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Stop Breaking Horses

Prefer to listen? I covered this in my podcast. Horse Training In Harmony, episode 156

Words matter.

Often we use words out of habit, and without consciousness of what we are actually saying. This can happen with songs where you love the tune, and you sing along then at some point, you really hear the words and think: 'Oh my God - What am I saying?!'

This happened once when I was teaching in Italy. The clinic host played music during times when students were practicing something I just taught them.  A Suzanne Vega song called Luka kept coming around on the playlist.

It’s a beautiful song. People were singing along to it but I had to ask them to stop playing it. It’s a song about child abuse

One verse is:

They only hit until you cry
And after that, you don't ask why
You just don't argue anymore
You just don't argue anymore
You just don't argue anymore

I couldn’t hear those words while teaching a clinic about partnership and harmony.

The really sad part of this story is how those words actually could be referencing the experience that many horses have in the world today.

For many trainers that is the goal - To get the horse to give up arguing, to stop the horse from questioning, and in very real terms, to make sure the horse does not have any voice.

So words matter. Don't sing along unconsciously. Listen to the terms you use and ask yourself if that is really what you want to be saying.

There is a common term in the horse world that makes me cringe: Breaking

As in Breaking A Horse. I’m breaking my horse. It’s time to break him. I break my horses at age 3.

Oh my God - What are we saying!?


Sad horse eye


What Does It Mean?

If you look up the definition of Break you will find many different uses of the word.

Here are some common definitions:

- To separate or cause to separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock, or strain.

- To make or become inoperative.

- To crush the emotional strength, spirit, or resistance of.

- To destroy the power of (a movement or organization).

- To tame or train (a horse).


Some people use a somewhat softer version of the term by saying: Break in, as in:
"I am breaking in my horse to riding".

To break in means: To familiarize someone with a new job or situation. Fair enough.

But so often the 'breaking in' process closely resembles another definition of the term which is: 'To force entry to a building typically to steal something.' Think of how many horses are actually broken on purpose during the breaking process. Some trainers will tell you that the goal is to break the emotional strength, spirit, and resistance of the horse. In a very real way, they are being invaded with the intent to steal their freedom, their voice, their feeling of safety.

Another verse from the song Luka:

I guess I'd like to be alone
With nothing broken, nothing thrown
Just don't ask me how I am
Just don't ask me how I am
Just don't ask me how I am


STOP Breaking Horses

If your goal is to break a horse when you break a horse: Please STOP. Reconsider. Open yourself to a different possibility. Why do you want to break anything in the horse? If you are afraid they won't cooperate without their will being broken, then ask yourself what you are doing that creates a situation where they trust you so little. They didn't ask for this. YOU have to change or else the cycle never ends. Horses have few choices in their lives. You have many. You don't have to put them in situations they fear, only to teach them how to give up. Instead, educate them in a way they can trust you so they want to cooperate.

If you are using the term breaking out of habit but you don’t really mean it, you don't really want to break the horse: Stop using that term.

Here are alternatives: START your horse. PREPARE your horse for riding, or handling, or whatever you are preparing your horse for.

This simple change can create a big ripple effect.

If we can simply get all the people who are preparing and starting horses, to describe it as such, instead of saying they are breaking them, perhaps we can better distinguish between trainers looking for willing cooperation, and those who are looking to dominate with fear, force, and intimidation.

If you are speaking with someone and they say: "I break horses" ask them: What do you mean by BREAK? Do it politely, because you really do want to know the answer.

Let them THINK about what they are saying. Let them admit to themselves and the world that they do, indeed, plan on breaking something in the horse, in which case it's good to know that about them so you can avoid sending horses to them. Maybe have a reply ready such as: "Interesting, I have found that horses who are started in a way that gives them time to build trust and willing cooperation end up safer and happier in the end."


Quora and KarenWho could want to break this beautiful soul?


Many people, when you ask them what they mean by 'break', will catch themselves and say something like: "I don't really mean I'm going to break them, it's just the term that's used". Your question will hopefully cause them to think about using a different word that is more precise to describe the educational process they do with the horse.

You can help them by saying something like: "Yeah, 'break' is such a bad term. I like to say: 'start' or 'prepare' because I have found that horses who are started in a way that gives them time to build trust and willing cooperation end up safer and happier in the end."

Some people talk about putting the first rides on the horse. I like to think about inviting them to the dance.

How differently would it be approached if instead of ‘trying to put on a ride’ you were 'looking for permission to ride’ or 'looking for consent to continue'?

I know this may seem like just semantics because it is. Semantics is the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with the meaning and implications of words.

Words matter. Words are powerful. They have energy and they can create actions.


Quora dreaming squareWhat if the process of teaching a horse to be ridden could be something the horse enjoyed?


The Meandering Path To The Horse

I can't write this blog without commenting on those competitions where they bring a herd of untouched young horses into a stadium full of screaming predators - oops, I mean cheering people - and in two to three days they are being ridden around obstacle courses.

Before I go into what I don’t like about it, I want to say that I am impressed, in a way, by how some people are able to do this. I have some friends-in-horsemanship that I have a lot of respect for who have done these competitions and I do think they gave their horses the best possible experience, given the conditions of the event, but the conditions of these events are still far far far from what would ever be considered good for the horse.

WHY the rush? For excitement, ticket sales, human spectator attention spans?

It’s a real question: WHY THE RUSH?

The main reason has to be money and/or ego. 

The circumstance clearly causes almost all of the problems that then have to be solved. For the love of the horse, how about we NOT create those problems in the first place?

I take a LONG time to prepare my personal horses for being ridden. It’s no ‘Highway To The Horse’. It’s more of a Meandering Path to the Horse.

By the time I am riding my horses are usually saying: Would you hurry up and just ride me?

I have time. No one is paying me, or expecting certain results by a certain time. The only horses I start these days are mine. Any extra time I spend is time very well spent because I want my horses to be relaxed, to understand, and to be confident about what they are doing.

I am just now starting to ride my own filly who I have owned since a yearling. I thought: Oh boy, do I really want to be starting a horse at age 58? But that is only scary if I think of doing it the way I did when I was fearless, young, and on a time limit.

These days I don't want to get on a horse that doesn't agree with me getting on them. I don't want to ride a horse who will try to buck unless I have someone chasing them forward.

It is not at all scary to ride a horse who is cooperating and giving permission. I am willing to start preparing early. I am willing to wait. The truth is, it doesn't really take longer because I am not creating problems that I then have to solve.

Below is a video of my filly, Quora.
This is her third ride and first time trotting with a rider.
She had a total of only 18 minutes (over three sessions) with a human on her back prior to this video being taken.
You can follow Quora's progress in the Video Classroom. Just search for her name.


Be A Positive Example

I know many trainers who do a beautiful job starting and preparing horses for being ridden and they often tell me they want to take a longer time, especially with some horses, but that the horse owners expect it to happen faster and they would never understand the power of going slower or pay for it.

I call B.S.!

Professionals: EDUCATE the owners. 

How is the horse world going to improve if the people who really are in it for the horse are too afraid to explain what they are doing?

Be more conscious of, and particular about the language you use when it comes to horses.

Let’s do what we say, and say what we do.

Honest communication. Relationships we can trust

It’s what our horses want.

It’s what we all need.

by Karen Rohlf

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Need help with your horse? Click HERE to watch three of Karen’s training videos that give unique solutions for 3 of the most common challenges horses and riders face.

Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.

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