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The Fatal Flaw Behind Horse Breaking

By Jeffrey Rolo

Rather than list the common errors committed during horse breaking I'll cut straight to the chase since such errors pale in comparison to the overall fatal flaw inherent in breaking a horse: the act itself! Contrary to the belief of some, when preparing a horse for saddle our goal is not to break a horse's spirit, but rather to create a willing and accepting partner. Ruling a horse via fear and abusive treatment is not only reprehensible by its very nature, it is also highly unnecessary as horses can easily become willing partners if shown kindness, patience and compassion.

Some people possess the belief that horses are willful beasts not capable of exhibiting loyalty or reasonable behavior. As such, they believe horses should be dealt with using extreme force until the human breaks and conquers the horse's spirit. Frederico Grisone, a handler that lived in the mid-1500's and has also been credited with laying the foundations of modern dressage, was one such individual. Although I do believe the horse world has become more enlightened in modern times, unfortunately there are those who still to this day adopt violent training techniques.

While I will not provide any names or specifics since the goal of this article is to criticize an overall behavior rather than an individual, I would like to share an example of how futile violent horse breaking can be.

There is an individual that is, oddly enough, respected by some as an accomplished horse trainer. He breaks these horses fast and furious; groundwork and developing a mutual relationship is irrelevant and only serves to delay things. If a horse is deemed to be stubborn he has been known to pull out a 2x4 and beat the horse, not caring whether the "stubbornness" is actually born out of defiance, fear or confusion. There is no doubt about it all signs of spirit or will must be broken.

One year I was able to observe much of his prized stock at a multiple-day horse show, and he owned some beautiful horses to be certain. Each was certainly a strong contender to take home a ribbon. Whereas one or two of his horses did manage to place in an event, a greater majority not only failed to take home a ribbon, but also failed miserably. Once the crowd would start applauding the deafening outbursts would scare a majority of their horses, causing them to sidestep, dance around, reverse and generally fail to perform. One was reacting so poorly it needed to depart the stadium before the conclusion of the event.

There is an important lesson to be taught by this example. While it true that horse owners must be firm leaders to their horses, going overboard and ruling by fear rather than respect can only go so far. Yes, this trainer was able to "break" his horses. Yes, they were forced to perform under saddle and would accommodate most of his requests. But the moment some of the horses were placed in a situation they feared even more than their trainer, the new fear took complete control over them. Had the trainer been a partner rather than a dictator, the horses may have drawn strength from him. Had the trainer taken a slow and methodical approach towards training, the horses may have been trained ahead of time not to fear clapping and cheering. In the end the trainer not only failed his horses, he failed himself.

A less offensive example of horse breaking would be the infamous "bucking bronco" routine popularized by old cowboy movies and legends. This is when an unwilling horse is saddled and ridden until either the rider(s) or the horse gives up. Such a battle of wills is not inherently violent or cruel as the abovementioned practices are, but once again is it really conductive or necessary? When a trainer attempts to break a horse there is a small chance that the horse may be injured and an even greater chance that the trainer may be seriously injured if he is tossed.

Personally I would reserve the bucking bronco antics for the rodeos and stick to sound, measured training practices when preparing a show or pleasure horse for saddle. Just a couple days spent with round pen work can make a lifetime of difference.

In the end if you attempt to break a horse rather than train a horse, you just may succeed despite your disservice to the horse. But you also run a chance of turning an otherwise potentially great horse into an equally violent, unmanageable monster at the worst, or a spooky, untrusting horse at best. Is either result really worth it?

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