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How to Gentle Break a Horse for Riding

One of my favorite things to do is ride and train horses. I have ridden on both coasts and in the center of North America.

Gentle training a horse can give you a lifelong companion.

Gentle training a horse can give you a lifelong companion.

How to Break a Horse: The Gentle Way and the Hard Way

There are two ways to train a horse for riding: the hard or the gentle way. One way works well, and the other causes more problems than it is worth. Gentle breaking works best because it helps a horse build trust with its handler so this relationship will last a lifetime.

The other method is to force the horse to your will. This does not work well because every animal, including humans, will rebel when forced to do something. This is not to say that it doesn't work. It can be used as a teaching tool, but gentle breaking is just more effective. Horses can be forced to obey, but they will end up resenting you and will act up more often.

Below, you will find information about:

  • Gentling
  • Halter-Training
  • Training a Horse to Lead
  • Bit and Bridle Training
  • Saddle Training
How to break a horse the best, gentlest way.

How to break a horse the best, gentlest way.


Gentling, otherwise known as "gentle breaking," takes time. It can be done with just the horse and the rider, but it is best done when another person can demonstrate riding on an already-trained horse. This “monkey see, monkey do” method works really well. When your horse sees someone doing something with another horse without that horse showing fear, your horse will want the same done to him, especially if treats are given. Once you have gained the horse's trust, you can start halter training.

How to Halter Train a Horse

Halter training works best on younger horses.

  • To ease your colt into wearing a halter, you should spend time with him every day, and he should see you putting halters on other horses.
  • Spend time brushing and petting the colt's head, and remember to give treats often.
  • Use varied treats to find out which one your colt likes best.

From my experience, colts never take a halter the first time you try, so you must have patience. With that said, you should not let his stubbornness go on for too long.

How to Train a Horse to Lead

Once the colt is comfortable wearing a halter, it is time to start leading. The two-horse system works great for this training.

  1. Use a trained horse and the colt you are training.
  2. Attach lead ropes to both of the horses' halters.
  3. Walk to the other end of the lead rope, and hold up a treat. Do this with both horses. The trained horse should then start moving up to receive his treat. More often than not, the horse you are training will follow suit.
  4. If the colt in training does not move, you should move a little closer to him.

Note: Make sure to only give the treat after the colt has moved.

Western bit and bridle

Western bit and bridle

Bit and Bridle Training

As soon as the colt reaches its full head size, bridle training should begin. Use the least restrictive bit possible. (You should never have to use a restrictive bit.) This training should also be done with a treat that the colt can handle with a bit in its mouth. Once it is bit trained, the same style of bit should always be used.

Saddle Training

A colt should know how to lead and do direction movement before you put on a saddle.

In my experience with gentle breaking, I always have other horses during the training to help my colt learn.

  1. To get your colt used to having something on his back, try leaning on him while you brush him.
  2. Then, find lightweight things (an old coat works well) to put on his back. Be sure to put it on the already-trained horse first, and give treats to both horses.
  3. When your colt tolerates the lightweight item, move on to the saddle blanket. The horse should now accept this with no problem. If he balks, use the lightweight item again for a while.
  4. Once he accepts the saddle blanket, you can start adding some of your weight to his back. This can be done by standing on a stool and brushing the horse while leaning over him. Make sure you can quickly move away from the horse, if necessary.
  5. When the colt is comfortable with a saddle blanket and your weight, start wrapping things around his back and belly. This gets him used to the idea of a cinch. In my experience, this training takes the longest. To calm the horse, brush him as you do this.
  6. Once all of the above can be done comfortably, you should introduce the saddle. The best way to do this is to have the horse see other horses being saddled as often as possible. You should also ride other horses close by to get him used to the idea.
Horses like people who are gentle and capable of love.

Horses like people who are gentle and capable of love.

Ready to Ride

When I reach this phase, I always work with three horses (two of which should already be well-broke). I would sandwich the new horse between them and mount the riders. This can be dangerous if any fear is shown on the rider's part. I do not recommend this for a beginner.

The horse should now move as the others do without bucking or acting up. As the other horses turn right or left, move the reins in the appropriate direction. If you want the horse to follow toe commands, you should use them at this time.

If you follow these suggestions, you will have a horse that trusts you and is more obedient. Horses like people who are gentle and capable of love, so if you treat them kindly, they will develop a very loving relationship with you that will last a lifetime.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do you train a wild horse?

Answer: The same way you train any horse. With a wild horse, the habits they pick up in the wild can be problematic. In time though they can be trained away. Be prepared, working with a wild horse is going to take more time. It is going to have to be consistent, and I recommend daily, this means 7 days a week.

Question: My 5 year old mare refuses to accept any bit. Have tried snaffle, rubber Mullen and she kicks up a real fuss. Teeth checked by an equine dentist, jaw X-ray taken- no problems. What do you suggest?

Answer: There are a few horses that refuse to take a bit ever. Most though can be trained to take one. I would never advise a rubber bit. If I won't put it in my mouth why should I put it in a horse's mouth? Try rubbing the least restrictive steel bit (not rubber) with something the horse likes to eat.

Question: How to break a horse?

Answer: I refuse to answer this because breaking to me means breaking a horse's spirit, this is something I have never done and refuse to do. Horses do not need to be broken. They need to be trained in a loving setting using all the time needed to build trust and a loving relationship with the horse/trainer.

Question: Why do horses stick their muzzle to your face? Does this mean they love you?

Answer: I am not a horse, so I don't know what love means to a horse. What I have seen and had done to me is being nuzzled by horses I just met. To me this means they accept my presence, not that they love me.

Question: Is it a good idea to train horses in a loving way (break-in) as a first-time horse owner?

Answer: Breaking, in reality, means breaking something. In a horse, this means breaking its spirit. This is why training with love is always going to be the better choice.


Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 30, 2019:

Sorry to say the only trainers of that caliber I am aware of live too far away. The closest I am aware of is in Northern Missouri. At this point I am no longer working with horses. I found it too time consuming for the money involved. Actually the best I know, because I do keep up with the horse world is in New Zealand. For rescue horses it isn't worth it sending them that far though.

Tricia on March 26, 2019:

I live in central Michigan, and have 2 older horses, 19 and 20. I have had them 2 a couple different trainers, and they are still not safe to ride. I do not have time to train them, and I cannot afford a broken bone. Does anyone know of a gentle horse trainer, like Monty Roberts or Mial Lykke Nielsen in my area that I could use to train my horses? They are rescues, I have had them 5 years, they are costing me a fortune in board, I would like to be able to ride them. Please help!

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on October 31, 2018:

Jordan, why would you believe it would be any different for an older horse than a young one?

You have to build the bond, let it see other horses having done to them what you want of it.

Chances are it will take more time an patience, however should work as well.

Jordan Wingate on October 30, 2018:

I have an 11 year old curly and it takes her a long time to trust someone. I know this is late in the horse's life to break, but how would I go about breaking her?

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on October 23, 2018:

Staci she is too young to ride, and I don't advise even saddling her for another year and a half. At this point I believe you can start putting weight against her, not on top of her. Let her be well used to you being around as much as possible to keep the bond intact.

Staci White on October 23, 2018:

I have a filly thats 2.5 yrs old.ive been training her slowly since she was 6.5 months old. Weve learned a lot together and she learns best from positive reinforcement, patience, and time. This is my first horse train9ng experience.So far so in no rush. When shes ready i plan on trying this method. I have not put a saddle on yet but i have used a surcingle and snugged it up pretty good.she had no buck no bolt.i do let her invesyigate hoping the next phase goes well as i really want to gentle her myself.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on June 01, 2018:

Thanks Pixie. Chances are you won't learn enough reading articles or watching videos. You need to meet other people who are doing the same kind of training and talk to them.

Remember respect and trust are going to be determining factors. If the horse respects you and trusts you it will be easier to train and with less friction.

PIXIE LOTTA!!! on May 31, 2018:

I am looking for a young horse to by for myself but how do I train it to show jump?

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on May 15, 2018:

Katerina when I am working with horses, I never do ground exercises with them. It is a physical impossibility for me. Everything I do is based on an outcome I want from the horse. So ask yourself what do you want from the horse? Then set up a system where you gain the outcome you want.

katerina on May 08, 2018:

my friends have horses and I spend time with them sometimes and were not ridden in a while now. I want just some simple ground exercises that I can do in a big closed off field. :)

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on October 04, 2017:

Are you in an area where there are other horse owners? If so talk to them about using them and their horses. If not work slower, go over everything especially leaning on the horse until you and the horse feel comfortable. Remember it is all about trust. You trusting the horse and the horse trusting you.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on October 04, 2017:

Break them? About three days. Train a horse that will serve you well for as long as you live?

It could take up to six months. Remember horses shouldn't be ridden until age four.

ang on October 03, 2017:

I do not have any broken in horses so what do i do?

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 23, 2017:

Pete, not everyone is a horse lover or spends enough time around horse people to understand why a bit sells with the horse. The five percent simply lack knowledge.

pete on April 17, 2017:

5% of people actually voted because of germs for the bit question?

Tiffany:) on April 11, 2016:

In summer im planning on breaking in a horse for myself and this article is perfect for me!! Have you got any other tips? I have been riding two years and would like a challenge but also would love to have a horse that i have broken in myself for the amazing bond

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on May 29, 2015:

Ally, without knowing how you give the horse commands there isn't much I can tell you. It is my belief the horse is responding to commands you might not be aware you are giving. My suggestion is put the strongest rider you can find on the horse and see how the horse responds to him or her. If the problem remains with the other rider work on creating a command, which gives you the desired results. Horses learn from example so if you can canter next to a horse that keeps it's head up try that too.

Ally on May 29, 2015:

Hi, I have just I quick question for you about cantering. I am breaking in a 4 year old horse and we are working on cantering, he is a very energetic horse. On about the second stride he keeps whipping his head down. Can you tell me how to fix this problem please. Thank you:)

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 04, 2015:

Dressage husband you make some great points here. Trust is a major factor when working with horses or people. The ability to understand how a horse thinks helps tremendously. As a teen I remember spending hours with the horses. This was the same when I owned my own house of was training for others. I have seen videos of others who can train a horse to be ridden in three days. This is something I never did or would even consider. To my way of thinking a horse can't understand me, and I can't understand it in that short amount of time. I spent six months working with the last horse I trained. Then again maybe I was at a disadvantage because I was wheelchair bound at the time. Believe me it is harder when you can't give foot and leg requests. When I was living and training in South Dakota I spent more time in the pasture with the horses than I did anywhere else. My scent was on every bale of hay they ate. It was also all over the pasture. Mutual respect goes further than anything when you are working with horses.

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on February 14, 2015:

We have four horses of our own and have had boarding horses too. The truth is that you have to understand each animal and the way he or she thinks. They all will come to me at the gate whenever I approach with a halter in hand, but not for anyone! You have to have their trust and this means you should pick out their stalls while they are eating and other such tasks.

Normally a horse will react as they think you may want to take their food, but if you reassure them and pet them then after a while they accept you. You need them to accept your commands rather than think for themselves.

This is not breaking, but establishing yourself as more knowledgeable and so it is easier for them to follow your direction than think for themselves. Horses make this easier as they are herd animals and lazy thinkers who like a lead animal (Alpha horse). You just become the alpha. This means when they are little push them off their food, the animal whose front feet move first has lost, do this gently when they are young and get their respect (leaving this later makes it harder if not impossible).

Make the young animal wait a while then let it eat and reward it with love pets and brushing while it eats. This overcomes its tendency to defend its food and establishes you as a great provider (Alpha horse). This relationship will not be questioned as long as you provide food and treats and petting and grooming on a regular basis.

I have found the letting them watch approach is one of the quickest ways to get them to overcome their natural fears. Good article (Hub). Voted up.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on June 28, 2012:

Thanks Rolly. I love working with horses too. At this point in my life I don't have time which is probably a good thing. Now the only thing which would probably be broken is me. In the last xray they took of my legs the bones looked like Swiss cheese. I never broke a horse, they were always trained, just so you know. One of my hubs talks about how I came to work with horses. It is one of the "Indian" series.

Rolly A Chabot from Alberta Canada on June 27, 2012:

Hi Dennis... what a great article and one which caught my eye as I love horses and working with them. Over the years I have learned breaking a horse slowly and gently develops trust and establishes relationship. To break the spirit of the horse is to no ones benefit. You have written a great article here...

Rolly in Canada

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on July 16, 2011:

I had the use of a horse from the time I was 13 but didn't actually own my own until "later in life". Through the years I have worked with training other people's horses, ridden every time I have had the chance.

Even after becoming wheelchair bound have still worked with horses, and ridden. I am supposed to be working with one now but have too many other irons in the fire.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on July 16, 2011:

I had my own horse when I was 13. Her name was Zoe and she was a morgan quarterhorse mix. She wouldn't let anyone else ride her except for me. She wouldn't even let my mom (the horse expert) ride her! I've seen my mom break many green horses...whether green or broken, horses have always captivated me.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 20, 2011:

Answering your question was my pleasure. Even if it cost me some sleep. LOL

I have heard all my life to write about what I know. Much of my life was spent around horses and I saw many instances where things could have been handled better. My hope with this article was that people would see a different way which has always been very effective for me.

meow48 from usa on April 20, 2011:

really liked this article and am glad for the definitions. take care. oh, and thanks for answering my question.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 05, 2011:

To me she was, her conformation wasn't the best as she was short bodied. Sorry I have no pictures, all of the pictures were left behind when I moved to California to take care of my father. I tried at a later date to get some and was told they had all been thrown away.

There is no way I can be considered a newbie as I have known about proud cut horses since my teens. Actually have ridden them both before and after the accidents. Some people like my father prefer them because they are more spirited than a gelding, but easier to handle than a stallion. For newbie's "a gelding is a neutered male horse and a stallion can breed".

According to rickrideshorses we need to stop thinking in terms of catching horses and change our thinking to bringing them in. According to him it takes a little time but they can be trained to come to you.

I know in South Dakota one thing that helped is we had plenty of social capital. There were two well trained horse people, two teens who loved to ride, also two people who popped in to help with the horses care and me. Didn't hurt either that the water trough which was required for us was right next to the gate. LOL

Diana Owens from My Little Hole In The Wall, HubPages, USA on April 05, 2011:

I bet your horse was beautiful! What a mix! I'd love to see a picture of her if you have any on the computer.

My oldest horse, Sparky, is easy for anybody to catch. She always has been. But Red, not so much. He's really easy to catch unless he reads my mind and knows I'm gonna give him de-wormer... which is basically every time I do it. Even if he's the very first one to get de-wormed out of all the horses and I leave the unwrapped tube of paste in the house until I catch him. He's such a stink! (: He doesn't mind when I give him shots though, just the de-wormer, even if it's the supposedly great tasting apple flavored kind. He's a proud cut gelding, so he still acts studdy...basically, your typical boneheaded stallion, just without the "goods."

**For the Newbies out there following these comments, being "proud cut" is a male horse that only had one testicle descended...and therefore only one testicle removed when he was gelded. The other testicle is still up in his body cavity somewhere and although it's useless for making babies from being too hot up in the body, he still "acts" like a stallion. He doesn't nip, but he is thick-headed and incredibly strong! You HAVE to be on your toes with him when you're around him, otherwise you could get very hurt.

The 3 babies are getting easier to catch every day. Stig has always been the easiest, then sister Dakota...and bringing up the rear is Buzz. He's finally to the point where I can pet him on the neck without him bolting away. I'm just taking my sweet time with him and giving him lots of space. I let him come up to me, not me to him. If he doesn't want to be touched that day, I let him be.

I'm sorry you had to sell your mare, Denna. I hope she calmed down enough for her new owner to handle her...for HER sake.

Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 04, 2011:

My horse, the only one I ever really owned was an arab appy mix, for me she was a war horse for anyone else she spooked easy and threw anyone who she could, other than my son. He was like having a feather on her back. When he rode he was eight and small for his age.

I can't tell you how many times I laughed when anyone went into the pasture to bring her in. All it ever took for me was to go to the gate she was right there to meet me.

The man who bought her told me if I couldn't ride her bareback he wouldn't buy her. So I did, it took two men to get me on the horses back. She had a halter on but it wasn't needed. I got extra money for her when he saw that she turned and stopped with only hand (requests)commands without anything ever coming out of my mouth.

She loaded right into the trailer but I was told it took three men and another horse to get her out.

Diana Owens from My Little Hole In The Wall, HubPages, USA on April 04, 2011:

I actually had been doing that with "The Girls'" mama, Rose, and they were always either curiously watching or following us out in the field, so I'm sure it helped!

If I ever find anybody to help me with the "sandwich" horses though, I'd MUCH rather do that! It sounds a whole lot safer than goin' it alone like I have been and occasionally gettin' dumped on my ass! Especially with Pearl. She's still pretty young and VERY spooky! Even for an already spooky breed like Arabians...she's full of firecrackers and has springs in her feet!

Thank you for the encouraging email. I'll definitely look into that stuff!

It's midnight here and I'm hittin' the sack, so take care of yourself and I'll chat with ya later!


Dennis Thorgesen (author) from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on April 04, 2011:

I wrote this from personal experience so have seen this many times for myself. Oh and if you don't have the social capital (people you know and trust as riders) it's better to do it the way you are. You can still use the monkey see monkey do, saddle and ride another horse into the area where the one to be broke is as often as possible, to let the horse to be broke see another horse being ridden with you in the saddle.

Diana Owens from My Little Hole In The Wall, HubPages, USA on April 04, 2011:

Hi wheelin'...

Great article! Excellent info on the use of 2 "sandwich" horses to start the young-un. My only problem is, is that I don't have anybody willing to help me with this, so I hafta put in a little more groundwork and a few extra weeks of round pen work until they get completely comfortable with the idea of having a cinch around their belly and extra weight on their backs. You are absolutely right about "monkey see monkey do." I've seen it time and time again with horses (and other critters as well).

Very helpful. Keep up the good work! Thank you! (: