A Guide to Horse Training and Handling

Horse training is a large commitment. This comprehensive guide will help you get started successfully.

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Whether you are simply interested in learning how to compost or are striving to live completely off the grid, “The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading” offers something for anyone looking to increase their quality of life and decrease their carbon footprint.

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From building a yurt to maintaining a thriving winter garden, The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) by Nicole Faires is all you need to live off the land. With diagrams, charts, photographs, original illustrations and comprehensive, detailed instructions that anyone can follow with relatively few supplies, this massive full-color book answers all of your self-sufficiency questions. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, “Horses and Other Animals,” learn about horse training, from hooves to harnesses. 

Horse training words to live by

Note: Inexperienced people must get some experienced advice and help when buying a horse and equipment, handling a horse, etc. 

  • Respect and learn from the horse.
  • If the horse doesn’t respond to something, try something else.
  • You are the leader—be positive and confident.
  • Recognize warnings that something is wrong.
  • In a battle of strength the horse will win.
  • Use intelligence to work around problems.
  • Have everlasting patience.

About horse handling

Horses are not color-blind and they can see almost all the way around themselves, except right in front of their feet and a space behind them. They hate to step on unstable ground or anything unreliable. A mare will be more moody and have difficult times during her heat cycles, unlike a gelding, but will be more sensitive to your feelings. Be aware of what the horse is doing even when your back is turned, and keep alert at all times. Horses should only be tied with a quick release knot (see illustration in the Image Gallery). It is dangerous to you and the horse to use any other knot because you might need to be able to untie the horse quickly.

Lifting the hooves

Run your hand down the leg to the bottom of the cannon bone, just above the fetlock. Put pressure on either side of the leg with your thumb and forefinger. The horse will lift his foot for you if you find the right spot. When you left a rear leg, keep the hoof turned upwards instead of down and support it with your legs. If the horse doesn’t pick up his foot, lean against him slightly to push his weight to the other leg, which will encourage him to lift it.

How to put a halter on a horse

  1. Have the halter unbuckled and the lead rope attached before you approach the horse.
  2. Stand on the left side of the horse and pass the end of the lead rope under his neck with your left hand. Put your right hand over the horse’s neck and grab the end. Pull the rope down and catch it in your left hand.
  3. Pass the halter buckle under the neck of the horse and grab it with your free right hand.
  4. At this point you should have the rope and halter strap in your left hand with your right arm over the horse’s neck and the halter buckle in your right hand.
  5. With your hands on either side of the horse’s head, position the noseband so the horse’s nose will slide into it easily. Raise the halter into position.
  6. Bring the halter strap over the horse’s head, placing it right behind the ears and fasten the buckle. Keep on holding the rope in case he tries to walk away.
  7. Remove the loop of rope from around the horse’s neck and lead away. The halter should fit properly, not too loose or too tight. The noseband should lie two fingers from below the cheekbone, and have two fingers of space between the nose and the noseband.

Vocal horse communication

Neighing: greeting, fear, or anger—depends on the tone.

Nickering: greeting, calling foals, or courtship.

Squealing: excitement, warning, or resentment.

Snorting: alarm or playing at being frightened.

Grunting/groaning: great effort or pain.

Horse body language

High-held tail: excitement.

Clamped-down tail: fear and submission.

Ears pricked and forward: startled or saw something in the distance.

One ear back, one forward: attention is split.

Droopy ears: lack of attention.

Ears back: submission, sleepiness, fear, or anger—depends on body language.

Nose high and top teeth exposed: smells something unexpected.

Tense, tight mouth: upset or confused.

Head lowered, moving the tongue around the teeth: submission.

Nudging: friendliness, seeking attention.

Thrusting with head: aggressiveness.

Jerk head back: startled.

Shaking head vigorously: get rid of an annoyance.

Pawing with hoof: warning, investigating, frustration, or anger— depends on body language.

How to ride bareback

  1. Use a fence, trunk, person, or other handy elevated place to get on the horse (since you have no stirrups).
  2. Sit on the widest, most comfortable part of your behind. Your legs will be further forward than in a saddle and you should not be leaning into your crotch. Your weight should be evenly balanced and your lower legs should be relaxed.
  3. Grip the horse with your thighs and knees, and hold onto a handful of mane. Start off with a walk, and then move up to a trot. It will be bouncy but maintain good posture and stay balanced.
  4. Move up to a canter, and as you both learn to ride bareback you can let go of the mane and use the reins only.

Types of harnesses

Buggy harness: for pleasure driving or horse training.

Farm harness: for practical work.

Logging or plow harness: a lightweight harness for skidding, dragging or plowing. It is like the farm harness but instead of a britchen and holdback assembly, has a crupper and long lazy straps.

Harnesses come in pony size (800 pounds and less), regular horse size (800–1,400 pounds), and draft horse size (1,400 pounds and up).

Horse collars

There are three shapes of collars: full face for thin-necked horses such as buggy horses, half sweeney with less stuffing by the withers for muscular necks which are used for draft horses or thick-necked horses, and full sweeney for very thick necked heavy draft pullers. The collar of the neck to let you slide four fingers in between easily. (See the Image Gallery for illustrations of these harnesses.)

Parts of a plow harness (from head to tail)

Bridle: Goes over the horse’s forehead and nose, holds the bit in place.

Bit: A piece of metal in the horse’s mouth to direct his head.

Check rein: Also hame. Goes from the bit over the housing to the other side.

Leading rein: A chain going from the bit to a strap connected to the trace chain.

Collar: A ring of leather that goes on the horse’s neck so he can pull.

Hames: Two pieces of wood on either side over the collar, held by the topstrap.

Topstrap: Holds the hames together on top of the collar.

Housing: Covers the top of the hames and the topstrap.

Meeter: Connects the hames to the crupper.

Tug hook: Holds the chain that goes from the hames to the trace chain.

Martingale: Strap connecting the collar to the girth.

Crupper: Runs along the back of the horse and under its tail; backbone of harness.

Lead guide: Strap from the crupper to the leading rein behind the housing.

Backstrap: Goes over the horse behind the lead guide to connect to the trace chain.

Girth: Goes from ends of backstrap under the horse’s belly.

Loin strap: Strap just in front of the tail connecting to the traces.

Trace chain: Also traces. Goes from backstrap to spreader; pulls the plow.

Spreader: Keeps the traces apart behind the horse’s legs.

(See the Image Gallery for a labeled diagram of the parts of a plow harness.)

Parts of a shaft harness (from head to tail)

Blinker: Also blinder. Sits on the bridle over the eyes of the horse so it can only see ahead.

Saddle: Sits just behind the housing; holds the chain that carries the shafts. should have enough space at the bottom

Saddle cover: Underneath the saddle; adds support.

Ridge tie: Underneath the saddle cover; connects to the ridger.

Ridger: Strap underneath the ridge tie; connects over back of horse to the girth.

Staple: Connected to the chain going to the harness; holds the shaft.

Shaft: Long pole for pulling the cart or wagon.

Loin straps: Three straps over back of horse behind the saddle, to help carry shafts.

Quilter: Piece of wood on shaft connected to ends of loin straps and chain from staple.

(See the Image Gallery for a labeled diagram of the parts of a shaft harness.)

Measuring cinch size

  1. To find out what size cinch your horse needs, put the horse on a level surface. Run a rope around the horse just behind the withers where the front cinch would be.
  2. Pull the rope snug but not tight enough to press into the skin. Hold the point where the end meets the rope to mark it. Take it off the horse (don’t let go of your mark) and pull it straight and measure with a tape measure.
  3. Use the inches and divide by 2. Subtract 3 from the result, and if it is not a whole number round up. This is the horse’s cinch size in inches.

Inspecting a saddle

  1. Squeeze the saddle close to the pommel at the very front. There should not be any movement, and you should not hear any grinding noises. If you do, there is a weakness in the tree.
  2. Make sure each bar where the stirrup attaches is secure and no rivets are loose. Wiggle and pull hard to do this.
  3. Look under the flaps and check for weak stitching on the girth billets, the straps the girth attaches to. This is the most important check. Flex and twist the straps for dryness and wear, and if there are any cracks don’t use it.
  4. Check that the girth and any elastic ends are in very good shape, and check the buckles for wear or rust. This is the second most important check.
  5. Check stirrup leathers for dryness and wear, especially where the leather folds. Flex and twist and pull to check for strength. Replace leather with cracks or unraveling stitching.
  6. Check all the leather on the bridle by flexing and twisting, particularly where there are folded areas. Any cracks or separation mean you have to get new ones.
  7. Check the bridle’s stitching. If you have an awl and some tools this can be fixed yourself.
  8. Check the bit for rough edges and replace if it shows roughness or wear.
  9. Check the buckles on the bridle for rust and being bent.

Inspecting any tack and harness

Check the leather for dryness, cracks, and wear. Once leather has a crack it needs to be replaced. Look for stitches unraveling and if possible use an awl to repair them. Check buckles for rust and bent tongues. Keep the leather in good condition by using leather dressing on a regular basis.

Harness care

  1. Take the harness completely apart and inspect the whole thing. Do any necessary repair work.
  2. Fill a washtub 3/4 full of warm water (not hot) with a handful of laundry soap. Put the harness in the tub. Get a board 10–12 inches wide and 6 feet long and put one end in the tub. Rest the other end against a bench or stool.
  3. Put each piece of harness on the board so the water will run down into the tub, and scrub with a scrub brush. Put each piece on the floor on newspaper to dry if inside.
  4. Warm the harness oil and when the harness is still slightly damp, apply with a rag or paintbrush.
  5. When the oil has dried (it can take all night), wipe off excess oil with a rag. If the harness is in bad condition add another coat. Too much oil will wear out your harness.
  6. Apply leather dressing and reassemble the harness.

Leather dressing

5–6 ounces beeswax
8 ounces lanolin
8 ounces cedarwood or other oil

Heat all ingredients together to 160° in a double boiler and mix thoroughly. Pour into containers and use as a conditioner and waterproofing for leather.

What is a trailer?

Horses have to be transported behind a truck in a trailer. The best trailers are spacious, have room for at least 2, and have been inspected for safety. The trailer should be stocked with extra halters and lead ropes, emergency flares and reflector triangles, flashlights, jumper cables and fuses, spare tire and a jack, duct tape, first aid kits, etc.

Traveling with horses: during the trip

  • Leave the horse untied or use a longline. This prevents respiratory stress.
  • Put him with his buddy in the trailer to prevent stress.
  • Keep the trailer spotlessly clean. Each time you stop clean out the manure.
  • Have the horse practice loading and unloading before ever taking a long trip.
  • The risk of no ventilation is worse than too much cold and rain. Blanket the horse and leave the windows open that are not going to cause a strong blast.
  • Drive slow and steady—put a 1/2 full glass of water on the dash and if it sloshes to 3/4 full then you are driving too rough.
  • Provide lots of water at least every four hours, even if they are not drinking.
  • Put hay in the trailer and wet it down a little bit to prevent dust.

After the trip

  • Hose out the trailer and make it ultraclean.
  • Let the horse rest for at least a week after a long trip.
  • Keep the trailer in good shape and check floorboards, ramp, brakes, and hitch.

Horse training rules

  • Do not be afraid of your horse.
  • Throw out any preconceived ideas you have about horse training.
  • The horse can do no wrong: you influence everything the horse does.
  • Recognize the communication of the horse.
  • Do not use any pain—including hitting, jerking, pulling, tying, or restraint.
  • Base the training on: you would like him to do it (not: he must do it)

Training the foal before weaning

  1. The foal should already be comfortable having a halter on its head. When the foal is three days old, attach a lead line to the ring on the halter and stand behind her.
  2. Pull the line until her head is pulled at a somewhat awkward angle, her head being pulled back towards you. After a while the foal will take a step towards you to relieve the pressure. Tell her what a good foal she is.
  3. Stop for the day, and repeat every day for longer and longer, until the foal follows you around. After this it should be simple for her to learn to stand tied. Praise her frequently and she will train even faster.
  4. Think of everything that could be scary to a young horse (or even an older horse). Trailers, the pasture, cars, getting new shoes, blankets, clippers, scary objects, etc. are all good opportunities. Expose the foal to the different situations, and rub scary objects over her as an imprinting device, massaging until she is relaxed, then praise her. Every time she stands still and is calm, reward her for it. Doing this while they are young makes later training easier, and even during later training use the imprinting method to reduce fear.
  5. When imprinting with objects or lifting and tapping hooves, do not let go when the foal struggles, or else you will imprint on the foal that if she fights she gets her way. With the initial imprinting you simply rubbed her down. Now you are introducing objectionable things and she must get used to this.

Training the yearling

  1. Backing up: Pull the lead rope towards her chest so that the halter is applying steady pressure to her nose. Put your hand on her chest until she takes the tiniest step back, and then praise her very well. Do this progressively until she backs up comfortably.
  2. Squaring up: When backing up is easy, lead her forward at a brisk pace, stop quickly and face the horse. Back up 1-2 steps until the back feet are square, or the hooves are in a straight line to each other. Then ask her to step forward so the front feet are square also (squaring up is when the four feet make a box). If she is confused, pick up the front feet and set them down where you want them.
  3. Pivoting: Face the horse and push the lead rope under her chin towards her rear, and use your other hand at the same time to apply pressure to the outside of her left shoulder. Take a step forward and she will get uncomfortable and turn away by taking a step. Do this and increase the steps until you can go all the way around. Make sure she is not crossing one leg in front, instead of behind. Then stop using your hand to apply pressure and use it only if she arches her neck or gets crooked.
  4. Lunge line: Use a lead rope and lunge whip (use imprinting if you need to), and stand at her hip. Tap the whip on her rump gently in a rhythm and cluck your tongue as the signal to move forward. Do this continuously until she steps forward. Then praise her profusely. Work up to the point that you can go in a full circle without stopping. If she stops or pauses, tap and cluck.
  5. Go and stop commands: When she can go around without stopping, turn your body sideways, lower the whip and say “whoa” while applying pressure to the lead rope. Do this until she stops, and then praise her. Put her on a longer lunge line and do it again.
  6. Trotting: The signal for trot is the same as for forward, except faster and louder clucks until the desired speed is reached. Use lots of verbal praise, but it can take as long as six months to learn this.
  7. Lope: Go from a walk then to a trot in both directions, then step close to the hindquarters and give the verbal cue (a kissing noise) and raise the whip. Do this until she goes into a lope and verbally praise her. At this point she may rebel, so just stop gently and start over when she is calm. To prevent running or bucking, slow to another gait when you notice frustration.

Preparing a young horse for starting with a saddle

This is to prepare a horse that is too young for a saddle, but big enough to have a saddle on him, to get him used to people handling him and riding. Basically you use your hands to simulate different riding equipment and care procedures for 5-10 minutes a day until he accepts it. To find out if the young horse is ready to begin real training, feel his knees. There should be no space in between the bones.

Starting a grown horse

Note: If your horse is completely green, spend a few days getting used to the bit and long lines. Practice on an experienced horse before trying any of this.

  1. Get two light 30-foot long lines, a snaffle bit, a saddle, saddle pad, one stirrup leather, and a halter.
  2. Put the halter on the horse and bring her into a pen with a clear area at least 50 feet in diameter. Carry the long line with you.
  3. Stand in the center of the pen and rub the flat of your hand on the horse’s forehead. Do not pat.
  4. Move toward the rear of the horse, while staying out of reach of any kicking. When you are behind her or she flees, throw the end of the line toward her rear. She will start going around the pen.
  5. Because the horse is retreating, you must advance. Continue throwing the line from the center of the pen two times per circle, or as many times as needed to keep her going. Be aggressive—keep your eyes focused on her eyes, and your shoulders square with her head. Stay away from the kick zone.
  6. Get the horse to canter five times around one way, and then go the other direction. Watch the body language of the horse carefully.
  7. When the horse is ready to stop, the ear closest to you will slow down or stop moving, while the outside ear will still be moving. The head will start to lower and turn a little towards you, until it is near the ground. She will come closer and be running her tongue around outside her mouth.
  8. Coil the line and put your eyes down submissively. Don’t look at her eyes, and turn slightly away, showing your back. If she comes to you, that’s great. If she stands and looks at you, start moving closer to her in curves, don’t make a beeline for her.
  9. If she leaves you, do a few more laps, and then repeat the whole thing. She should come up to you and reach out to your shoulder with her nose.
  10. Give her another rub on the forehead when you can approach her head. Then walk away, moving in semi-circles 10 feet wide. She should follow you or at least keep her head in your direction. If she doesn’t, start all over with laps.
  11. The horse should follow you to the center. Start on the near (the left) side, and use both hands to massage her neck, withers, back, hips, fore and rear flanks. Repeat on the other side, and then pick up the feet like you would normally.
  12. Bring all your equipment into the pen and put it in the center on the ground. Let the horse look it over, then move it and the horse in opposite directions until she follows you and not the tack.
  13. Snap the line on the halter, with the line over your left arm 3 feet from the snap. Place the saddle pad very gently on her back just before the withers. Slide them back into place. Pick the saddle up with the irons and girth over the seat and move slowly along the near side from the neck to the shoulder with the saddle resting on your right hip.
  14. Place the saddle on her back and move past her head to the off side (rub her forehead while you’re there). Fasten the girth at mid-fetlock point without hesitation, but slowly and smoothly. Go smoothly back to the near side, rubbing her forehead again
  15. Stand near the foreleg. Place the front buckle on the front billet, then draw it tight enough so that it won’t turn if she bucks, but not too tight. Place the back buckle on the back billet, tightening it a little more than the first. Go back to the first one and level them up.
  16. Unsnap the line and step backward cautiously, with the line in hand. Stay out of the kicking range and use the line to move her around the pen. Don’t encourage bucking or submitting.
  17. When the horse shows signs she wants to stop, make sure she is traveling comfortably with the saddle, then let her come back to you. Put the bridle on and put the reins under the rear of the saddle with plenty of slack. Put the extra stirrup leather through the off-stirrup iron so it hangs halfway through. Move to the near side and pick of both ends of the leather, carefully. Buckle it through the near iron.
  18. Take both lines at the snap end. Put one over the seat of the saddle, letting the snap reach the ground on the off side. Put the second snap through the near iron from back to front, snapping it on the near-side bit ring. Do it also on the off side.
  19. Go to the near side. Pick up the two lines and move at an angle backwards, keeping out of the kicking range, toward the rear of the horse. Move her forward and swing the right rein over her hips to the long lines. Go slowly if you are inexperienced. The goal is to make a little communication with the mouth, but cautiously. If you are experienced, ask her to canter in a circle then trot both ways. Practice a few turns and stops. Face her away from the center and rein back one step.
  20. The horse is ready to be ridden. Make sure the saddle is adjusted and the girth is tight. Snap a line on the nearside bit ring. Then pull yourself up and rest your belt buckle (or stomach) on the pommel but don’t get on. Have the horse led in circles to the right and left, and if she’s happy, put your feet in the stirrups and get all the way on. Circle again.
  21. If the horse is still happy, make bigger circles. Unsnap the line carefully and ride at a walk or trot around the pen in both directions, stopping to rein back a step between them.
  22. Do not rush—this does not have to happen in one day. If the horse doesn’t want a rider, wait until another day.

Fixing bad habits

If you went out a bought a horse with a bad habit, or your horse developed a bad habit, the first thing to remember is that the habit was caused by humans. Behavior problems are usually caused by pain, from saddles and bits not fitting properly, injuries, improper health care, etc.

Read more: For more homesteading tips from The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading, read the articles The Ultimate Guide to Food Preservation and Guide to Raising Chickens, Ducks and Geese.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Ultimate Guide to Homesteading by Nicole Faires, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.