How to Train a Horse – Tough Love

As an amateur rider, doling out any sort of discipline while training a horse can be hard, even if it’s necessary

Woman standing with horse against night sky.
Sarah adopted Chizzy as a 3-year-old who was still in need of some life lessons. Photo by Bad Pony Photos

Learning how to train a horse with tough love started with my chestnut, Chizzy. He’s the first young horse I have ever owned; I adopted him at age 3 from the racehorse rehoming organization I work for. He’s opinionated, with personality to spare, and I adore him.

The barn is one of the only places many adult amateurs can go to escape the never-ending pressure of decision making—and its consequences—that we face at work and at home. This relative feeling of freedom is why it can be hard to flip the switch back when training a horse to “tough love dictator” that moms and dads know so well if you’re having a particularly rough time with your four-legged friend.

Instilling Confidence

Many racehorses have zero social skills when they retire from the track. This is because they’re kept in a stall and only brought out to work. When they retire from the track, training a horse is necessary. They have to be taught how to behave like a horse all over again.

When I adopted Chizzy, I brought him to the farm where I board. He stayed in the round pen for a few days before being turned out in our Thoroughbred field. And by “turned out,” I mean “ran away from all the other horses like his tail was on fire.”

Chizzy was so intimidated by the other horses that I couldn’t even get his halter off some days because he was so anxious. It was all I could do to unclip the lead before he ran for the back of the field.

Woman riding horse in arena.
As Chizzy’s personality started to come out, Sarah realized he would only work as hard as he had to. Photo by Rachel Sowinski/Canter Clix

As Chizzy began to figure out his new life with me, his confidence grew, and his personality became more apparent. His self-confidence in the ring learning how to jump was intimately tied to his confidence in the field.

He’s now nicknamed the “welcoming committee,” since he greets each new horse, shows them around the field and “introduces” them to all his friends. When I turn him back out after a ride, his small herd is usually waiting for him at the gate.

Reluctant Fighter

It’s amazing how the deepening of the horse-human relationship can instill a sense of purpose and confidence—and not just in horses.

Chizzy is the toughest ride I’ve ever had. He’s not mean or malicious. He’s not a runaway or a dirty stopper at jumps, or any of the scary things horses can be. Due to being the happiest horse in the world, he doesn’t want to exert much effort (like, any). He will often take the easy way out.

My trainer, Nori, is the most amazing coach, especially with adult amateurs and all that we entail, like deep-seated fears and anxiety. She also owns half of Chizzy, though many days when she watches me ride, she’ll deny it. Ever the queen of analogies, Nori likens Chizzy to a 14-year-old boy who would rather sit in his room and play video games all day than work. So he makes me work for it.

I’m a strong rider, but also quiet to a fault. Like anyone whose job is stressful, I ride for fun. I love to win, don’t get me wrong, but I ride much more for the stress relief, physical exertion, and the sense of peace that being on a horse brings me. What I don’t want to do when I go to the farm? Fight.

The End Result

But sometimes, fight I must (with encouragement from Nori) to show the red horse who’s boss. As Nori says, “He’s not broke enough to have an opinion yet!” And she says when training a horse I must tell him that “no” is not an option and teach him that humble horses are good horses. To her horror, I just laugh.

Being hard on your kid, whether two- or four-legged, is tough. I want Chizzy to love me. I never want him to stop running to the gate whinnying for me. I just need to be reminded sometimes that being hard on him won’t make him love me any less, and in the end, I’ll have a better horse because of it.

Tough love is just that—tough. It’s tough to be on the receiving end of the lesson, but it’s also tough to be the one doling out the consequences. But just as raising respectful, well-adjusted kids requires perseverance and diligence, so does raising good horses—and good horses have a better chance of staying out of bad situations.

So stay tough. Your horse will thank you.

This article about how to train a horse appeared in the May 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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