There’s no better feeling as a rider than bonding with your horse and striding forward together for the first time.
But whether it’s a racehorse, show horse, or any kind of horse, ‘breaking in’ is essential. Without it, the horse won’t even accept having a rider on its back.
Rush the process and you risk hurting the horse and having an accident. So what exactly is breaking in, how does it work, and how long does it take?
We explore these questions below, as well as how horse rider insurance is a vital consideration before you get started.
What is breaking in and why does it matter?
For a horse, riding is demanding and requires discipline, so they need to be trained and ready. Put simply, without breaking in a horse, they will never be ready to ride.
The phrase ‘breaking in’ used to refer to a much crueler process, in other words breaking the horse’s spirit so they won’t resist a rider.
Today, however, it thankfully tends to be much kinder to the animal and simply refers to getting them accustomed to the conventions of horse riding.
This includes wearing the bridle and saddle, human interaction and taking directions from their rider. Once a horse gets used to these things, they come round to the idea of being ridden.
You have a choice of breaking in a horse hard, or gently. Today, it’s more common for a horse to be broken in gently as it gets better results.
Just like good management of human beings, by gaining a horse’s trust and respect, they then want to cooperate rather than feeling like they have no choice.
Down the line, this makes them far less likely to act up, rebel, or want to throw a rider off.
Things to remember before you start
It’s important to know what to expect and be realistic with your horse. You can’t rush the process and the horse should only be ridden and trained when it’s fully ready.
Generally horses will be ready for breaking at around three years old. Up to this point in their lives, they should be spending time with their mother and friends, and just developing naturally.
Sometimes a horse may be ready to be broken in early based on their pedigree, for example racehorses tend to be broken in at around 18 months old.
But whatever their age, it’s vital to wait until the horse’s joints are developed enough to support the weight of a rider before breaking them in.
Breaking in can typically take around four to six weeks, but it can require up to 10 weeks if the horse needs more time or if you just want to take it slowly.
When you start the breaking process, it will be pushing your horse and it’s normal for them to begin losing weight. With that in mind, you may want to start breaking in with your horse a little overweight, given that they might drop a few pounds in the process.
Always remember that your horse is an individual, with their own personality and quirks. So the breaking process needs to be tailored a little bit, or some extra attention and care may be needed to help them get through.
However, if your horse is showing signs that it might not be fit for breaking in, it’s best not to push too hard or place any unnecessary strain on them.
Carry out a dental check and remove the horse's wolf teeth, which can interfere with the bit. Also, breaking in can be an unpredictable process, so explore having insurance for horse riders in place before getting started.
If you are thrown off, insurance can help cover the cost of personal dental treatment for you amongst other things.
The following steps to breaking in are a rough guide. Each horse will require their own programme, with some needing less than six weeks and some more.
A vet or riding stables will be able to advise you on the best route for your particular equine.
Getting started: weeks 1-2
Like many tasks and projects in our own lives, long-term success depends on making a good first impression. It’s no different when breaking in your horse, where you begin the process of laying good groundwork.
In the first few days, you will be mainly aiming to help your horse feel settled and calming any nerves. From there, good groundwork will feature exercises that begin to teach the horse new ways of thinking and reacting to new or scary objects.
Your exercises will have a lot of repetition to desensitise your horse, getting them used to human contact so that it doesn’t shock them or make them want to instinctively kick or run away.
Basic touch exercises will help the horse get used to handling and develop positive associations with new or unexpected contact, for example stroking the horse with both hands over their entire body, including over sensitive body parts such as the ears, stomach and groin.
You could also use an object like a stick, whip or cloth. As the horse begins to trust these touches, they’re also learning to deal with new sounds on or near their body.
When your horse shows they are calm and relaxed, you can build your friendship by scratching or rubbing places they enjoy, for example the shoulders or the mane, which can also be a little reward for them doing well up to now.
Another common action at this stage is to start introducing soft pressure, so your horse starts to learn about receiving pressure from you, yielding to it and being rewarded, for example light pressure to lower their head, bend their body or turn.
These ‘pressure and release’ exercises are the beginning of their ability to understand how to take direction from their rider further down the line.
Overall, the first couple of weeks is about helping your horse to feel comfortable, gain confidence, and reduce their natural flight reflexes so that they’re ready for the next stage of breaking in.
Without this important work at the beginning, the following weeks will be difficult and may be the reason the breaking in process takes longer than you had imagined.
Now that the initial groundwork is done, it’s time to move on to the next stages in the breaking process.
Your horse may well reach this stage before week three. But whenever they are ready, you can start to introduce some of the standard tack, including bridles so that the horse will learn to become comfortable with them being fitted and taken off.
It’s a good time to also introduce the side reins and teach them to accept the lunge roller.
Tack can be expensive, so it’s a good idea to consider having horse rider insurance policy in place to help you look after it.
You might want to try grooming your horse with their tack on. Grooming is one of the most crucial interactions between you and your horse in terms of building mutual trust and strengthening your bond.
So if the horse’s tack is fitted during this process, they will begin to associate the tack with enjoyment and feeling comfortable. Horses can also respond well to seeing tack being fitted to other older horses, helping them to trust that it won’t cause them any harm.
As you walk the horse around, they begin to learn how to carry themselves with the tack on, and get used to having the bit in their mouth, as well as responding to someone moving the bit.
Initially, the bit can be loose, and as the horse feels increasingly comfortable, you can gradually tighten it to the point where a rider would need it to be.
Now you can slowly get your horse familiar with responding to the movement of the bit, and moving around the yard with bit pressure being applied in the mouth.
Eventually, the aim is to get them comfortable with the bit and side reins, and happy to move forwards or away from the lunge whip as desired, as well as responding to your voice commands.
Meanwhile, ‘lunging’ a horse will help them understand walking and trotting in a circle, while building their strength.
Throughout this process, keep the horse calm and focused with touch exercises and grooming. Gradually, they will begin moving around your yard fluidly as per direction, and showing you they’re ready for the next steps.
However, remember not to feel too pressured for your horse to be ready by now. All horses are unique – some will coast through while some will find it a little more difficult.
A horse can be temperamental or nervous and might need to take it slow, or have things repeated again. Always make sure you remain calm, be patient, and be willing to carry out the repetition required to get your horse ready.
Now that the horse is used to their tack and moving around comfortably, you can swap out the roller for a saddle. It’s the next step leading towards, eventually, the horse being ok with your body weight, as the saddle’s weight builds their tolerance for a heavier burden.
Make sure that before introducing the saddle, your horse has fully accomplished leading and moving around in all directions. If not, they will struggle to do this with the saddle added.
You might want to add a couple of steps in between the roller and the saddle, helping the horse feel comfortable by slowly building up the weight they’re used to on their back.
Let the horse get used to the new weight of the saddle and when they seem happy, you will begin wondering if your horse is ready to accept a rider on their back.
But before making an attempt, be sure that they trust you enough for you to lie over their back and take your weight.
You may want to start by leaning over the horse during grooming when it is tacked, stroking and petting them where your legs will sit. Eventually you’ll be able to test how they feel with your weight across their back.
Throughout this process, it can be really helpful for your horse to see you regularly adding the saddle to another horse, as well as mounting and riding them. Again, horses respond well to seeing other horses carrying out the things you want to teach them, and doing so with no fuss.
By seeing you ride other horses close to them, it shows them that they don’t need to be nervous or panicked with a person on their back.
When the horse is comfortable with your weight, you should be able to carefully swing your leg over and adopt the sitting position in the saddle.
Let the horse get accustomed to this, and test out moving a little in the stable with you on board. Let them figure this out in the stable as it’s familiar to them and a place they trust before going outside.
The Fédération Équestre Internationale recommends having another knowledgeable person with you, who can be on the ground to keep the horse calm when you make your first attempt to mount.
Now, after showing the same patience with your horse as you have throughout the process, you may find it’s time to get outside and ride around.
Having laid solid groundwork in the beginning, it should mean they are easier to keep calm as you get them used to riding around with you on their back, taking directions and not feeling the urge to bolt.
Protecting you and your horse
The aim of breaking in a horse is to reduce the risk of accidents that would harm them or yourself, but the fact is that this risk can never be fully eradicated.
A horse rider insurance policy through Equesure will help you by protecting you financially in the event of an accident.
The Equesure team have over 60 years’ combined equine experience , we offer bespoke horse rider insurance policies, tailored to your needs. Benefits can include:
- Saddlery and tack cover
- Emergency vet fees for accidental injuries while you are riding
- Up to 3250 if a horse dies due to an accidental injury sustained while riding it.
- Public liability up to 1 million
- Personal accident up to 20,000
- Personal dental up to £1750
Get a quote for horse rider insurance today.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.