Horse breakingThe term horse breaking is a colloquialism used to refer to the process used by humans to get horses to let themselves be ridden or harnesed. Before such a learning process is accomplished, a horse will normally react to attempts to ride it about the way a young child reacts to getting a hypodermic injection, or the first haircut with a barber's buzzing shears.
Starting at least as early as the Greek equestrian Xenophon, people have had the knowledge that would let them conclude that the idea of horse breaking is a bad one, or at least that the term is extremely inappropriate to what the best trainers actually do. Nevertheless, violence is still sometimes visited upon horses in pursuit of the goal of breaking their spirits to make them tractable equine servants. Some people believe that violence sufficient to break the will of a horse must be used to cause the horse to submit to the will of human beings. Other people, based on their experiences that are consonant with the words of Xenophon, John Solomon Rarey, and other humane horse trainers, observe that there is no point (outside of a rodeo contest) to engage in "bucking bronco riding" if the cooperation of the horse can be secured by kindness. All of these methods have their adherents.
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 being in the same spirit of testing for dominance as he 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 human beings entering the pasture with the intent of driving them into submission. 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 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.
Back to the first writer on this subject, Xenophon: He argues that it is better for the average citizen or military man to take his young horse to a professional trainer to start the horses career as a mount for human beings. But he clearly understands 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 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 -- that they are not really formidable." (See the entire Project Gutenberg text at [this site]).
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 the horse to being ridden. The discussion is too long and detailed to be summarized here, and doing so would deprive the reader of the opportunity of savoring the original discussion. Fortunately, Rarey's entire book is available on-line: (click here)
Other techniques have been used since Xenophon's time. Frederico Grisone, writing in 1569, detailed many techniques for using force to subdue horses. "These include such methods as 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." (Op. cit.)
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 bronco riding, 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, and has been dramatized in an accurate and responsible way in the novel and the motion picture The Horse Whisperer (Nicholas Evans, Delacorte Press, 1995).
In his book, Rarey quotes the work of an earlier author, identified only as “Powell”. ([| Read here.]) 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. A list of classical and recent writers on the subject of horse training and equitation is available at: http://www.hippotherapy.be/adresses/auteurs.htm 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 and present-day proponents of establishing cooperative relationships between humans and horses. 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 known at present 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 one exception lies in the singular contribution to equine psychology made by Monty Roberts. Other people have observed submissive behavior in horses, and other people have used consequences of this principle of equine interaction to aid them in capturing horses, but only Roberts saw through the surface phenomena to the underlying principles of equine interaction and some of the most salient features of equine psychology. Others have implied that Roberts is only a good showman, a savvy commercial operator who has made himself famous by touting what everybody who really knows about horses already knows, and other complaints and accusations have been made to put his contributions into question. However, the fact remains that he has discovered, taught about, and written about a regularity of equine behavior that had never been mentioned before even by the most excellent horsemen and trainers from Xenophon to John Rarey, and on down to the time of his work in the Twentieth Century.
The Roberts discovery was that an individual horse can negotiate its own status as a member of the herd with the alpha mare of the herd. Through a non-verbal language a misbehaving horse can be asked whether it is prepared to submit to the good social order of the herd, or chooses to leave the herd and take its chances with predators on its own. So once a human being understands how the communication occurs, the horse, even a feral horse, can be asked whether or not it will agree to a social order in which the human holds the position of herd leader. If the horse accepts the proffered offer of a cooperative social relationship with human beings, then the further negotiations about accepting a saddle, bridle, and rider become much simpler to accomplish because they are conducted in a condition of trust, “herd member to herd member” as it were.
Roberts made his discovery about negotiations in at age thirteen. He was hired to keep a herd of feral horses, mustangs, under observation and to report their location to his employers from time to time. So he had no duties other than to watch the horses. One day he observed that after a yearling colt had made a major pest of himself by biting and kicking other members of the herd without provocation, the alpha (lead) mare reached the limits of her tolerance for such misbehavior and drove the colt out. Once away from the protection of the herd, the colt felt insecure and wanted to get back among the other horses, but the lead mare kept a threatening eye on him and every time he tried to sneak back in she would forcefully drive him off again.
Finally, the colt that had been ostracized for insubordination seemed to realize that he could not sneak back in and that his position became progressively more perilous the longer he remained outside the protection of the herd. At that point he dropped his head close to the ground and moved along periodically sticking his tongue out to lick around his mouth and clashing his teeth together. The sound created by striking a horse’s large teeth together is rather like the sound produced by hitting one fist-sized stone with another, and is quite audible at some distance. Once the lead mare perceived this message of submission being given by the colt, she signalled that she would allow him to reenter the herd by changing her body language from challenging to placid acceptance. After readmitting him to the herd she spent a great deal of time grooming him.
In the beginning, the colt did not accept any relationship of cooperation with other herd members. From his standpoint he was a free agent who owed no responsibility or cooperation to the other horses. He derived benefit from the herd, which protected him, without giving anything back to the herd. Once matters came to a head, the leader of the herd gave him a choice: cooperate nicely with the other horses or leave.
Roberts learned to take advantage of this way of negotiating subordination and cooperation by mimicing the behavior of the lead mare. He could then communicate with a feral horse or a horse that had learned a fear or even a hatred of human beings because of mistreatment. He could offer the horse a decision fork. The horse could either “leave” (although, unless this operation is done on the open range the horse can’t do anything more than refuse to associate with humans), or agree to a positive relationship with the human. Before this negotiation takes place, the horse behaves as a “wild” individual. That is, it is wary of the unknown humans and it will avoid them for fear that they might be hostile. Or, it may have learned to fear humans because it has observed them to be hostile. After the Roberts method interaction between the human being and the horse, if the horse has accepted the negotiation then it has placed itself in the kind of relationship that it would have with other members of a natural herd. Tentatively, at least, it has decided to trust the human being. After that point has been reached, it is essential for the human to avoid doing anything that would destroy the relationship of trust. But since horses are very apprehensive about new things that appear suddenly in their environment, but not apprehensive about things like bridles, blankets and saddles that they have examined carefully, it is not difficult to get a horse to accept a saddle and bridle.
At each stage of the process from what Roberts calls “join up” to accepting a rider, the essential principle is that the horse must be permitted to learn that no harm will come to it in this step. Horses fairly readily accept a human being leaning against them. From that degree of contact it is not a great change for the horse to accept the entire weight of a human being resting with belly on the horse’s back, and with feet on one side and head on the other side. While it is easy to achieve this position without startling the horse and causing it to dislodge the rider, it is much more difficult to achieve a sitting position on the horse’s back. The reason is simply that there is a great deal of motion involved in raising oneself to a high enough position and then throwing one leg over the horse’s back. The suddenness and impact involved is too much like being attacked from above by a predator for most horses to get used to easily.
Aside from the “join up” negotiation, there is not really any difference at all between what Roberts does and what Powell did nearly two hundred years before. (And there is no reason to believe that Powell was the first to use the method he wrote about.) Moreover, like Rarey’s method of establishing a relationship of trust with a horse made vicious by abuse, the Roberts technique would not be needed in the cases where the horse already had a positive relationship with human beings. All the way back to Xenophon (and the still earlier equestrians whose works he had studied), it was accepted as a first principle of training that horse and rider should have established a “member of the family” or “member of the herd” relationship before any attempt was made to ride the horse.
Many principles (and issues) of practical equine psychology are involved in establishing some kind of relation between a human and a horse such that the horse will permit itself to be ridden, pull a plow, draw a carriage, and so forth.
For exact details on the Powell method and the John Rarey method, (click here)
For exact details on the Monty Roberts method, see:
The Man Who Listens to Horses, Monty Roberts, Random House, 1997. ISBN: 0-679-45658-9