There is always a lot of debate surrounding how a horse should be broken in. What age is the best, what methods should be used.. how much work or training they can cope with at any set age? There are so many unqualified opinions out there and by unqualified.. I mean the keyboard warriors who have never broken a single horse in or the ones who have read somewhere how someone else thinks it should be done and have adopted that strangers opinion as their own.
On the flip side you have what I call “old school” breakers who are still stuck in a period of time in the 1950’s where horse’s were literally “broken” in, with a very militant method, where the horses individual temperaments were squashed to be 100% obedient servants to mankind. This type of “breaking” still occurs and makes me shudder when I hear about it or am sent a horse to restart and rehabilitate after it was “broken” in.
So you have those two ends of the spectrum in opinions and everything in-between on how a horse should be broken in. Wherever you stand I wanted to write about how I start horses and how I’ve witnessed a growing population of female horse trainers, starting horses from day dot. Women starting horses FOR women. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible male horseman out there who do a fantastic job, but my point is it used to be primarily men breaking in horses.. I now know more women than men who start horses.
What I have learnt over the years and particularly as I returned to breaking and training full time to financially survive the pandemic lockdowns, is that as horse trainers we have to train the horse for the owner its going back to. In times where purpose bred horses cost more than a small car as two year olds, the average rider can’t afford to buy an educated, more experienced and more suitable horse anymore. There are also a tribe of low level riders out there getting ex-race horses or buying from sale yard auctions.
Twenty years ago, if I was breaking a horse in, it was for an experienced rider. Someone who had the horsemanship skills to deal with a young, rambunctious horse. Breaking in back then meant getting the horse to walk, trot and canter in 4 to 6 weeks, ride it through bucks and temper tantrums. Just keep the pressure up until you got it to do as you wanted. Then it would get a 4 to 6 week spell, be brought back in by its owner and off they’d go!
These days seem to be gone now. Even some of my most experienced riders/owners seem to have lost the art of horsemanship somewhere along the way. Hence why I started those desensitising clinics just so I could give more people help in relation to ground control.
Now as breakers and horse trainers we really have to install a sense of responsibility into the horses. Some horses are absolute legends, naturally accepting their job as ridden horses with work ethics to rival a soldier. AND I have to say it.. those types are predominantly Thoroughbreds. They want a job and want to get going. Started the right way they are absolute gems. Some horses will walk, trot and canter in the first week, some just take it all in their stride. However… a lot of the purpose bred warmbloods are bred to be sensitive. They are bred to have this sensitivity so they are highly responsive once they move up the levels of their sport. That sensitivity gives them a competitive edge.
The problem with this is they can be tricky to start. I have found the majority to be mentally soft, not naturally willing to do too much and can’t cope with a great deal of pressure as 3 to 5 year olds. In the old days… we would push them through, ride the tantrums out of them and get them ‘rideable’… BUT that was for owners who could cope with the adrenalised and slightly cooked horse they got back. Now I’m not saying that those days of breaking and training were correct… in fact it was quite hectic and in all honesty I always took a bit longer with those types, even back then. I was taught from a young age to work ‘with’ the horse and not to frighten it or as my uncle said to me when I was seven “We don’t want to fry them, ten minutes is enough for this one today.” (How lucky was I to have such a mentor at such a young age).
I did work breaking in Arabians who were returning from have a foal or two… then performance bred warmbloods with extremely cantankerous and talented bloodlines… riding for big auctions. We had deadlines to reach, these horses needed to be ready for sale and there was no taking it a bit slower for them to mentally cope more easily. I didn’t enjoy this process, it was a lot of pressure for both the riders and the horses. I also worked in the racing industry for a few years in my early 20’s. I was again lucky enough to work for a female trainer who would mouth the breakers and back them in two days, then throw me on and pony them off her lead horse through the hills. Yes the horses were started REALLY fast but it was the best way as it created willing, happy horses who were always keen for an adventure. That trainer was quietly successful with very few injuries and quite a few horses racing up to the age of 10… which in the racing world is old.
Two different male breakers I have known taught me two of the most important things in relation to starting horses. One said to me “You gotta keep their ‘try’…if they don’t want to do what you ask then you have a hell of a fight on your hands! If you keep their ‘try’ then the whole thing is easy! But then you have to also teach the owner how not to break the horses ‘try’ once it goes home or it will end up straight back with you!” SO TRUE!!!!!
The second golden piece of advice from a re-breaker I ended up working for on my days off was “Always stop the bad behaviour before it starts!” Now… that is far easier said than done!! This is where true horsemanship, the skill of ‘intuitive feel’ comes in and ‘reading’ the horses behaviour in time to change your method and avoid causing or allowing poor or unwanted behaviour.
So.. in short my methods have evolved around 1) Not cooking their brain with too much pressure too soon, 2) Adjusting the way I move, talk, ask and reward to keep the horses ‘try’ and finally 3) Ensuring that I read the horse correctly to set it up in a way it doesn’t even want to present unwanted behaviour.
Breaking in or starting horses these days is an art. And a lot of it is a lost art!!! I have been criticised for taking too long to start some horses. For years I have had some people (who have never broken a horse in… or even know how to actually ride) question the length of time it has taken me to start a horse. I really don’t care what their opinions are. My first goal is to give the horse the best start for its own individual mental and physical ability. My second goal is to ensure that horse is started in a way the owner it is returning to will be able to carry on the training without getting hurt. I absolutely cannot control what happens once the horse goes home, that is on the owner but I can do everything I can to give them the best chance of success. If that’s going to take me longer than normal then I will take that time.
I am lightly mentoring a few younger female breakers and horse trainers. Mandy Allnutt is a unique character who loves her rainbows and unicorns hence her business is call Unicorn Equine Solutions! Don’t be deterred by her fun attire and attraction to sparkles as she is shaping up to be one cracking good trainer. While I’m constantly working on straightening her position there is one important trait she naturally has.. and that’s “intuitive feel”.. Mandy has turned some of the most mentally broken horses I’ve ever seen, into confident, safe, willing little equine buddies. I’ve been mentoring/coaching Mandy lately how to keep them ‘light’. How to ensure they are rideable for her clientele of middle aged women with limited riding experience. I think its a great thing to be a part of.. “Women training horses FOR women.” The quality male trainers and breakers I have worked under have ALL trained lightness but there are still some cowboys out there who revert to overpowering the horses resistance instead of evolving into a method to maintain the horses ‘try’.
I have my own beliefs built on personal experience on the age the horse should be started and how much work they should have as babies. I’m not offering this as I don’t want the two ends of opinion starting a war on my page. What I will say though is horses will generally only exhibit poor behaviour if they mentally or physically are not coping. Keep that in mind the next time your horse expresses unwanted behaviour. What did you miss? What had they tried to tell you with their body language or behaviour leading up to an explosion? How can you adapt your ways to encourage them to be more willing..? What can you do to keep their ‘try’?