I’d like to talk briefly about the difference between a horse that’s broke vs. a horse that’s gentle. It seems that often to the untrained eye or less experience horse person, these two types of horses can be easily interchanged. You may see a local ad for a pony that says “kid friendly” but later find out that pony runs off with a rider, or see a world champion horse throw their rider because it spooks at something in the audience. The two terms are not interchangeable, but they should go together.
Let’s start by defining a gentle horse. This is a horse that’s easy to handle, willing, doesn’t get upset about much, not spooky and doesn’t kick, bite, buck, etc. Some horses are born gentle, others are made gentle by proper handling. Gentle horses are quiet and for that reason they make good kids or lesson horses. However, one should always keep in mind the saying “A safe horse is always quiet, but a quiet horse isn’t necessarily safe”. You may have the quietest horse in the world if all you ever do is feed it treats and braid its hair, but the moment you get on it and ask it to canter off everything starts to fall apart. Why? Because the horse is not broke, he is missing the more advanced part of his education.
Broke horses are well trained. They respond to light cues, always yield to pressure, they know their job and they do it well every time. Depending on the type of training, a broke horse should be able to do anything from lead changes to leg yields to spins. They have solid “buttons” so any good rider can get on and get the same response by asking with the same cues. Broke horses give the right answer the first time they’re asked and often they are the ones winning many competitions, naturally that makes sense. So what’s the problem with broke horses?
The problem is not with all broke horses, but with horses that are broke without first being gentle. Often in the competition world, horses are started too quickly. The foundation is missed or incomplete and the horse ends up very broke but somewhat unpredictable in certain situations. If a horse can jump a perfect course but has a meltdown when the judge presents you the winning ribbon – he is broke but not gentle. Broke horses that are missing parts of their education can get people into trouble just as easily as a gentle horse that is not broke. Horses can be forced into being broke, rather than trained. When I ride a horse that feels “light” rather than “soft”, to me it feels like the horse was forced during it’s training. Lightness comes from the body, but softness comes from the mind, through to the body.
I like to make sure my horses have a solid foundation before we get too far into training advanced maneuvers. It’s important to me that I prepare my horses mentally, not just train them physically. I don’t want my horse to have a great sliding stop if he won’t even let me catch him in the field or pins his ears and bites every time I go to saddle him. That tells me he is missing important parts of his foundation, his mind is not yet with me, he is not yet soft; he’s not gentle. A gentle horse is predictable in his reactions, he is desensitized to everyday stimuli and he respects and is comfortable around humans. He thinks things through, rather than simply responding. He is confident and you can see it in his eye.
Think of the horses you’ve ridden over the years. Were they broke, gentle, or both? I bet some of the best ones you know have been both broke and gentle. There is nothing better than riding a confident, well-trained horse that wants to please.