Updated: Jul 20
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” – Lord of the Rings
For thousands of years men have been breaking horses. “Broke”, “broken in”, “green broke” and “dead broke” were all terms that simply meant the same thing – the horse had been dominated, its spirit broken, and its will bent in obedience to the rider.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw wild horses being “broken in". It was a three-day brutal battle involving a lot of rope, lathered sweat, and primal fear. Sure, the end result was a couple of ridable horses, but at what price?
As mentioned in a previous blog, I have ordinarily only owned geldings, with one exception – Luna Crescendo. Luna was aptly named. A three-year-old flashy thoroughbred mare, bred for the racetrack, she was given to me because she was, "a little loco" and the owners had been unable to break her. When I went to pick her up I had to back my trailer up to the stall she had been boxed in so that she could be chased on with a whip. Needless to say, it was an interesting ride home!
Once home, I began the process of earning her trust (not an easy thing when trust has been broken). She was extremely head shy and would lash out if I came anywhere near her hind feet. The first week I spent a lot of time just hanging out in her stall, talking to her, feeding her carrots, and scratching her feel good spots (the base of the neck near the withers, behind the ears, and on the forehead). I progressed to lightly grooming her and once she was calmer and more comfortable with putting the halter on and taking it off, walking her out and hand grazing her.
The second week I spent desensitizing her to the lunge rope, whip, and numerous other objects (a saddle pad, a blanket, a fly mask, and anything else I felt she needed to get used to). I also started groundwork with her and work on the lunge line in the round pen.
By the third week I was sitting on her back and riding quietly around the round pen. She was progressing fantastically well, the only problem being that she objected violently to having a bit put in her mouth. Instead of forcing the issue I decided to start her in a bitless bridle and come back to introducing a bit at a later date. This ended up working very well and by the time I revisited introducing the bit, it was no longer an issue.
As mentioned in a previous blog, Thoroughbreds do not respond well to too much pressure. Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious that they had tried to “break” Luna using traditional methods. Pressure is an important training tool and most horses learn to seek the release when you apply pressure. In a sensitive horse like Luna, the result of being subjected to unrelenting pressure (with no release) was that, when even slightly pressured, she went from zero to full blown panic in a nano second. This made her extremely unpredictable and dangerous to ride.
On one occasion I was free longing her in the round pen and stepped in front of her to ask her to reverse direction. We had done the same exercise many times, but for some reason, this time the pressure was too much for her. Reverting to flight mode, she spun on her hindquarters and half jumped, half smashed through the round pen gate. On another occasion I was teaching her to back and applied gentle pressure with my hand and leg. Once again, the pressure triggered panic causing her to rear up so violently that she literally knocked me unconscious.
Like most problem horses, Luna’s issues were all man made. The tragedy is that under different circumstances she would have been a truly exceptional horse. If there is one thing, I hope you take away from this blog it is this – don’t allow your ignorance (and therefore unintentional cruelty) to ruin a good horse. In this day and age there is no excuse not to educate yourself. And if you don’t have the ability or education to do the job properly, then hire someone who does!