When and how to start training your horse
Ask one hundred different trainers how to train a horse, and you’ll get two hundred answers. Between all the different breeds, disciplines, training methods, and individual personalities, it’s possible to never train a horse the same way twice. So how do you weed through all the advice to figure out what’s best for you and your horse?
There are several basics to horse training that apply no matter how much experience you have or how old your horse is. You must establish leadership, then follow the three basic tenets of patience, consistency, and repetition. There are three main types of horse training: Classical (or Traditional), Natural Horsemanship, and Positive Reinforcement. Don’t be afraid to mix up your usual routine, adapt your training methods to fit each horse, and ask for help if you need it.
Finally, understand that training is a long game, often taking six-plus years to train a horse from start to ‘finish.’ (Though, really, training always continues!)
The Basics of Horse Training
One of the most important thing to establish with your horse is that you are in charge. In the wild, horses live in herds, and each herd has a hierarchy. You need to be seen as the leader if your horse is going to respect you.
The best way to establish your leadership is by making sure your horse respects your personal space and by showing him you can make him move his feet. You must always act in a way that is fair, consistent, and predictable in order to build trust.
This type of work will lead your horse to respect you, which will make training him much easier.
Patience is an essential skill when training a horse. It takes time for horses to learn new things. Sometimes, they may seem to get worse before they master whatever you’re trying to teach them.
A character on the long-running ranch show Heartland, Jack Bartlett, sums it up perfectly:
“If you act like you only have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act like you have all day, it’ll take 15 minutes.”
Consistent communication is another important element when training. It’s about more than just using the same verbal cues. Horses also pay attention to body language.
Say you’re training a horse to stay out of your personal space. Not only can there be no exceptions (it doesn’t matter how cute he’s being), but you also must ask him to move away the same way every time. Otherwise, your horse might get confused and start invading your space more.
One time is luck, twice is a coincidence, and three times is the start of a new skill. For a horse to truly learn something, he’s going to have to do it a lot!
Stick with shorter training sessions, 10-15 minutes, to avoid frustration. When your horse masters something new, give him big praise and a treat, then be done with it until the next day.
You’ll have to practice new skills every day for several weeks or months for them to become habits.
Learn to Speak Horse
Training a horse is much easier when you understand how they communicate and how best to communicate with them.
Understand the Equine Brain
At the most basic level, humans can think and plan, whereas horses are hardwired to respond to stimuli. When a horse either doesn’t recognize something or doesn’t understand, his brain immediately shifts into the infamous flight, fight, or freeze mode.
Horse Psychology 101
Understanding this fundamental difference helps trainers make better progress with horses. Let’s use teaching your horse to move his hind legs as an example. Horses understand pressure and don’t like it (meaning that pressure encourages them to take action).
Put pressure on your horse’s side, and keep it there, until he moves his hind legs. The moment he moves, release the pressure. This is the reward that will encourage a repeat of that action in the future. Wait a few moments to allow for relief time before asking again.
More complicated skills should be given some soaking in time (a day or two) before revisiting to give the horse time to learn from the experience. During a training session, a helpful cue that your horse understands what you’re asking for is when he starts to lick and chew.
Want to learn more about equine psychology? Check out this course.
Types of Horse Training
Traditional (or Classical)
Traditional horse training is the oldest method. It’s designed to re-train your horse’s flight instinct (so that instead of running from a perceived threat, he listens to you instead). Lunging and long lining are huge components of this method.
Natural horsemanship is a more recent development that focuses on horse psychology. The cornerstone of natural horsemanship is pressure and release. This method focuses on making it desirable for your horse to do what you want while still allowing them to think for themselves. It can take a long time, however, so you must have patience.
We’ve got a whole course dedicated to natural horsemanship—check it out here!
Positive reinforcement, sometimes referred to as R+, emphasizes rewarding desirable or good behaviors with things like praise, tricks, pats, or clicks. The reward, however slight, encourages your horse to repeat the behavior in the future.
Positive reinforcement means adding something (like a treat) to encourage a behavior (like standing still for mounting).
Pressure and release are usually used in conjunction with positive reinforcement, as they are similar methods that are easy for horses to understand.
Clicker training teaches a horse to associate a noise (a click) with something positive, allowing a faster reward for the correct behavior.
Check out this article to learn more about clicker training!
Mix It Up
Like people, horses can get bored with the same-old routine. If you’re a dressage rider, set up some small cross rails. Into jumping? Spend a day doing lateral work and circles on the flat.
Trail rides can be a great mental break from any routine (and are still a great training exercise).
Adapt to the Individual Horse
What works with one horse may not work with another. The first horse I trained hated lunging, but loved trail rides. Instead of forcing him to work on the line, I took him for long walks. This helped him build his endurance, which in turn made arena work more palatable.
My next horse had lots of negative riding experiences with her previous owner. Instead of working out the issues under saddle, I did a lot of lunging with her—mostly at the walk—to encourage her to relax and use her body correctly.
This went a long way towards developing trust and clear communication, which made riding much easier.
Ask for Help
Don’t be afraid to reach out to a trainer for help. Most are very happy to show you some new methods and can help get you unstuck.
The Timeline of Horse Training
When done correctly, it takes years to properly train a horse. The process should start once the horse is born and will continue for several years.
Getting in Shape
Getting in shape can take a couple of months and should be done slowly. If a horse is worked with consistently from a young age, they should have a solid level of fitness by the time they’re ready for more serious work like lunging, long lining, and riding.
Stages of Horse Training
All horse training starts with groundwork or in-hand training. This means teaching your horse the basics, like being haltered, led, and standing still. He must learn to yield to pressure, flex his neck, and soften.
Next, you can teach him to move around you on a lead line in a circle (to prepare for lunging). You can also work on getting him to move his front and back legs, and to back up.
Once you have control of every part of your horse’s body, you can work on desensitizing. This will help you and your horse build trust. Help them get used to anything that might be scary, like saddle pads, plastic bags, and tarps.
Timeline to Green Broke
Generally speaking, green broke refers to a horse that’s been lightly started under saddle—meaning they’ve been sat on a few times and have had a few short rides.
How long this should take varies widely and is a source of much debate. Some people start horses under saddle as young as two or three, others wait until a horse is four.
Others believe a horse shouldn’t be ridden until it’s six years old. Why? Even though horses look fully grown much sooner, a horse’s skeleton isn’t fully developed until he or she is six, leaving them prone to injuries and early-onset arthritis.
Timeline to ‘Finished’
Finishing a horse under saddle can take several years. “Finished” also changes meaning depending on the discipline. For example, a finished barrel horse typically takes less time than a finished Grand Prix dressage horse.
If a horse is being called finished, he should be reliable, consistent, and understand all cues. Most finished horses may also be ridden by a beginner (with supervision).
Horse Training Videos
Thanks to the internet, horse training videos have become increasingly popular. For those with some horse experience, it can be an affordable alternative to hiring a trainer (which can be expensive). Other horse owners want the experience of training a horse themselves.
Sometimes, the problem is the lack of a horse trailer to haul to a trainer or living in a remote area that trainers don’t frequent. In these cases, video training can be a lifesaver.
Horse Training Videos for Beginners
Beginners should use videos with caution, as it can be dangerous to work with a horse when you don’t have previous experience (or experienced supervision). Regardless, there are some solid options for beginners.
Buck Brannaman has a great 7-part series. Start with 7 Clinics with Buck Brannaman: 1-2. These two parts focus on effective communication and basic groundwork.
Colt Starting with a Hackamore (Bosal) & Snaffle Bit with Larry Trocha is another beginner’s option aimed more at Western riders. It focuses on how to build a solid foundation. His Training the Foal and Weanling is another great option if you have a young horse or want to build a better relationship with a new horse.
Looking for a well-rounded series of videos, covering a variety of topics and techniques? Check out Julie Goodnight on YouTube.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the highest expression of horse training?
FEI, or the International Equestrian Federation, says dressage is the highest expression of horse training. Dressage requires a high level of artistry and communication and can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.
Q: What is the Jeffry method of horse training?
The Jeffery method focuses on using close contact between trainer and horse to desensitize and familiarize a young horse.
You begin by rubbing the horse’s whole body with your hands. Then, you jump up and down next to his shoulder, which mimics the mounting up motion. Finally, you hop onto the horse, laying along his topline, and rub your hands all over before sliding off.
Q: What is the comfort zone for horse training?
The Comfort Zone is a video training method developed by Jonathan Gauthier. Initially developed for high-level reining horses, this method can be used with other disciplines.
His program is divided into three volumes (Basics, Intermediate, and Advanced), and covers everything from groundwork and long lining to transitions, stopping, and spins.
Q: What are comfort zone exercises?
Comfort Zone exercises are used as part of Jonathan Gauthier’s video training method to develop a well rounded horse. The training begins with a series designed to establish a solid foundation.
Exercises include ground work, lunging in the round pen, working on the lunge line, long lining, and what to cover in the first rides.
Q: How long does it take to get a horse in shape?
A lot depends on your horse’s current condition. At a minimum, expect it to take around six to eight weeks to develop a basic level of fitness. Longer (ten to twelve weeks) if you’re looking to do any type of long trail rides or performance work.
The most important thing is to start slowly and build up over time. Just like humans, horses lose muscular and cardiovascular fitness when out of work. Start with ten to fifteen minutes and gradually build up the duration and intensity of the workouts.
Pro tip: if your horse is heavily sweating, he may be working too hard. Make sure to allow for breaks when getting your horse back in shape.
Check out this article for tips on how to feed and exercise a yearling horse.
Training a horse can be a challenge, but it’s a rewarding experience that can create a special bond between you and your equine partner.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- 10 Top Treats for Training Horses the “Nice” Way
- Seven Boredom Bustin’ Horse Pasture Toys
- Pressure & Release Training for Horses that Won’t Listen
- Bareback Training for a Green Horse
- 9 Best Online Horse Training Courses for Goal-Getters
- Neck Reining 101: Horse Rookie Training Tips
- Clicker Training for Horses Clinic