Horse breaking, sometimes called starting or gentling, refers to the process used by humans to get horses to let themselves be ridden or harnessed. Before such a learning process is accomplished, a horse will normally reject attempts to ride it. Once a horse has accepted basic handling by humans, additional forms of horse training can be used to teach the horse any number of specialized skills.
Some people believe that in order for a horse to submit to the will of human beings, violence must be used to break the will of the horse. Others, based on experiences which are consonant with the words of Xenophon, John Solomon Rarey, and other "humane" horse trainers, argue that there is no point (outside of a rodeo contest) in engaging in "rough breaking" or "bronc riding" if the cooperation of the horse can be secured by kindness. All horse breaking methods have adherents.
Earning Trust vs. Force:
Horse trainers as early as the Greek equestrian Xenophon have questioned the method of using force to “break” a horse. While some trainers believe that force is an appropriate and necessary means of securing a horse’s submission to humans, others believe that the trust and cooperation of the horse should be gained through gentler means.
Horses are large and extremely powerful animals. They owe no automatic deference to human beings, and before some ground rules have been established a colt may nip a human to test his dominance in the same manner as will nip a pasture-mate. A horse may also contend with a human for dominance in the pasture, and in so doing may charge at any humans entering the pasture in order to force the human to submit to the horse. Horses work out their own dominance order among themselves, and they must learn to be civil both among themselves and with human beings. It is easier for humans to deal with a young horse that has been civilized by older horses (who will retaliate in kind if the youngster bites or kicks), but in any case the horse must learn that the cost of an attempted bite or kick at a human is prompt and measured retaliation. That generally means a cuff on the muzzle for an attempted bite, and a swat with a switch of some kind for an attempted kick.
The Earliest Master Trainers:
Xenophon argues that it is better for the average citizen or military man to take his young horse to a professional trainer to start the horse's career as a mount for human beings. "It seems far better for a young man to give heed to his own health of body and to horsemanship,or, if he already knows how to ride with skill, to practising manouvres, than that he should set up as a trainer of horses." (For this quotation and further details, see the entire Project Gutenberg text of "On Horsemanship" by Xenophon at this site). His arguments indicate that he feels the basis for a successful relationship between human and horse to be other than for a wild animal, frantic with fear of the unknown, to be taken into confinement and bullied until it no longer resists. Instead, he clearly directs that the owner of the young horse shall have established a loving relationship with the horse before it ever sees a trainer. He advises the owner to establish a clear understanding with the trainer on what the horse is to be taught, and then continues:
At the same time, pains should be taken on the owner's part to see that the colt is gentle, tractable, and affectionate when delivered to the professional trainer. That is a condition of things that for the most part may be brought about at home and by the groom, if he knows how to let the animal connect hunger and thirst and the annoyance of flies with solitude, while associating food and drink and escape from sources of irritation with the presence of man. As the result of this treatment, necessarily the young horse will acquire -- not fondness merely, but an absolute craving for human beings. A good deal can be done by touching, stroking, and patting those parts of the body that the creature likes to have so handled. These are the hairiest parts, or where, if there is anything annoying him, the horse can least of all apply relief himself.
The groom should have standing orders to take his charge through crowds, and to make him familiar with all sorts of sights and noises; and if the colt shows sign of apprehension at them, he must teach him -- not by cruel, but by gentle handling they are not really formidable.
19th Century Humane Training:
Once this basic trust is established, it requires only tact and patience to let the horse understand, by gradually accustoming it to bearing greater and greater portions of the weight of its human friend, that no harm will come to it through letting itself be ridden. The horse needs to learn that the presence of a human rider is not the same as the springing of a lion or tiger onto its back. John Solomon Rarey, in his book The Complete Horse Tamer, quotes from an earlier writer in a section called "Powell's Management of Wild Horses," and gives extremely detailed and considerate instructions on how to secure the willing agreement of a horse.
Other techniques have been used since Xenophon's time. Frederico Grisone, writing in 1569, detailed many techniques for using force to subdue horses, including "pushing the horse's head under water and nearly drowning him if he shows fear of crossing streams, to say nothing of the various [harsh bits that] he designed." (Margaret Cabell Self, Horsemastership, p. 5) La Broue wrote a book on horse breaking in 1612. "One learns from his text that his horses were constantly becoming lame, or so vicious that they could not be handled."
Less Forceful Techniques Still in Use Today:
There are several techniques that diverge from the Xenophon tradition, and which have continued to be used down to the present, the most well known being simply to throw a saddle on an unwilling horse and then to contest with it until its will to resist is finally broken. In addition, some people follow the practice of tying a frightened animal to a barn or tree until its struggles cease. A less costly way of "rough breaking," from the standpoint of time and injuries, is to mount the horse in water sufficiently deep to impede its struggles.
The practice of "sacking out" is fairly widely used, and, in the practice of some trainers, differs only in details from the way that Xenophon advises grooms to lead their horses through many potentially frightening but actually innocent situations. Other trainers advocate more vigorous use of this technique.
The Rarey technique is designed to be used in extreme circumstances in order to restore trust with a traumatized horse, and was dramatized in the novel and the motion picture The Horse Whisperer (Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, 1995).
The Foundations of Modern Training Methods: Powell and Rarey
In his book, Rarey quotes the work of an earlier author, identified there only as “Powell”. Willis J. Powell’s instructions for handling the task of establishing a positive relationship between horse and human, and Rarey’s own observations and special training methods, have summarized the elaborations of Xenophon’s basic instructions made so many centuries earlier.
The Continuation of Gentle Training Down to the Present:
The argument over whether horses are creatures whose will needs to be broken to suit them to the wills of human beings, or whether they are creatures with whom it is possible to form cooperative, even symbiotic, relationships still persists into the present. There are present-day proponents of subordinating horses by force, but these individuals generally rely on skills handed down via oral tradition from older sources and seldom put their techniques down in writing, sometimes because they are aware that such views are often considered socially unacceptable, but other times because they may consider their methods humane but a "trade secret."
However, browsing through any tack store or catalogue of horse equipment reveals certain types of equipment that could be considered inhumane, such as thin wire or sharp-edged bits, sharpened spurs, elaborate restraint systems and other tools are still being manufactured and sold. On the other hand, some equipment, such as a spade bit, may appear harsh and can be cruel in the hands of an inept handler or on a green horse, but is a sophisticated tool of subtle communication when used by a skilled trainer on a polished horse.
In general, most methods of possible inhumane use are substitutes for taking the time to properly train a horse, using force to get fast results. Some inhumane techniques are also dictated by competition fads or trends, an urge to win at all costs, and education of both judges and exhibitors is usually required to discourage such tactics.
There are several present-day proponents of establishing cooperative relationships between humans and horses (see dressage and Horse whisperer). The psychological studies of Ivan Pavlov and Burrhus Frederic Skinner have been applied to horse training through the use of techniques such as clicker training. But, for the most part, there is not much fundamental knowledge today that was not already present in Xenophon’s essay on the subject. There is a great deal more elaboration present in currently published books, but after over 3000 years of observation by interested and intelligent people, there has not been much more for humans to learn.
The Effect of Breeding Practices:
Horses that are selected for tractable and trainable dispositions are especially rewarding for the horse trainer to work with. Today, many breeders select for intelligence and trainability along with correct conformation and beauty.
A horse that is naturally friendly, companionable, teachable and willing is sometimes referred to as "born broke" because he learns so easily and accepts new things so phlegmatically.
Within the species, there is a wide range of temperament types from nervous and excitable to calm and placid. Individuals vary also in their intelligence and ability to learn.
An individual horse's physiology has much to do with his trainability as well. An intelligent horse that has a "big motor" may need more exercise and relaxation exercises before he will perform at his best. A quiet, calm horse may need only enough work to maintain fitness in order to be ready for optimum performance.
Weather also affects a horse's temperament. Chilly, windy weather or changing weather is often observed in conjunction with increased playfulness or nervousness of horses.