Horse Training by Driving

Wayne Loch and William H. Slemp
Department of Animal Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia
Training a foal begins while it is still on the mare. Handling and teaching it to lead at this young age will help develop a more dependable horse through the years. Halter breaking is not difficult if done appropriately while the foal is young.

Catching and haltering

If the mare is gentle, use her to help catch the foal. Lead her into a box stall with the foal following and get the foal in a corner. The mare will help hold the foal while you ease the halter on. Work slowly with a lot of rubbing and quiet talking to calm the foal.

The foal probably will be nervous and scared, but if the mother shows no concern, the job will be easier. After haltering, turn them loose to let the foal wear the halter about two days. This will give the foal time to get used to the feeling of having a halter on. Then go through the same procedure as before, catching and haltering in the box stall. This is the time to begin leading the foal.

Teaching to lead and stand

Snap a good lead rope in the halter ring and put a rump rope over the hips with one end coming through the halter. A bale twine makes a good rump rope. Lead the mare out of the stall and let the foal follow. Stay in front of the foal, pulling forward on the lead rope attached to the halter while also pulling sharply on the rump rope. The foal may jump forward when the rump rope is tightened, so be careful not to get stepped on.

If the mare and foal are led around together while pulling on the lead and rump ropes, it won't be long before the foal is leading. Once the foal begins to lead well, work away from the mare to make sure the foal is leading and not just following the mother. Do this for two or three days for about 30 minutes each day.

When teaching the foal to stand, use a tire inner tube tied to the barn wall or a post in the middle of a pen. Tie the mare close by and tie the foal to the inner tube with the halter lead rope. Be sure to use a strong lead rope and halter that will not break. The foal is less likely to injure its neck while pulling back than if tied in a more solid fashion because the tube stretches.

Keep the foal tied in this manner for about two hours each session. This schedule allows time for nursing. Two or three sessions probably will be needed before the foal will stand without pulling back.

When the foal is gentle and will stand tied without pulling, turn it and the mare to pasture and don't work again until weaning time unless for feet trimming or worming.

When the mare and foal are brought in for weaning, the foal probably will not be afraid because it will remember the prior experience of not being hurt. Halter and lead it for a few days. Trim feet and worm it if necessary. Any handling at this age is time well spent. The foal's gentleness and learning to lead will save time during breaking at two years of age.


When getting the young horse ready to saddle, again tie it to the inner tube. This allows it to pull back without neck injury while you begin "sacking it out," or rubbing with a saddle pad. Rub the pad or blanket over it from its head and neck, over the back, and down over the rump and legs. This will make the young horse uneasy and probably "spooky" the first or second time this is done. When it stands quietly for the blanket, this is time to place the saddle.

Pick up the saddle and let the young horse see and smell it. When the smell of another horse is discovered on a saddle, the young horse will be less fearful. Take plenty of time acquainting it with the saddle. The object is to saddle the horse and avoid bucking. If a light English saddle is available, use it at this stage. Don't bruise a young horse by throwing on a heavy saddle.

Lay the girths and right stirrup over the seat of the saddle. If the stirrup has a tendency to fall, hook it over the horn. Raise the saddle in both hands and place it gently in place. If the horse panics, maintain a hold on the saddle.

When saddling a horse for the first few times, a helper may be needed to let the stirrup and cinches down each on the "off" or right. side of the horse. Don't push them from the seat and let them bang the horse's ribs. If no helper is available, go to the off side to lower them. Raise the saddle pad slightly over the withers so it doesn't bind.

To continue saddling, reach under with your left hand and raise the front girth to receive the latigo from the right hand. Be aware of the temperament of the young horse. It could jump or rear back. If this happens, be alert and in position to move out of the way. Wear boots or hard-toed shoes to protect your feet from being stepped on. As you bring the girth up, slip the latigo through the ring on the girth and run the latigo up through the Dee ring on the saddle, then back through the girth. Draw the girth up snug, but not too tight. After the horse walks a few steps, draw the girth up snug again.

If a back cinch is used, be sure it is attached to the front cinch so it can't move back on the horse's flank. Reach under and fasten the back girth as you did the front one. Draw it up to allow for room to get your hand between the girth and the horse after it is fastened. If it hangs too loose, the horse could get a foot caught in it.

Leave the horse tied for 15 or 20 minutes to get the feel of the girth.

Using the first bit

At this point, you are ready to use a snaffle bit. A racing Dee bit with curb strap and small strap or cord over the nose at the front of the bit is recommended. Bale twine can be used in place of the strap over the nose. It should be tight enough to keep the bit in place and prevent damage to the horse's mouth. Leave the halter on and slip the bridle over it.

To set the horse's head, tie the reins even in length, one on each side of the neck, to the saddle horn. Tie the reins so the bit is in contact with the horse's mouth when the head is held naturally. The head can be raised later if necessary.

Now lead the horse around a few minutes in the barn hallway or small pen using the halter lead rope. Talk in a soft voice while leading. Talking while doing anything with horses will help in getting done what you want to do. After the horse has been led around for a while, unsnap the lead rope and turn it loose in a small pen or barn hallway. It probably will walk a while, then stop and stand in a corner, which is fine for the first or second such experience. On the third day, get in the pen with the horse and force it to trot and lope around the pen. Work enough to make the horse go in all gaits both ways around the pen. Do this for about 15 or 20 minutes, then leave it alone for a while.

On the fourth day, saddle and bridle the young horse and turn it loose for five or 10 minutes until it settles down. Then catch the horse to begin further training.

Using a running martingale

Now it is time to introduce the horse to the running martingale. Pass the reins through the rings on the martingale and fasten the other end of the martingale to the ring on the girth between the front legs. Again tie the reins, even in length, to the saddle horn. The reins should be just tight enough so the bit makes contact with the horse's mouth.

Be sure the buckles on the reins at the bit will not hang in the rings of the running martingale. Leather guards on the reins will prevent this.

Turn the horse loose again in the pen with the running martingale on. The horse won't want to move forward; in fact it may only back. Don't force anything. Give the horse time to think about it. When the horse begins moving after a while, force it to move out at a trot or lope.

At first the horse will think it can't lope without raising the head. The horse must learn to give its head to the bit. This is called "flexing at the poll." Once the horse finds out it can give at the neck in this manner, it will begin dropping the head into the bit. This work should be done for one or two hours for a couple of days.

Then you are ready to start the most important part of the training program line driving.

Ground driving

For driving, continue using the racing Dee bit with the cord over the nose. The running martingale is not needed because the driving lines will serve the same purpose.

First, hobble the stirrups by tying them together under the horse with a bale twine or other cord. Driving lines may be made of nylon or cotton rope or leather lines at least 25 feet long with snaps on the ends. Pass them through the stirrups and snap them into the Dee bit.

A helper, or leader, is needed to put a lead rope on the halter and steady the young horse while the driving lines are used in the beginning. The lines may bother the horse until it gets used to them touching the legs. Talk quietly until you can move the lines up and down the legs without the horse moving around. If "sacking out" was done properly, the horse will pay little attention to the lines.

The helper should start off while the driver "clucks" to the horse to move forward. Drive in this manner around the pen or up and down the barn hallway. Each time you stop, say "whoa." Then "back" while pulling slightly on the lines. Don't use a steady pull, but pull and release on the lines.

The helper may have to stop and back the first or second time. You will be surprised to see how quickly a young horse will learn to do this on command. Line drive the horse for one or two weeks. After the first time or two, you will not need a helper because you will be in complete control.

Drive the young horse inside and outside the pen. Drive in a field, around the building and anywhere you might want to ride. Driving will help the young horse relax, and you will be getting a good head set without hurting the horse's mouth.

Begin riding

When the horse is driving well, you are ready to start riding. Unhobble the stirrups and put the running martingale on again. To get on, take the reins in your left hand and also grasp the side of the bridle with the left hand. Your right hand should be on the saddle horn. With the left hand, pull the horse's head around toward you as you step up in the left stirrup.

Stand only in the left stirrup for a second or two to check the horse's reaction. If all is quiet, step down again. Do this two or three times, talking quietly all the time. When the horse will stand for your weight, step up as before, then put your right leg over. Do this slowly and ease down. Don't drag your foot or leg over the rump.

When you have both feet in the stirrups, let go of the bridle and take hold of the reins with both hands.

At first the horse probably will not want to move. You may have to provide some urging. A good way to do this is to pull the head around to your leg. It doesn't matter which way you pull it, the horse will give because you have been guiding it with your driving lines. As you pull the head, nudge your heel against the same side and the horse should start to turn.

As soon as the horse moves, loosen the rein and nudge with your opposite heel. The horse should start to walk. Allow it to wander on its own for a while, then command "whoa" and give a slight pull on the reins. The horse should stop without a problem. Then command "back" while pulling and releasing the reins. This should be remembered from driving. Then nudge forward again. Continue this starting, stopping and backing until the horse does it fairly easily. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes.

Once a horse has done what you set out to do, it is time to quit for the day. The quickest way to run into trouble with a young horse is to get it too tired. Fifteen to 30 minutes of concentrated riding at one time is plenty.

Before asking a young horse to engage in serious training, be sure it is well fed, wormed, and has no teeth problems.

Urge the young horse into a trot with leg pressure and nudges of the heels. The horse can trot squarely and balanced with the head correct even though the reins pull downward through the running martingale. The running martingale and snaffle will minimize pressure on the bars of the mouth if the horse should "spook" and lunge into the reins.

Train the young horse for about a week in a walk and trot, and do a lot of turning while in either gait. The horse should respond to light rein pressure and be collected when turning that is, legs well under. Turn the horse into a fence during this training.

Before you start loping the horse, be sure you have control of its head. If a horse is ever going to pitch, it likely will do so the first time you give a command for the lope. The best way to start loping is to put the horse in a trot and then urge it faster.

When the horse is in an extended trot, the rider can cue for the lope by shifting weight slightly to the inside stirrup while keeping the lower leg firm against the front cinch and urging forward with the heel behind the cinch on the opposite side. Once the horse is in the lope, it can be restrained with intermittent pulls and releases on the reins if it charges or tries to bolt.

At times, you will think you have the greatest trotting horse of all time before it finally breaks over into a lope. Then the horse may lope only four or five strides and go back to trotting. Or it may try to bog its head and pitch when it first breaks over. If this happens, pull on the reins and command "whoa." This is where your groundwork really plays off; the horse knows what "whoa" means. Begin again by urging a lope. It will not take long until you have the horse loping around the pen willingly.

Work outside a pen

Now you are ready to get out into the open spaces, commonly called field riding. The young horse is probably getting bored with the three or four weeks of training in a small pen. However, you should spend a few more days, maybe two or three, making some equipment changes before going to the outside.

The racing Dee bit is not as safe as a shank bit for field riding. If the young horse is spooked by something that scares it, you could lose control with a Dee bit. At this time, introduce a training snaffle bit with shanks and a curb chain.

Put the bridle on and tie the reins evenly to the saddle horn just tight enough to make contact with the mouth. Let the horse wear it for a while as the Dee bit was worn. Move the horse around the pen to get the feel of the new bit. It will be quite different because of the pressure on the mouth when the head is raised.

After the horse has worn the training bit for an hour, catch it and put on the running martingale. Again tie the reins evenly to the horn, only tight enough to make contact with the mouth, then turn the horse loose in the pen. Let it stand for 10 or 15 minutes, then force it to move around.

The horse probably won't want to go against the bit at first, but make it walk, trot and lope. Leave the horse alone for an hour or until it stands with head dropped and chin tucked back. When this happens, remove the martingale. The horse has given to the bit, or flexed at the poll, and adjusted to the pressure of the curb chain.

The young horse needs to have a thorough understanding of how the curb works. Use the driving lines again for ground driving. Run the driving lines through the hobbled stirrups as before and snap them to the rein holes of the bit.

As you begin to drive, remember that you have a lot of leverage that was not available with the Dee bit. Therefore, be very light on the lines. First, speak to the horse and ask it to "back" while giving a light pull on the lines. The horse may want to raise the head a little at first, so give and take very lightly with your lines. Then move the horse forward as you did during previous driving with the Dee bit.

Drive the horse until turning, stopping and backing is done with ease. This should not take more than 30 minutes. After driving quietly, take the lines off, unhobble the stirrups, put the running martingale on again, and mount.

Ride around the pen with the reins in both hands and crossed. When reins are crossed, the bight of each rein extends out the top of the hand on the side of the rein and into the top of the other hand. Both hands are holding both reins.

When the young horse will walk, trot and lope with light contact on the mouth and is yielding to your commands, you are ready to ride in the pasture.

You might want someone to ride with you the first time you go out. Get someone with a quiet, easy-going horse that doesn't spook easily. A young horse will go along with a quiet companion better than alone, and you want to avoid the horse being spooked the first time.

The martingale will help in case the young horse jumps around some. It prevents damaging the mouth, yet helps to stop when necessary to do so. Ride all the way around the pasture at a walk or trot to let the horse get a look at everything before you try to lope.

After you have gone around the pasture two or three times, let the horse go into a lope. Lope around a few times. This probably will be enough for the first day out, because you don't want to wear the horse out. Remember, you can't teach much if a horse is too tired.

The next day, go back to the pasture. The horse probably will be more willing to move out. Begin to increase the riding time. Each day you can add a few minutes more to the training routine.

Remember to walk and trot each day before you start loping. Don't wear the horse out loping; come back to a walk and trot every few minutes.

Leads and stops

When the horse starts going into a lope easily, this is the time to start working on leads and stops. To work on the right lead, start in a circle to the right at a trot. Let the horse trot in the circle and keep urging for the lope just as you did in the lot or pen. Let the horse lope the circle eight or 10 times, then stop and walk around for a while. Then turn to the left and repeat the procedure to work on the left lead. Do this for a few days until the horse is loping smoothly.

Now is the time to start training for whatever event you choose. At this point, you are ready to remove the running martingale. You should be able to ride your young horse on a loose rein with the proper head set. Riding should be a joy. Remember, if the young horse starts throwing the head or taking the bit, work again with driving lines and this will soon stop.

The decision at this point may be to continue the training yourself or to hire additional or professional training.

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Copyright 2000 University of Missouri. Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.

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