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The Evolution Of Breaking in Horses..

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.

3.5 year old giant warmblood breaker… a slow journey for this guy, purpose bred to be a sand dancing super star, sensitive an mentally immature. One fella who needs to take it in his own time!

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.

A little ‘re-breaker’ who had a wicked “rear, spin, bolt, buck” trick once pressured. I stopped the behaviour in the groundwork first then employed the same methods under saddle. Slowly increasing the pressure to maintain her confidence. Now a happy trail and low level Adult Rider dressage prospect. Her owner updates me occasionally which always makes me smile as I read how this little poppet is kicking goals.

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).

The first sit on Flynn.. who had been severely beaten and used as a bronc horse for a pack of alcoholics before he was sent to the kill pen and rescued by his incredible owner. This guy was so terrified of humans I couldn’t even stand next to him at the start without him bolting off. This fella took five months to re-break.. he ended up being the kindest, safe ride for his owner. He’s now unfortunately retired due to a paddock injury but loved like a family member and will live out his days in a loving environment.

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.

Miss Penny – 4 year old Warmblood mare who ended up with me because she decided rearing vertically on her owner after being lightly backed, was the best way to express her opinion. This moment was captured when she first learnt to stop from the seat and no pressure on the rein. Everything has to be spelt clearly and slowly for Miss P.. then she gives me the world.

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’?

Noddy – the horse that taught me more than any other.. a 13th birthday present who broke my nose and my collarbone, bit and kicked anyone who he deemed a threat.. he trained my communication skills (and my ability to stick).. we breathed love into each other and from that friendship he gave me whatever I asked. Nothing was too much. I may be a horse trainer but I have been and continue to be trained by them!
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Time To Unwind Or An Adventure Sport For Adrenaline Junkies??

A beautiful day, blue skies, no wind and you’ve been training hard in the arena all week!  You decide it is the perfect type of day to go for a casual hack out around the local trails and unwind.  As you saddle up, your mind relaxes and you switch off from the busy work week, running kids around or whatever it is that makes your life busy!

OR; you haven’t had time to ride this week, you are more of a pleasure rider and you feel it would be nice for both you and your horse to have a casual stroll around the countryside….

(13 year old me *cough..a LONG time ago* on my 5 year old Thoroughbred who carted me around the hills of the Yarra Valley in every spare moment I had..)

Horse riders and equestrians alike tend to have a romantic and emotional nature where we fantasize about a love and unquestionable friendship with our horses as depicted in block buster movies.  You know the ones?  Where the horse’s loyalty to their human is more akin to that of a working dog, protecting them from all danger and where they gallop up the paddock to greet their human!  The movies where the rider climbs aboard bareback, no helmet and gallop through the green rolling hills or white sandy beaches with not a care in the world exhibiting a freedom that is intoxicating to witness (along with the romantic music the producers pair these scenes with) and a freedom all of us in our repetitive lives crave! Check out the original Black Beauty, National Velvet or even our own Australian The Man From Snowy River to see what I’m talking about…

However, the TRUTH about the relationships we have with our horses is generally a far cry from the romance and loyalty depicted by the likes of good old Warner Brothers!  

Let’s return to our example riders above… with the first one having spent the week schooling in the arena, she tacks up in the beautiful sunshine, not a breath of wind and her horse waits patiently, content in an environment he knows well, where there is nothing new, nothing to be on alert about and a place he trusts no predator will jump out to harm him.  Our dedicated equestrian is lulled into a false sense of security, sinking into a relaxed state as her horse emanates peace and tranquility.  She thinks to herself, “This is exactly what we both needed, some down time to unwind and stretch out the kinks.”  She throws a leg over and heads towards the gate to leave the confines of their everyday familiarity.

About ten meters from the gate our dedicated equestrian feels her beloved equine friend become a little tense and drop behind the leg, resisting her request to keep a steady march on a nice loose rein.  She picks up her reins in anticipation of requiring a little more control as the euphoric sense of love and peace is replaced with slight tension and apprehension… 

The further she gets down the road and onto the trail, the further away from the comfort and familiarity of home she takes her horse, the more electrified he becomes.  Our rider talks out loud (as most of us do to our horses) “Come on, what is wrong with you?  Don’t you want to have a nice day out of the arena and see the sights!?”  At this very moment she feels her body get whiplashed like a crash test dummy as her horse leaps twelve feet sideways with a speed to rival that of his racing cousins launching out of the start gates!  He hasn’t intentionally tried to dislodge his human or make her feel like her hips are no longer aligned with her spine… BUT he did need to tell her how that slightly different colored blade of grass that he’d never seen before was surely going to eat him and best he escape the danger as fast as possible!

Regaining her composure our equestrian is driven by her frustration at her horse’s reluctance to relax on a nice casual, low intensity hack out!  She gathers her reins, grits her teeth and decides he obviously needs to burn off some energy before he can relax.  Pushing him into a very tense frame and driving him forward with the force of power squats from her seat and legs, our determined equestrian fills with adrenaline ready for the next giant, dramatic and unsubstantiated spook her beloved horse might feel is required!

They proceed along the thin dirt trail that runs alongside the road, at a cracking trot, full of determination, power and intensity.  The horse’s eyes are bulging as he tries to take in all of the new scenery at the current speed… his own adrenaline is continuously building as the pace they’re travelling doesn’t allow him to assess each potential danger and give it the distance he believes is required to stay safe.

Our dedicated equestrian can hear the rumblings of a large truck barreling down the road towards them.  She takes up an extra tight rein in anticipation her beloved equine friend may take offence to the speed, size and sound of the truck.

The horse feels his rider take a stronger hold with her energy intensifying.  To him she is clearly stating loud and that danger is on the way… he can hear the rumblings of what is surely a sky monster swooping down to eat the pair of them.  Clearly his rider has lost her mind and is no longer capable of making sound decisions to keep them both safe… it is up to him, the horse alone to get himself and his rider out of this madness…this extremely dangerous situation his rider has put him in where they are both surely going to die and be eaten.. 

The rider feels her beloved equine friend turn into what can only be described as an electrified piece of concrete, so she takes an even stronger hold, yells at him and kicks him hard to get going.  At this moment the truck with all its loud rumbling, rattling and shadowing size aligns with our dedicated equestrian and her beloved equine friend, for a mere moment, as it passes on the road next to them.

The horse fully believes his rider has completely lost her marbles as she holds him tight to stop but kicks and yells at him to go.  Both of their hearts are racing like they’re in a sprint race and he decides he must act, it is now or never and they will both surely die if he doesn’t rectify the situation…  Rearing high, standing on his back legs to force his rider to release the pressure on his mouth and give him the length of rein required to turn and bolt for home is his first move..

Our dedicated equestrian is smacked in the face by her beloved equine friends neck, slightly concussed and a bit wobbly she releases the tension on her rein.  Suddenly all four feet are back on the ground and they are travelling at a gear of speed she had never before discovered her beloved equine friend to possess.  Realizing she was no longer in charge and was now being charioted towards home by a 600 kilogram wilder beast she had not met until now, she regathers her reins, jams her heels down and attempts to regain some form of control over her ‘beloved equine friend’. 

The horse now blinded with fear and convinced the rumbling, rattling shadowy monster will return to catch the prey lucky to escape the first time, completely ignores the tugging and weird noise of “whoooooahhhh woooaaahhhh” coming from his rider at an octave he’d only ever heard excited birds in spring exhibit.. 

As the gate to home nears our dedicated equestrian breathes a sigh of relief knowing her beloved equine friend will start to slow down.  The horse does not really want to slow down until he is safely back in his paddock where his fences will protect him from any monsters but he starts to entertain the constant tugging from his rider and adjusts his speed to a slow canter and eventually a trot. 

Our dedicated equestrian and her beloved equine friend enter the gates and the security of home with all its familiarity.  Instantly the horse drops to a walk as he realizes he is no longer terrified but exhausted.  He heaves heavily, gasping to get oxygen in and his rider feels his legs taking steps like unstable sticks of jelly and a noticeable limp.  Our dedicated equestrian knows she needs to cool her beloved equine friend down but she’s so exhausted from the rapidly large volumes of adrenaline coursing through her system she dismounts in a heap and collapses on the ground next to her beloved equine friend heaving heavy breaths in synchronization with the horse.  She looks at the horse, rolls her eyes and calls him something not fit to repeat while the horse half closes his eyes, ignores the presence of his rider entirely, sticks his nose out a little and focuses on catching his breath as he confirms in his own mind that the only place of safety is within his home property confines!  

Our dedicated equestrian lets out a groan as she notices her beloved equine friend has also pulled a shoe in his antics and stabbed himself in the sole with the toe clip…. There goes the training schedule for the next week….

Moving onto our pleasure rider, who loves her horse more than her family and has more of a friendship with her equine buddy, not a great deal of leadership, she pretty much lets him do whatever he wants and he responds to the lack of pressure by generally plodding around happily at his home for 30 minutes or so. 

BUT… It is a nice day and our pleasure rider decides it would be lovely to go for a ride through the hills with her equine buddy.  Saddled up and going out the gate she turns the first corner onto a fairly steep hill.  Her equine buddy slows to a stop and goes to turn around.  Right now he is so fat he could be mistaken for a broodmare pregnant with twins and the sight of the hill is enough for him to decide that was enough of a stroll for today.  Our pleasure rider asks out loud, “Hey, where are you going, that’s the wrong way!?” Then she tries to haul her equine buddy around back onto the base of the hill.  With some heaving and wrestling and arguing between the two of them they end up facing the bottom of the hill.  Begrudgingly the horse walks slowly forward, head right down as he drags himself up with his shoulders and front legs, puffing more heavily with every stride. 

Our pleasure rider feels mild concern about her horses struggle up the hill and leans forward trying to make it easier for him.  In turn her equine buddy stops again and attempts to turn around but is so fatigued that he loses a bit of balance on the steepness of the hill and stumbles.  Our pleasure rider becomes unseated and unbalances her equine buddy just that bit more and they dangerously teeter on falling and rolling down the hill! 

Choosing to dismount in a hurry, our pleasure rider walks to the top of the hill leading her equine buddy.  At the top she is heaving just as heavily as her horse and must sit on the ground to recover.  Her equine buddy is relieved, rests quietly on three legs, eyes almost completely shut and takes a much needed nap!  Our pleasure rider looks up to her horse, mumbles something along the lines of “Screw this bud, lets go home” gets to her feet, decides getting back on is mean and leads her horse the 2km trek back home.  It takes a solid ten minutes for the pair of them to stop puffing once they’re home.  Our pleasure rider and her equine buddy decide to find a good patch of green grass for rider to lay in and horse to add to his already bulging belly.  They’re both happiest just chilling out!

SO what is the point of this little tale of two riders?  Well… apart from poking a little fun at a few of my friends who will generally tell these tales themselves with a whole lot more colour, it is to point out to the masses that a casual trail ride is not always…ahem…casual!

While you do get your lovely rare gems of horses who will accept any new situation like it is the norm, the majority are not really happy with too much change.  If you do want to turn your horse into the type who likes to have a ‘relaxing’ trail ride out, then make sure you ‘train’ for it.  Small rides, not too far from home to start and preferably with another rider who has a seasoned, confident trail riding horse who will give your horse a sense of calm. 

What are your trail riding stories?  The good the bad and the ugly?  What are your tips, tricks, fail safe methods for enjoying a day out or a few days out on a mountain ride? I’d love to hear your stories!  As a teenager I used to ride for hours and hours with my friends around our country roads, swimming in dams, going through the drive through in Macca’s….  I’m sure there are many of you with some entertaining stories!

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