Horse Riding & TrainingHorse Training

Is Breaking A Horse Cruel? Horse Breaking Vs Training

In this article...

Discover the truth about horse breaking and training. Learn about the differences, common methods, and whether horse breaking can be considered cruel. Uncover the historical and modern perspectives.

You may be wondering if breaking a horse is the same thing as training a horse. It is similar but not exactly the same thing. You also need to understand breaking a horse can have different meanings, but the principle behind breaking vs training is different. 

Some believe or have heard that breaking a horse is cruel. Is it cruel? Are there circumstances where it is not cruel?

What are the main differences between training and breaking a horse? What methods are used when training or breaking a horse? How were horses broken back in the Old West? How long does it take to train a horse for riding? You will find answers to these questions and many more. 

By the end of this post you will have a better understanding of breaking and training horses, what is best for the horse and whether breaking deserves the label of “being cruel.”

Is Breaking A Horse Cruel?

First let’s look at the definition of cruel.

According to the definition of cruel has several meanings. 

1. willfully or knowingly causing pain or distress to others. 

2. enjoying the pain or distress of others 

3.causing or marked by great pain or distress

For those who don’t know, distress means great anxiety, pain or sorrow, mental or physical suffering. 

So is breaking a horse cruel? 

Breaking a horse is cruel when the trainer or rider is using methods that cause the horse great pain or severe anxiety. 

Breaking a horse is not cruel when the trainer uses methods of pressure and release instead of pain and pushing the horse out of their comfort zone but not causing severe anxiety.

Examples of breaking a horse in a cruel way

  • Not giving the horse water or food for days so the horse is weak when it begins the breaking process.
  • Tying reins or using side reins attached to the saddle tightly and leaving the horse like that for hours. 
  • Beating the horse when the horse’s reaction is not acceptable.

Pain, fear and dominance is being used in these situations. Unfortunately there are many more ways which are cruel when breaking or training horses.

To some extent as the horse handler and rider you do have to be more dominant than the horse. In a herd there is a pecking order and each horse has a place in the pecking order. One horse is dominant over the other. It may be hard to see without a well trained eye but every horse is either above one in rank or below. 

Sometimes new horses have to figure out where they stand. A horse will do the same with a human, they will test the human to see where they stand in the pecking order. 

Examples of breaking a horse in a gentle way

  • Beginning groundwork with horse before breaking horse to the saddle. This is to develop trust, control over the movement of the horse’s feet and build communication.
  • Stroking and rubbing the horse a lot to build trust with the horse. Spending a lot of time doing this will help the horse bond with the trainer.
  • Progressively getting the horse used to the rider with a lot of praise and rubbing. 
  • Negative reinforcement doesn’t necessarily mean abuse or cruelty. It can be as simple as applying pressure and releasing pressure. 
  • Using body language and voice commands to help communicate with the horse .
  • Taking small steps A to B, B to C and C to D for example instead of A-D all at once

So as you can see breaking a horse may sound like a cruel term and though depending on methods used it can be cruel, it doesn’t have to be. More on the meaning of breaking a horse next.

Breaking In A Horse Meaning

Today breaking in a horse simply means the process of making a horse rideable.

The term “breaking a horse” used to mean the horse no longer bucked, took off, reared, or bronced with a rider because the horse’s spirit had been broken.

The horse that takes off, bucks, rears, broncs was coined as the “horse’s spirit.” The methods were about dominating the horse, fear and pain based. 

Breaking a horse in this way was much more common in the past but some still use these methods today.

Typically today when someone says they are breaking a horse, it just means that they are preparing and training a horse to be ridden that is not trained whether not at all or the horse has basic ground manners, such as standing, haltering, leading but has never been ridden.

However there are several terms that have to do with horse breaking you should know about because they have different meanings. It is especially important if you are looking to buy a horse .

Halter Breaking- Process of training a horse to be haltered, led around, tied up and groomed while tied up.

Halter Broke- The horse is trained to be haltered and led around, tied up and groomed while tied up. A horse that is termed halter broke is not trained to be ridden. 

Saddle Breaking- The process of the horse being trained to accept a saddle and rider.

Saddle Broke – The horse is trained to be saddled and carry a rider calmly without panicking. A horse labeled saddle broke may still be green in their training.

Harness Breaking- The process of a horse being train to accept a harness, respond to a harness and pull a carriage or cart.

Harness Broke – A horse who is trained to respond to the signals of the harness and able to calmly pull a carriage or cart.

Green Broke – A green broke horse sometimes called “dumb broke” (I don’t like that term) is saddle broken and just started, they only know the very basics under the saddle. They need a lot more refinement and training. The horse may need to work on balance, rhythm and strength. The horse’s transitions may not be crisp and responsive and the horse might be a little difficult to maneuver. Green horses should only be ridden by experienced riders.

Broke- A horse that has more experience being ridden than a green horse. This horse is reliable and can walk, trot and canter without any major issues. The horse may have some areas that need refining but over all the horse is fairly straightforward to ride. A “Broke” horse usually has the basics but no specialty or training for a specific discipline yet.  A “broke” horse can be ridden by intermediate riders and possibly a beginner with an instructor.

Well Broke- A horse that performs well consistently, has all the basics down well and is easy to ride. The horse is responsive to leg, rein and voice cues. 

Dead Broke- A “dead broke horse” is also known as “city slicker broke” or “bombproof.” A horse like this is phased by nothing. The horse is usually very experienced and older . This is the babysitter type of horse. They are steady and reliable and you can put just about any level rider on them. They are responsive to cues and are calm and gentle.

Now that you have seen these terms you need to know that if you are looking at horse ads of horses for sale you may see these terms used. However just because the ad says a horse is one of these terms doesn’t mean the horse is.

Everyone has a slightly different view on what each term means. A horse seller may think their horse is well broke when in fact the horse is green broke. Your opinion on what training level a horse has will be different than the sellers. 

So make sure you try out the horses well enough you know for sure the horse is right for you. Better yet have the seller explain what they mean by “well broke” or “dead broke,” before you even go out to try the horse.

Main Difference Between Breaking & Training A Horse

The main difference between breaking a horse and training a horse is that breaking a horse is the beginning of a horse’s training whereas the training of a horse is ongoing and continuous throughout the horse’s riding career.

Horse training is an ongoing process of teaching the horse new skills and also perfecting those skills. Training builds one skill upon another skill that is already well established.

Breaking a horse is less of an ongoing process, it has an end. A better term for breaking a horse is “starting a horse.” In modern times breaking a horse is starting the horse on their mounting journey. Getting the horse accustomed and comfortable with the saddle, rider and basic cues under the saddle.

Once a horse is “broken” or “started” then they continue their training with their riders. Technically anyone that handles or rides a horse is constantly training the horse whether for better or worse.

Breaking A Horse The Old Way Or Cowboy Way

I covered a little bit about this already. How they used rough handling and riding to tame the horse and some of the cruel methods they used. 

This section is not including all traditional forms of training horses. I just want to be clear when I say breaking a horse the old way, there were other methods that were used in the past that were not as harsh. 

The method I am describing here is from the old west when cowboys were needed to replace horses quickly in order to keep up with working the cattle.

Instead of a process that involves building trust and improving upon each step, one at a time, the horses were expedited through the breaking process to get them started or broke as quickly as possible.

The horses were “bucked out” which meant the riders hopped on and tried to stay on until the horse finally gave up. If the rider got bucked off they got right back on, again and again until “the horse was bored with trying to get the rider off.”

The riders were typically very rough handling and riding the horses wanting a quick fix.

The method was focused on force and dominance and basically “throwing the horse and rider into the fire.”

Now that being said classical dressage training is also an “old way” of training that is methodical, consistent, and firm but more gentle than the cowboy’s breaking in style. 

Natural horsemanship is more recent gaining popularity as of the 1980’s. Though some old time trainers have used similar principles, just weren’t calling it natural horsemanship. 

Breaking A Horse’s Spirit

Breaking the horse’s spirit was the main goal of the old cowboy way of breaking in a horse. 

This is because once the horse’s “spirit was broken” the horse would not fight anymore. The horse realizes they are helpless, and basically gives up the fight, becoming submissive. 

Anytime the horse shows signs of “challenging the rider” the horse would be forced back into submission.

How Horses Were Broken The Old Cowboy Way

Not everything done with this method was bad, but a lot of it was. Horses should be trained with trust, horses using their brains and patience, not force and rushing through everything to get the horse broke as quickly as possible.

Tying The Horse

The almost totally unhandled horse would be lassoed with a rope around the neck and tied up to a sturdy post.

The horse would panic when they realized they were stuck and fight the rope to try to get away. If the rope broke the horse could flip over backward and get seriously hurt. The horse would continue to try to get away until they were exhausted and gave up.

This would continue for a few days, to confirm the horse would stand still tied up.

Desensitizing The Horse

Desensitizing is getting the horse over the fear of different stimuli, such as bags, saddle pads, whips, etc. Also known as sacking out. 

Desensitizing is not the problem. The way that it was done was the problem. Some type of cloth would be used by flapping around and slapping on the horse. This would obviously frighten the horse, this would continue until the horse calmed down and was no longer afraid. 

That is the okay part. The part that is not so okay is that the horse’s were usually hobbled. A strap that ties the horse’s legs together. 

In a situation if I was desensitizing a horse I would allow the horse to move and follow the horse. Then whenever the horse would show signs of relaxing I would take the stimuli away. Repeat until the horse was really calm with whatever the object was. 

With hobbling the horse you take away the freedom to move. You are forcing the horse to stay still while the horse’s instincts are screaming at them to move. Some horses may panic so much that they could fall trying to get away.

Saddling Horse

The horse would then have a roller or saddle put on. A roller is like a girth that goes all the away around the horse without the need of a saddle. 

The horse now had to get used to the girth strap being tight around their belly.

Often horses would either be hobbled for this, have a rope tied around one leg that was lifted resulting in the horse hobbling around on 3 legs. 

The horse is then encouraged to try to buck it out with the saddle on and to find that they are not able to get it off. When the horse finally accepts the saddle is staying on the next stage begins… mouthing.


Mouthing was getting the horse used to the bit. Many times the horse was left alone with the bit in their mouth to get used to it. 

Sometimes but not always with the reins were tied to the roller or saddle. To relieve the discomfort the horse would tuck their nose in and arch their neck for long periods of time. Long amounts of time with tied reins usually caused the horses to have a sore mouth.

 Ground Driving The Horse

Once the horses got used to having a bit in their mouth they began being ground driven. This is two long reins that attach to the bit and go through a ring on the roller or through the stirrups on the saddle. 

The horse would learn how to steer. If they had a sore mouth from the mouthing process, some would panic which caused a dangerous situation for horse and ground driver behind the horse.

First Ride

Once the horse was somewhat responsive to the signals with the reins while ground driving they were ready to be saddle broken. Often the horses had some sort of restraint for mounting, whether using a chute, a blind fold, twitch, hobbles or similar that were taken off after the horse was mounted.

The riders only goal at this point is to stay on and ride out the bucks, until the horse gives up trying to get the rider off.

So you can see some of these techniques are still used today even by savvy horse trainers, but not all of these kinds of  methods are ideal or helpful for the horse. 

Horse Training Methods

Horse training methods can be divided in the following general ways:

  • Natural horsemanship (NH): Natural horsemanship uses negative reinforcement (like pressure and release). It is said to be created from watching the natural behavior of horses and copying the technique during training. Parelli, Monty Roberts, and other methods based on natural horse behavior, hands-on experience, and intuition. 
  • Traditional: Traditional methods use negative reinforcement (like pressure and release) based training. Some examples are the traditional horse breaking process started by the cowboys, Classical horsemanship is considered traditional as well.
  • Classical horsemanship: this is known as classical dressage not modern dressage which originated from cavalry movements and training. A systematic and sympathetic way of training the horse. Spanish riding school, the German training system, British horse society.
  • Science-based horse training methods: positive reinforcement-based training. Click training and operant condition are examples of these methods.
  • Mixed-Method Training: Taking elements from each of the different types of horse training based on what works for the horse.

Cruel Horse Training Methods

  • Not giving the horse water or food for long periods of time to weaken the horse and make it easier to get the horse to be submissive.
  • Using a harsh bit while also being rough with the reins and jerking the horses head around.
  • Hitting the horses head as punishment.
  • Using a lead with a chain around the horse’s face or in the horse’s mouth and jerking on the lead causing pain and possibly injury.
  • Soring the horse’s legs so they will lift their legs higher while ridden and look more flashy.
  • Lunging or riding the horse until they are totally exhausted.
  • Spurring the horse so much that it causes bruising, bleeding or dents in the cartilage between the horses ribs.
  • Tying the horses head up called “hang-tying” for long periods to the point the neck muscles get so tired that the horse doesn’t want to resist anymore and lowers their head carriage.
  • Tying one rein tightly to one side so the horses head is pulled to the side for hours for the purpose of better flexibility. Then switched over the other side for long periods of time.
  • Beating the horse with a whip whether on the horse or the ground. This is often done out of anger by the rider or handler and not usually correction.

This is a video I found that is a horrendous example of training a horse. The Chorro’s dancing horses.

Using these methods is cruel and abusive and people that use them should not be allowed around horses.

This is sort of off-topic but this mindset I am about to share often can lead to abuse or unintentional abuse and it is when you anthropomorphize a horse:

 “the owner might see the horse as capable of human feelings and emotions and then blames and resents the horse when it “makes bad decisions.”  

To Sum Up Breaking VS. Training

  • Breaking horses used to mean breaking the horses spirit but now is a term coined for getting a horse starting and accepted a saddle and rider. It should be called starting horses.
  • There are different terms for a broke horse that you should be aware of if you are looking at horses for sale.
  • Breaking a horse is the beginning of a horses training where as the training of a horse is ongoing and continuous throughout the horses riding career as they learn new skills or improve the ones they have.

I hope this post helped you understand a little bit more about horse breaking and training and the differences between the two as well as what is considered cruel and abusive when working with horses.

May the horses welfare always be put before the ribbons!

What is your top tip you have learned when working with green horses?

Cheers, Kacey

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Disclaimer Notice: Please be aware that horseback riding and related equestrian activities carry inherent risks. The advice and experiences shared on this blog are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional training or advice. Ensure your safety and that of your horse by wearing appropriate gear, practicing safe horse handling, and consulting with certified equestrian professionals. Remember, each horse is unique, and techniques may vary accordingly. Always prioritize safety, respect, and patience in your equestrian endeavors.

Kacey Cleary Administrator
Kacey has been an equestrian since 1998. She was a working student at several eventing and dressage barns. She has owned horses, leased horses, and trained horses. Kacey received an A.S. in Equine Industries from UMass Amherst, where she rode on the dressage team. She was certified with the ARIA and is licensed to teach riding in MA. She has been a barn manager and has run her own horse farm.
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