for you, you should not care at all that I might find your horse’s behavior completely unacceptable. We all have different standards for our horses and different goals, for which we need different cues and responses. As I said, if you are happy with your horse, why should you care at all what I would do?
That said, I see and read a lot of stuff about ill-broke horses. Horses that grabbed the bit and bolted, or spooked and spun and ran away, or balked and reared and fell over, or bogged their head and bucked their rider off. I hear about people who are hurt, or almost hurt and very scared, or too anxious about their horse’s behavior to want to ride any more, or selling their horse because they’ve become afraid of it, or spending all their precious riding time trying to convince the horse to do the most basic of things. If I know the person/horse, or I’ve been following their blog, I often know exactly what (in my opinion) happened to cause this crap, and, in fact, I’ve often been sitting here at my keyboard shaking my head and thinking “this isn’t going to end well”—months before the horse started behaving really badly.
Do I tell the person? Short answer—no. I used to do this. It never worked. The people were insulted, and nothing changed. I don’t do it any more. So this post is what I would say if someone asked for my thoughts. If anybody benefits from it, that’s a good thing. If everybody would just like to argue with me, that’s fine, too.
Anyway, most of these problems that I see were caused by the way the horse was trained—or not trained. The horse hasn’t got a decent foundation. He/she is not (in my vernacular) a “broke” horse. And so, when he/she doesn’t feel like obeying his/her rider/handler, he/she just jerks the reins/leadrope away, or bulls through the bridle, or pushes through the handler, and follows his/her own inclinations. And usually, someone gets hurt. In my view, this is a lousy system.
(The other common reason for behavioral problems that I see is a basically well-trained horse that has learned he can get away with bullying his particular owner/rider. But that’s another post.)
My way of training horses isn’t so popular these days. Some people will tell you it is cruel. And in my lifetime I definitely moved into a gentler approach than the one I learned as a young woman. But I still kept the basic principles and steps. You know why? Because they worked.
Horses trained the way I trained horses do not, in general, come unglued and untrained and hurt their riders. There are exceptions, sure. Some horses will not become solid citizens no matter what method you use. But overall the methods that I used produced horses that stayed broke, even under pressure, even when they were feeling fresh…etc.
I am (or was—I don’t train horses any more) a traditional western-style horse trainer. This is almost a dirty word in these days of natural horsemanship…etc. But I have not seen results from these newer methods that are anything like as effective as what we could achieve with traditional methods.
Before I go any further, traditional methods can be abused. They can be cruel. Yes, that is true. Pretty much any method can be abused. And when a horse is trained so ineffectually that he is a constant danger to anyone who handles/rides him or is around him, and he ends up on a truck to Mexico through no fault of his own—well, that is abuse, too, in my book.
Horses are dangerous. They can kill you. The very first goal of horse training is or should be to teach a horse to be safe for humans to deal with. Safe to handle, safe to ride. We call that a broke horse. It is a fundamental concept that people disregard at their peril. And the peril can be pretty extreme.
So when I trained horses in a traditional way I did a lot of things that were aimed at showing a horse that it did him no good to resist the human handler/rider. These things were all set up such that the horse could not win. Yes, that is what I said. The horse could not win. Because that is the foundation of a safe horse, a broke horse. Even when the chips are down he will obey your cues—because his training has taught him that obeying is the only answer.
Let us contrast this to the currently fashionable approach, which boils down to trying to get the horse to do things because something good will happen—like food or a positive response of some sort from his human. The horse learns that if he does what’s wanted he wins. Sounds good right? Until the day the horse doesn’t give a flying you know what about what’s wanted. He’s too excited or scared or pissed off or fresh or what have you. He doesn’t care about pleasing you and he is going to do what he feels like doing. And at that moment you are totally screwed. Your pleasant training system is going to fail you. And every single proponent of this sort of training that I know of has gotten themselves in this sort of pickle (by their own account). Excuses are made, but yeah—the horse kicked them or ran over them or dragged them or dumped them or bolted with them or stepped on them or flat refused to do what was asked…etc. And in my opinion most (not all) of these wrecks could have been prevented if the horse had been given a different sort of training foundation.
Let’s say you are riding through the woods on a tough trail and your horse sees something that really, really scares him. He spooks and leaps forward, and there are rocks and crap ahead. You pull on the reins to check him (no room for a one rein stop or such green horse stuff) and the horse does one of two things. He gives his head to the pull, because he has been trained in a traditional way and was checked up enough that giving to the pull is automatic and ingrained, and even though he is terrified his nose comes down in response to the pull, and you gain control of him. Or he throws his head wildly in the air in response to your pull on the reins, and keeps running, completely out of control—because he is scared and he has never been shown beyond any doubt that he MUST to give to the pull—under every possible circumstance including terror. Which response do you want? Which response might save your life?
For those who will say that you can get the first response without checking up and other traditional methods I would say—maybe. I haven’t seen this but sure, it could be possible. But I will bet anything you want that 90% of horses that respond in the first way were trained with traditional methods, including “bitting up” or “checking up.”
What I have seen (a lot) is that horses that were trained without traditional training will often behave just fine—until they don’t want to. And then, whether scared, mad or fresh, they simply stick their noses out, or up, or down, and jerk the reins through their rider’s hands and do what they damn well please. And you know what? You can’t stop them.
A horse is much stronger than you. Neither a harsh bit, nor a running martingale, nor a tie down will stop a horse that wants to resist your pull on the reins from running right through the bridle. The only thing that will keep the horse responding to the aids is successful training. Training that sticks no matter how extreme the situation—and this training cannot only be “feel good” training. Because gentle, feel good training only works when everything feels good. When the pressure is on and the shit hits the fan, the horse won’t give a rat’s ass about feel good training.
I will digress here and say that if you have spent many years developing a partnership with a horse and covered hundreds of miles and been through plenty of tight spots (even if the horse acted like a complete jackass in a lot of those spots), yeah, sure, the horse may trust your leadership—no matter what training method you use, including strictly feel good type training. But I’ll be damned if I personally want to go through all the near wrecks and the years of not knowing how the horse will react under pressure that this system involves.
The problem with all this is the danger. You are risking your life. You are risking your horse’s life. The only way to be on the safe side when you ride/handle a horse is to be really sure that the horse knows you are in charge and his training has taught him to obey your cues. All the time. No matter what.
And how you get there is by putting the horse in some tough situations and teaching him that that he cannot win by resisting. He can only win by obeying. I’m not going to discuss all the different methods of achieving this, because I don’t know all of them. Some versions of traditional training are very cruel—and I have seen this. But it is not the methods per se that are cruel. It is the way they are applied. You have to be able to read a horse and know when it’s time to stop and when you must push on. And you have to care about a horse’s well-being. Every single thing that I talk about can be overdone, or done too harshly, and then it becomes abusive. Horses are hurt, or emotionally shut down, or turn into rebels when these methods are poorly applied. I will tell you what I learned to do—and I CAN tell you that, properly done, the methods I used produced reliably broke horses—unless the horse is determined to be an outlaw. (And they do come that way.)
The other thing about the methods I use is that they are safe for the rider/handler (if you are not completely clueless). They are ways to teach a horse to give to pressure that are done on the ground. The horse is fighting himself (if he fights) and not you. And the situation is set up so that the only win lies in yielding to pressure and getting the release. This is a very effective lesson (if done properly) and will truly stick with a horse, even when he is scared or mad or what have you.
Before I go any further I want to add that those who actually know me will say that I am, if anything, too easy on my horses and too protective of them. My horses trust me and they do what I ask willingly. Those basic tools that were instilled in them by traditional methods aren’t really needed any more. But the trust doesn’t happen overnight. There was a time, when these horses were young, that the basic training that was given to them provided the foundation for the trust. The horses obeyed because they’d learned that was the only workable answer, and thus we all stayed safe in the years where they were learning to trust in their rider.
The other thing about this sort of training is that it’s very helpful if you want to put a different rider on your horse—especially a beginner. The horse will obey, not because he “trusts” the new rider, but because his training foundation is there. If the rider pulls on him he gives to the bit, and stops or turns, which, along with going forward when kicked, is the simple bottom line of “broke.” If a horse is broke he can be sold and passed from one rider to another and he will stay obedient for all of them. (My Henry is a very good example of this.)
So, how did we achieve “broke” horses? First I am going to refine the definition a bit. In general, what I learned to make was a reliable all around western horse—a ranch horse. The basis of what we did was the cowhorse tradition, which comes from the Spanish/Mexican vaqueros. Such horses not only stopped and steered reliably, they “bridled up,” or collected easily. They took the walk, trot, or lope at a signal; they would stop at a light touch on the reins, even from the gallop. They would “watch” a cow (meaning turn with a cow), and you could rope a cow off of them, and open and close a gate from their backs. They were reliable in any sort of high pressure situation, from wide-open gathers on a twenty thousand acre ranch in rough country, to the intensity of parting/branding cattle in a big corral. (By the way, all my horses can/could do all these things.) These are the skills that are useful/necessary when doing ranch work.
In general, ranch horses are not handled much until they are three. At three they are given ninety days or so of training, which is the foundation for everything that comes afterward, and establishes the “broke.” They are given six more months of riding as a four year old, turned out for the winter, and brought into full use as a five year old. Some time between five and eight (depending on the individual horse and the skill of the rider), these horses are deemed broke. At this point they will obey whatever rider is on them, and can be trusted to do their job under a wide variety of circumstances.
Everybody breaks horses a little differently. But what I will give you in this short series of posts is a very brief overview of some general steps that are often/usually used to turn out the sort of broke all around ranch horses that I’m talking about here.
The very first thing we did with any green horse was tie him up. This is the basis of everything. If you cannot tie a horse hard and fast and have him stand there as long as needed, your horse is not broke. It is a fundamental part of training that underlies everything else. Some horses have a lot more trouble with this than others. But they all need to learn it.
It isn’t pretty to begin with. It isn’t fun for the horse. But it is the single best way to get a horse started on the path to being broke. Yes, they can get hurt. But they can get hurt no matter what method you use to train them. If you tie with some thought and care, they are unlikely to get hurt. To be effective, a horse needs to be tied for a good long time. Young ranch horses were fed in the morning, caught and tied after that, taken to water at lunch, and tied for the rest of the day until dinner. Not in the blazing sun, no. But yes, all day. For those of you who think this is cruel, all I can say is that after a week to a month of this (depending on the individual horse—some only needed a couple of days), those horses were much better able to handle the breaking process. They had learned the main thing that they needed to know just from the tying. Fighting doesn’t get you anywhere. And they had learned patience. Two absolutely essential qualities in a broke horse.
We always tied a colt until being tied was no big deal. We did nothing but tie him until he could be counted on to stand quietly as long as he was tied, in a relaxed pose that indicated he understood that there was no point in doing anything else but wait patiently. At that point he was ready to move on with the breaking process. And it took some horses a good long time to get to this stage. But this is by FAR the best and easiest way to get a young horse into the frame of mind that enables him to accept training to be a reliable saddle horse.
Tying does some other things that aren’t immediately obvious. It gets the horse used to giving to pressure on his head, rather than fighting it, which helps him with giving to the pressure exerted by the bridle. And it makes him far safer to lead and handle from the ground. A horse that has been taught by tying can almost always be counted on to yield to a well-timed tug on the leadrope, rather than bulling through it. So much better for leading and also for ponying from another horse.
Tying is useful throughout a horse’s life. Whenever I’ve had a problem with a horse, I’ve always gone back to the tying. Leaving a horse saddled and tied for a few hours will go a long way toward resolving many things. When the horse stands relaxed, with one hind leg cocked, you can often go back to work with him and find that his attitude is significantly more cooperative—and thus a fight is averted.
I will write about the methods we used to check a horse up in the next post. I’m sure I’ve managed to alienate a bunch of people just from what I’ve already said. The last time I talked about tying on this blog a few people called me “cruel.” But bear in mind—I love my horses and take good care of them and none of the horses I own (including the two of them that I broke as three year olds and rode for their entire working lives—one is 25 and one is 34)—EVER hurt me. They didn’t once dump me, or bolt with me, or step on me, or drag me, or run over me, or kick me. I rode them all on many, many trail rides and gathers and had no wrecks. And they are all living a happy life with me today. So these methods do have a good side.
PS—Please do not take an older horse that has never been tied and tie him solid to fix his problems. Older horses who have set patterns do not always or even usually benefit from such attempts at retraining. When I buy an older horse (older than eight) I make sure that I am OK with him the way he is. Older horses who have a ranch background and have been tied as part of the breaking process will often benefit from some hours of tying—especially if they are showing behavior issues.
PPS—Tying is a very effective training method with a young/green horse, but if you have not done it before PLEASE be sure to get some help from someone who has. It can go very badly wrong. Never tie to something a horse can break. I am not going to try to describe what is and isn’t a safe tying situation—because I am afraid that someone will get hurt trying to follow my ideas without really understanding the potential problems. I learned to break young horses with the help of people who had done it many times, and this is the approach I would recommend to others.