Traditional Horse Breaking

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Horses are flight animals, meaning that they respond to unknown or threatening situations by running away. The process of "breaking" a horse refers to overcoming its flight instincts and allowing it to be handled, then eventually ridden by humans.

With horses that have been bred by humans, this process is started almost from birth. With horses that have lived wild prior to breaking, the process is much longer and more complicated. The handler works with the horse each day, gradually desensitising it to human contact. There are several methods of approaching this process, of which the two main ones are traditional and natural horsemanship.

The History of Horse Breaking

Traditional methods have been used for centuries to help tame the horses that were an essential tool for warfare and agriculture. Horse breaking was originally called "breaking" as it used brutal methods to make the horse submit. However, as horses learn by memory they came to associate humans with violence. Better training methods were developed that involved working with the horse rather than against it, although brutality is still seen in certain cultures. "Traditional" horse breaking these days normally refers to a process of gradual and gentle desensitisation used to help suppress the flight instinct. The process is now often referred to as "starting" a horse rather than "breaking."

Starting a Young Horse

The training of a young horse should start as early as possible. By the time it is a year old, the horse should be broken to the halter (happy to wear a halter and be led) and happy to have its feet handled and be groomed. Every time that you get a visit from the veterinarian, farrier or other professional, ask them to pet or handle your youngster. As the horse becomes older and stronger, it can start the groundwork. This normally involves working the horse around the handler on a long rope called a lunge. This process helps build up the correct muscles and balance for riding. This is all part of the breaking-in process, and a horse that has gone through these stages will be far easier to break to ride.

Working With An Older Horse

Horses should not start ridden work until they are least 3- and, preferably, 4-years old. This is to ensure that the joints and muscles are strong, and the horse is mentally mature enough to cope with what is asked. Three people are generally involved in breaking a horse to ride. One will hold the horse, one will be the rider and the third will help the rider mount and balance. To begin with, the rider will only lean his weight across the horse's back. As the horse progresses, the rider will gradually mount properly and assume a normal riding position. At this stage, the horse can be worked on the lunge again with a rider on board, until it is sufficiently experienced to be ridden loose. Now it can start proper training in the chosen discipline.

Traditional vs. Natural Horsemanship Methods

Natural horsemanship methods involve developing a trust bond with the horse by observing its behaviour patterns and communicating with it. As horses are herd animals, they naturally look for a leader in an unknown situation. A natural horsemanship trainer would create such a situation then encourage the horse to see them as a leader. Enthusiasts of natural horsemanship methods use very little equipment to break a horse, and may not use traditional tack such as saddle and bridle. Many modern horse breakers use a combination of both traditional and natural methods, for example working horses on the lunge in traditional tack but also using natural communication techniques.