ELI5: What is actually happening when a cowboy or a trainer “breaks” a horse?

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In a way its similar to training any other animal – training your dog to not pee/poop in the house, but to bark or wait patiently by the door to be let out into the yard. Its an adjustment from their young colt/foal/pup/kitten carefree days of doing whatever to having to follow rules. “Breaking” is a holdover term from when they’d rustle up wild horses, so the sudden adjustment to wearing a halter, bridle or saddle – let alone having someone ride on their back – was a rude and unwelcome development and they’d buck and generally have a huge tantrum. Breaking was “breaking their spirit”. But if your horse was born and raised in captivity breaking is relatively trivial. Last horse I “broke” was so used to humans (I slept the first few nights in the stall with him and was with him pretty much every day for his first year or so) and seeing his mother be ridden, he didn’t even twitch when the saddle blanket, then the saddle went on. A little anxious around having a bit in his mouth but it passed. From there it was just a slow progression, going a bit further every day until the horse understands that when the tack or halter is on, its “work time”. You start off with just putting the tack on (saddle etc.), get them used to that. Then leading them around. Then just having a weight on their back with the saddle but stationary, then maybe around the circle on a long lead with a weight on, then a volunteer human (again, just around in a circle), then learning to take direction with a bridle on and bit in their mouth (i.e. human tugs on the right, you go right), then commands to change gait – trot, canter etc. Usually takes a few months before I’d consider them “ready to ride”, but you could do it quicker if you have the time and dedication and a relatively eager pupil. Apples and carrots help. 🙂 Horses, god love em are wonderful and loving, but stupid as posts and more skittish than I am with spiders. But if you and your horse have a good bond and get that trust thing going, breaking in a horse can be relatively easy. Meanwhile, my bulldog is two and a half and Im still trying to get her not to eat the stuffing from the couch. In general, once a horse is broken, they will always remember, although if they’ve been “retired” for a while they might throw a tantrum for a bit. One of my horses was a rescue draft pony (supposedly she was born in one of the last coal mines, but the years don’t add up; I’d buy that her mom was). She hadn’t been put in harness for probably a decade, but we tried one day with a friend’s wagon and she just walked over between the shafts and looked at us like “well? I’m waiting. lets go to work”.


Back in the day it was breaking a horse to ride….Some old timers and other people do it old style, throw everything on it ride it till it stops bucking. Lots more trainers now days boils down to “This won’t hurt you, see?” “If you don’t do this it’s more work” – First part, such as sacking out. Throwing blanket/saddle or moving things around a horse (Tarp, dragging log, etc) so much around it that it learns it’s not actually bad and won’t hurt. Second – I’ll put pressure here until you figure out what I’m asking for, and you learn by me immediately removing that pressure. Example – I’m putting pressure on your right side with my right leg, that means moving your ass to the left. I put on the pressure until you move a little how I want and immediately remove the pressure, rinse repeat. Or on ground I poke your side in the same spot my leg would be until you yield to the pressure. The other piece is training them to realize that them doing what I’m asking is less work. If I’m asking you to do something and you aren’t listening, or are just being a general dick, we are going to do circles, or figure 8’s. It’s also easier to get a horse to focus on what you are asking and not on a plastic bag 500 feet away when their legs are moving and they have to focus on it. ​ I’m sure there are tons of videos of more “old school” breaking videos, I have some older neighbors that are old time farmers that their methods are a bit more harsh. Won’t bend to the bit? I’ll tie you to the stirrup for an hour and leave you bent that way.


They old method (usually) was to use force, exhaustion, starvation, dehydration etc. Lassoing a horse, making it fall down, tying it up, having one person just try to stay on it till it stopped bucking. Getting on it in a muddy riverbank so it couldn’t buck as well, lots of tricks. Most of what is done today is just done in extremely small increments. Horses should not be ridden until at least age two, some breeds longer. If you start handling them from birth it’s a lot easier. They get introduced to a halter, lead rope, having their feet handled, being brushed. Maybe a trailer, learning to stand tied, maybe being long lined, or lounged. (Not to much lounging though) Saddles are introduced gradually, usually starting with the blanket or pad. Rub it on them, let them investigate it, flap it gently over their body, throw it on the ground, and let them look at it. Eventually you can place it on their back and leave it. Then start with the saddle. This is trickier bc it has weight, stirrups, and at at some point you will have to cinch it. Lots of people start with a saddle with no stirrups or the stirrups tied up at first, but eventually you want them down and flap them around too. Do the girth a bit a time. You can start with just bringing it under the belly. It’s important to make sure the horse is used to you reaching under there. You have to reach under carefully and be mindful of your body position. Once your able to tighten the girth, It’s best to let the horse loose in a safe area to adjust to how the saddle feels as they move around. Never do this with a bridle, especially one with a bit. Also the saddle needs to be tight enough that it will not slide, slip, or worse slide off. The horse should also be calm enough and used to blanket and saddle enough that they will not be unhandleable as you don’t want them to lay down and roll, or get injured in a panic. This is where your groundwork and techniques for moving the horse around without being connected to it (roundpen work) will come in. Next training session you put your arm on the saddle. You practice standing next to the saddle area on a mounting block. Maybe you lean some weight in the saddle. I can keep going through more steps if anyone is interested. Most important thing is to have a calm and knowledgeable person doing the work. You can form awesome bonds if done right. Not my quote but it is said the best horse people have hands of silk, feet of lead, and the emotion of a sandbag. In my experience, it is the psychology of working with horses that does the training the best. Sadly, a lot of people still use outdated techniques and horses are often passed from one owner to the other each with their own goals and techniques and the horse is expected to learn and know each job quickly and often punished for not doing right. Breaks my heart. Anyways to answer your last questions it takes a ton of work of done the right way. Years if you start them right. The actual saddling and riding process maybe two weeks or so depending on your time investment. A lot of people will send a horse to a trainer to be started for 30 days. This varies widely and depends on your experience level and the horses. They will pretty much stay started. A green broke (inexperienced) horse will not stay as trained very well as one who has been ridden for years. One who is well trained but has had a lot of time off can be fresh under saddle at first so you want to watch for that. All this is a very general overview for a lay person, and I recommend breaking the process up into a lot of different sessions if that’s unclear. Hope this helps, thanks to all who take the time to read this. Edit to add most people refer to “starting” a horse now instead of breaking. Also for any horse peeps, I always interpreted the feet of lead to mean quiet feet while riding unless needed, and just generally being still and calm on the ground.


There are two very good scenes that show different methods of ‘breaking’ a horse in the film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002). Spirit (the titular horse) is a wild Mustang that is captured while leading a group of men away from his herd. He is taken to a US Calvary fort where he refuses vehemently to being shoed by the blacksmith and reacts violently to anyone who tries to approach and restrain him. The Colonel orders him tied to a post for three days and nights without food or water. The resulting exhaustion and starvation/dehydration result in him taking the saddle, bit and reins without attacking because he is physically and mentally drained. Spirit (as the name suggests) still eventually musters the energy to buck off the Colonel but it is suggested that many other horses ‘broke’ this way and stayed broken. Later in the film, Spirit joins a small herd of horses belonging to a Lokotan tribe if Native Americans. Little Creek attempts to break Spirit but in a far gentler manner. He approaches Spirit first with a blanket to get him adjusted to having a weight in his back before slowly adjusting him to human contact and body weight against him. The herd includes a pretty lady horse and they also get banging facepl and flank paint so there are evident advantages to staying with the tribe. However, this is a children’s film so Spirit reamins unbroken to the end baring a spectacular and climatic moment that I will not spoil because it is a very good movie that a fully recommend watching.


A friend of the family is a horse trainer. No, it’s not nearly as dramatic as they make it in the movies. Also, it used to be done using quite harsh methods – hence the name “breaking” but today most horse trainers do similar to what dog trainers do.