Debbie Loucks with the family's horse, Bunny, which is short for Steel Buns - photo by James OliverLet’s begin with a phrase that has gained traction over the last 20 years: “starting a horse” to its first saddle and rider. Defining this term is fairly straight forward.

When a trainer comes to understand that horses are flight animals, they will then have the ability to offer ‘choice’ to the horse in the starting and training process. By trusting a horse to express his natural skepticism of putting a rider on his back, the trainer can help the horse make cooperative decisions and build a valuable partnership between them.

By taking away a horse’s choice, or even introducing pain, the horse’s reaction is often akin to a threat to his survival. This is why horses have survived for millions of years as a prey animal, doing everything to avoid the wolves and large cats.

Our domesticated horses still have those instincts of survival within them. It’s these unique qualities that make a relationship with a horse different for us than dogs and cats.

Training is a balance between stretching to learn something foreign to the horse’s nature and yet creating a trusting environment. The most important element in the process of training is communication. Horses thrive in a cooperative environment. It’s in their nature.

Now contrast the relatively new term of “starting” with the 6,000 years of traditional horse “breaking.” Breaking a horse is still, by far, the most common term.

Broke, broken in, green broke and dead broke are all terms that simply mean the horse can be ridden. Unbroke means the horse is not yet ready to ride. All over the world, the term is the same. The connotation is to break the horse’s spirit in order to dominate the horse and bend its will to the trainer’s by a struggle.

My grandfather tied a leg up so the horse couldn’t make the choice to flee. It’s not uncommon to this day. It works, but its adversarial.

Halter broke, harness broke, I’ve even heard it called Gentle Break; imagine that oxymoron. In Spanish its domar, and in German its brechen. In French its briser and in Portuguese its quebrando.

It’s a harbinger of an attitude that needs to evolve intelligently. Frankly, most owners never witness their horse receiving its first saddle and rider. Young horses are often sent off to young trainers for this part of their education.

Friends of mine tell me their horse was “different” after they returned, less trusting, more introverted. Traditional training is a “show them who is boss,” “dominate first before they know how big and fast they are” kind of attitude.

Ironically many great trainers have begun to write that it actually takes longer to “break” a horse than the gentler methods of building trust. And the “broken” horse is never as trustworthy.

It’s time to embrace the new term “Starting” and to shed our conversations of the word “Breaking.” When people think about it, they will no longer be comfortable with the term. But many aren’t even aware that there is a different way to say it.

Tell them that words are harbingers of attitudes we no longer want to be associated with. We need to send this campaign around the world #startingnotbreaking to our friends and fellow horse lovers. They’ll get it!


Article by Debbie Roberts Loucks
Published for the Santa Ynez Valley News, June 10, 2019