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Horse training refers to a variety of practices that teach horses to perform certain behaviors when commanded to do so by humans. Horses are trained to be manageable by humans for everyday care as well as for equestrian activities from horse racing to therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities.
Historically, horses were trained for warfare, farm work, sport and transport. Today, most horse training is geared toward making horses useful for a variety of recreational and sporting equestrian pursuits. Horses are also trained for specialized jobs from movie stunt work to police and crowd control activities, circus entertainment, and equine-assisted psychotherapy.
There is tremendous controversy over various methods of horse training and even some of the words used to describe these methods. Some techniques are considered cruel, other methods are considered gentler and more humane. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details of various training methodology, so general, basic principles are described below. The see also section of this article provides links to more specific information about various schools and techniques of horse training.
The range of training techniques and training goals is large, but basic animal training concepts apply to all forms of horse training. The initial goal of most types of training is to create a horse that is safe for humans to handle (under most circumstances) and able to perform a useful task for the benefit of humans.
A few specific considerations and some basic knowledge of horse behavior helps a horse trainer be effective no matter what school or discipline is chosen:
Regardless of the goal of training, most horses go through a predictable series of steps on their way to being "finished" animals for a given discipline.
Most young domesticated horses are handled at birth or within the first few days of life, though some are only handled for the first time when they are weaned from their mothers, or dams. Advocates of handling foals from birth sometimes use the concept of imprinting to introduce a foal within its first few days and weeks of life to many of the activities they will see throughout their lives. Within a few hours of birth, a foal being imprinted will have a human touch it all over, pick up its feet, and introduce it to human touch and voice.
Others may leave a foal alone for its first few hours or days, arguing that it is more important to allow the foal to bond with its dam. However, even people who do not advocate imprinting often still place value on handling a foal a great deal while it is still nursing and too small to easily overpower a human. By doing so, the foal ideally will learn that humans will not harm it, but also that humans must be respected.
While a foal is far too young to be ridden, it is still able to learn skills it will need later in life. By the end of a foal's first year, it should be halter-broke, meaning that it allows a halter placed upon its head and has been taught to be led by a human at a walk and trot, to stop on command and to stand tied.
The young horse needs to be calm for basic grooming, as well as veterinary care such as vaccinations and de-worming. A foal needs regular hoof care and can be taught to stand while having its feet picked up and trimmed by a farrier. Ideally a young horse should learn all the basic skills it will need throughout its life, including: being caught from a field, loaded into a horse trailer, and not to fear flapping or noisy objects. It also can be exposed to the noise and commotion of ordinary human activity, including seeing motor vehicles, hearing radios, and so on. More advanced skills sometimes taught in the first year include learning to accept blankets placed on it, to be trimmed with electric clippers, and to be given a bath with water from a hose. The foal may learn basic voice commands for starting and stopping, and sometimes will learn to square its feet up for showing in in-hand or conformation classes. If these tasks are completed, the young horse will have no fear of things placed on its back, around its belly or in its mouth.
Some people, whether through philosophy or simply due to being pressed for time, do not handle foals significantly while they are still nursing, but wait until the foal is weaned from its dam to begin halter breaking and the other tasks of training a horse in its first year. The argument for gentling and halter-breaking at weaning is that the young horse, in crisis from being separated from its dam, will more readily bond with a human at weaning than at a later point in its life. Sometimes the tasks of basic gentling are not completed within the first year but continue when the horse is a yearling. Yearlings are larger and more unpredictable than weanlings, plus often are easily distracted, in part due to the first signs of sexual maturity. However, they also are still highly impressionable, and though very quick and agile, are not at their full adult strength.
Rarer, but not uncommon even in the modern world, is the practice of leaving young horses completely unhandled until they are old enough to be ridden, usually between the age of two and four, and completing all ground training as well as training for riding at the same time. However, waiting until a horse is full grown to begin training is often far riskier for humans and requires considerably more skill to avoid injury.
After a young horse is taught to lead and other basic skills, various tasks can be introduced to the horse as it matures while it is still too young to be ridden. Some schools of training do a great deal of work with young horses during their yearling and two-year-old years to prepare them for riding, others merely reinforce the basic lessons taught to the horse as a foal and simply keep the horse accustomed to the presence of humans. Many times, a young horse did not have all necessary basic skills described above taught to it as a foal and its "adolescent" years are spent learning or re-learning basic lessons.
Several ground training techniques are commonly introduced to a young horse some time after it is a year old, but prior to being ridden. All horses usually have some or all of this ground work done prior to being ridden, though the time spent can range from hours to months. While a foal or yearling can be introduced to a small amount of ground work, a young horse's bones and joints are quite soft and fragile. So, to prevent joint and cartilage injury, intense work, particularly intense work in a confined circle (such as advanced roundpenning or longeing), should wait until the horse is at least two years old. Common ground training techniques include:
A horse is not ready to be ridden until it is accustomed to all the equipment that it needs to wear and is responsive to basic voice, and usually rein, commands to start, stop, turn and change gaits.
For some disciplines, ground work is also used to develop specific types of muscling as well as to instill certain behaviors. When ground work incorporates both mental and muscular development, it may take considerably longer for the horse to be ready to be ridden, but advocates of these methods maintain that the additional time on the ground allows the horse to advance more quickly or with better manners once under saddle.
The age that horses are first ridden, or "backed" (UK) varies considerably by breed and discipline. Many Thoroughbred race horses have small, light riders on their backs as early as the fall of their yearling year. Most stock horse breeds, such as the American Quarter Horse, are ridden at the age of two. Most horses used in harness have a cart first put behind them at age two, and even some horses not ridden until age three will be trained to pull a light cart at two, in order to learn better discipline and to help develop stronger muscles with less stress. The vast majority of horses across disciplines and throughout the world are first put under saddle at the age of three. However, some slower-maturing breeds, such as the Lipizzan, are not ridden until the age of four.
The act of getting on a horse for the first time goes by many names, including backing, breaking, mounting, and simply riding. There are many techniques for introducing the young horse to a rider or to a harness and cart for driving, but the end goal of all methods is to have the horse calmly and quietly allow a rider on its back or behind it in a cart and to respond to basic commands to go forward, change gaits and speed, stop, turn and back up.
Ideally, a young horse will have no fear of humans and view being ridden as simply one more new lesson. A properly handled young horse that had adequate ground work will seldom buck, rear, or run away when it is ridden, even for the very first time.
Horses that have never been taught to be ridden can learn at any age, though it may take somewhat longer to teach an older horse. An older horse that is used to humans but has no prior bad habits is easier to put under saddle than is a completely feral horse caught "wild" off the open range as an adult. However, an adult feral horse may be easier to train than a domesticated animal that has previously learned to treat humans with disrespect.
There are many horse training philosophies and techniques and details are far more able for the horses to get colic
The horse is one of two extant subspecies of Equus ferus. It is an odd-toed ungulate mammal belonging to the taxonomic family Equidae. The horse has evolved over the past 45 to 55 million years from a small multi-toed creature, Eohippus, into the large, single-toed animal of today. Humans began domesticating horses around 4000 BC, and their domestication is believed to have been widespread by 3000 BC. Horses in the subspecies caballus are domesticated, although some domesticated populations live in the wild as feral horses. These feral populations are not true wild horses, as this term is used to describe horses that have never been domesticated, such as the endangered Przewalski's horse, a separate subspecies, and the only remaining true wild horse. There is an extensive, specialized vocabulary used to describe equine-related concepts, covering everything from anatomy to life stages, size, colors, markings, breeds, locomotion, and behavior.
Tack is equipment or accessories equipped on horses and other equines in the course of their use as domesticated animals. Saddles, stirrups, bridles, halters, reins, bits, harnesses, martingales, and breastplates are all forms of horse tack. Equipping a horse is often referred to as tacking up. A room to store such equipment, usually near or in a stable, is a tack room.
Equestrianism, commonly known as horse riding or horseback riding, includes the disciplines of riding, driving, or vaulting with horses. This broad description includes the use of horses for practical working purposes, transportation, recreational activities, artistic or cultural exercises, and competitive sport.
A horse show is a judged exhibition of horses and ponies. Many different horse breeds and equestrian disciplines hold competitions worldwide, from local to the international levels. Most horse shows run from one to three days, sometimes longer for major, all-breed events or national and international championships in a given discipline or breed. Most shows consist of a series of different performances, called classes, wherein a group of horses with similar training or characteristics compete against one another for awards and, often, prize money.
The Lipizzan or Lipizzaner, is a horse breed named for the Lipizza Stud of the Habsburg monarchy. The breed is closely associated with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, where the horses demonstrate the haute école or "high school" movements of classical dressage, including the highly controlled, stylized jumps and other movements known as the "airs above the ground." The horses at the Spanish Riding School are trained using traditional methods that date back hundreds of years, based on the principles of classical dressage.
Classical dressage evolved from cavalry movements and training for the battlefield, and has since developed into the competitive dressage seen today. Classical riding is the art of riding in harmony with, rather than against, the horse.
A foal is an equine up to one year old; this term is used mainly for horses. More specific terms are colt for a male foal and filly for a female foal, and are used until the horse is three or four. When the foal is nursing from its great (mother), it may also be called a "suckling". After it has been weaned from its dam, it may be called a "weanling". When a mare is pregnant, she is said to be "in foal". When the mare gives birth, she is "foaling", and the impending birth is usually stated as "to foal". A newborn horse is "foaled".
A bridle is a piece of equipment used to direct a horse. As defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, the "bridle" includes both the headstall that holds a bit that goes in the mouth of a horse, and the reins that are attached to the bit.
The Spanish Riding School is an Austrian institution dedicated to the preservation of classical dressage and the training of Lipizzaner horses, based in Vienna, Austria, whose performances in the Hofburg are also a tourist attraction. The leading horses and riders of the school also periodically tour and perform worldwide. It is one of the "Big Four", the most prestigious classical riding academies in the world, alongside the Cadre Noir, the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art, and the Royal Andalusian School.
Longeing or lungeing is exercising and/or training young or experienced horses on a rein approximately 23 feet long. It is an excellent way of introducing young horses to regular work and teaching them the trust and respect which is the foundation of the relationship with the trainer. It can also be used to good effect to build strength in ridden horses or for rehabilitation after illness or injury. The horse is asked to work on a circle at one end of a longe line, or rein, by a trainer on the ground who guides the horse's movements using rein, whip and voice commands. Longeing is also a critical component of the sport of equestrian vaulting.
A noseband is the part of a horse's bridle that encircles the nose and jaw of the horse. In English riding, where the noseband is separately attached to its own headstall or crownpiece, held independently of the bit, it is often called a cavesson or caveson noseband. In other styles of riding, a simple noseband is sometimes attached directly to the same headstall as the bit.
Reins are items of horse tack, used to direct a horse or other animal used for riding. They are long straps that can be made of leather, nylon, metal, or other materials, and attach to a bridle via either its bit or its noseband.
Natural horsemanship is a collective term for a variety of horse training techniques which have seen rapid growth in popularity since the 1980s. The techniques vary in their precise tenets but generally share principles of "a kinder and gentler cowboy" to develop a rapport with horses, using methods said to be derived from observation of the natural behavior of free-roaming horses and rejecting abusive training methods.
A bearing rein, known today as an overcheck or a checkrein, is a piece of horse tack that runs from a point on the horse's back, over the head, to a bit. It is used to prevent the horse from lowering its head beyond a fixed point. A variation called a side check passes beside the ears through loops at the top of the bridle cheekpieces.
Western riding is considered a style of horse riding which has evolved from the ranching and welfare traditions which were brought to the Americans by the Spanish Conquistadors, as well as both equipment and riding style which evolved to meet the working needs of the cowboy in the American West. At the time, American cowboys had to work long hours in the saddle and often over rough terrain, sometimes having to rope a cattle using a lariat, also known as a lasso. Because of the necessity to control the horse with one hand and use a lariat with the other, western horses were trained to neck rein, that is, to change direction with light pressure of a rein against the horse's neck. Horses were also trained to exercise a certain degree of independence in using their natural instincts to follow the movements of a cow, thus a riding style developed that emphasized a deep, secure seat, and training methods encouraged a horse to be responsive on very light rein contact.
Parelli Natural Horsemanship is a program of natural horsemanship, founded in 1981 by Pat Parelli. The program is headquartered in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
A bitting rig or bitting harness is a training tool for horses that can teach a horse to accept a bridle and bit, and later assist a horse in developing the necessary musculature for a given equestrianism discipline. Generally used in conjunction with training on a longe line, it is most often seen in the training of Saddle seat horses, but also is used by some dressage trainers and as a tool to start horses in driving.
A yearling is a young horse either male or female that is between one and two years old. Yearlings are comparable in development to a very early adolescent and are not fully mature physically. While they may be in the earliest stages of sexual maturity, they are considered too young to be breeding stock.
A bitless bridle is a general term describing a wide range of headgear for horses or other animals that controls the animal without using a bit. Direction control may also be via a noseband or cavesson, if one is used. The term hackamore is the most historically accurate word for most common forms of bitless headgear. However, some modern bitless designs of horse headgear lack the heavy noseband of a true hackamore and instead use straps that tighten around a horse's head to apply pressure in various ways. These are often specifically patented and marketed as "bitless bridles", usually referencing a particular type of headgear known as the cross-under, though other designs are sometimes also given similar names.
This is a basic glossary of equestrian terms that includes both technical terminology and jargon developed over the centuries for horses and other equidae, as well as various horse-related concepts. Where noted, some terms are used only in American English (US), only in British English (UK), or are regional to a particular part of the world, such as Australia (AU).