Four Horse Training Myths

Myth #1: It takes a lot of time and effort to teach a horse something new.

We need to work smarter, not harder. Horses do best if taught new things in short sessions, rather than spending hours drilling. And if it isn’t working, if you aren’t seeing progress, then that’s the cue to try something else. Just this week I was struggling to teach a horse a new skill I was pretty excited about. After two days of a 20 minute session each day, I realized that this probably wasn’t the right approach. On a whim, I tried the same approach on another horse, and had him performing the skill in less than 5 minutes flat. It was the right way to teach the second horse, and confirmed that I’m definitely going to have to be creative and find another way to teach the skill to the first horse.

While we’re definitely going to have to put in the time to get a horse fit and strong, and we never want to go faster than the horse is comfortable learning, training a horse shouldn’t take ages or monumental effort. If it does, we’re doing it wrong and need to go back to the drawing board.

Myth #2 – You need special tools or tack.

I completely understand why every clinician out there has their brand name training tools for sale. I mean, I’m trying to make a living in the horse business too, I know how hard it is. But that’s all they’re good for, making some money for the person selling them. You just plain don’t need special equipment to train your horse. And in most cases, you probably shouldn’t use it.

Keep it simple – gimmicks and shortcuts in the form of knotted rope halters, training sticks, draw reins, flip flops, and the list goes on, might give you short term results, but they’ll never be in the best interest of your horse in the long run. Do you want a short term change fueled by force or avoidance of pain? Or a long term relationship with your horse, building their skills and strength so you both get better every day? If the second sounds better to you, save your money and ditch the training aids. They’re much more likely to hinder than to help.


Myth #3 – You have to “be the boss”

For years the approach to training horses was to literally “break” them – break their spirit so they no longer react in ways that humans have deemed inappropriate. You had to be in charge, and your horse had to know it, because otherwise they’d walk all over you. But the science doesn’t support this approach, and dominance theory has been disproven in recent years.

Horses don’t do something because they can “get away with it” or because they “don’t respect you” – horses simply respond in the way they’ve been taught (intentionally or otherwise) or in the way they feel they need to in order to keep themselves safe. Behaviour that is dangerous is usually only seen because the horse has been pushed too far, without understanding, or because they’ve previously learned that response is reinforcing (ie human goes away) – it has nothing to do with dominance or respect. Those are human concepts, and have no place in horsemanship.

Myth #4 – If you use food it isn’t “real training”

This is a pervasive one. I can post a video of a new behaviour that I’m pretty excited about, and I guarantee someone will comment “very nice, but I bet you have a treat in your pocket!” Um … yeah, of course I do, I don’t like to work for free, why should my horses!

When positive reinforcement with food rewards is used to train apex predators to offer their leg for a blood test, or hold their mouths open for dental exams, why are we so resistant to it in horses?

Horses are, through their evolution, meant to be eating for most of their day. Because of that, they’re ideally suited for the use of food during training, and it is highly effective. Once a horse understands the line of communication involved in positive reinforcement, there is no limit to what they can learn, as an engaged, keen and willing participant in everything you do with them.

Training with food rewards is not only definitely “real training” but it’s also the most effective and enjoyable way to train your horse.


3 thoughts on “Four Horse Training Myths”

  1. Thank you for this great post! And the timing of it is so helpful to me. Just two days ago, hoping to make a new riding friend, I trailered my big horse to a farm to go for a ride with someone new. Matrix was a perfect gentleman during the ride and New Friend said she loved him. But when it came time to load in the trailer, he didn’t want to get on. He had only been on the trailer 2 times in the last three years, so I was patient with him and practiced positive reinforcement. It wasn’t working and after an hour I switched to gentle negative reinforcers: light tapping with the whip and rewarding any progress with a treat, and then touching him with a longline above his hocks as he walked forward. The second technique worked and I considered the result a success because everything we had done was gentle and Matrix had loaded safely. Later, the hostess sent me an annoyed message, saying I needed to teach my horse who was boss, for safety, and making it clear I would never hear from her again. I was totally confused because I knew that if I had escalated to forceful measures it could have damaged my relationship with my horse.

    1. I’m so sorry you had that experience Mara! Imagine how much more difficult he would’ve been to load next time if you’d resorted to force this time – and because you were gentle and took your time it was a good experience for him, so next time he’s much more likely to load. You did the right thing. And it helps me to remember that people who say things like that can only speak from what they know. It can be really hard to accept a new way of doing things, especially when that new way means that “the way you’ve always done it” maybe wasn’t the right way.

  2. I have been using positive reinforcement with my quarter horse for the 5 years I have owned him. It works great and he learns so well with it. He will try harder to find the answer if food is involved. Every time I have a issue with him behavior wise my coach always goes to the “it’s because you clicker train him and he doesn’t respect you”. The behavior issue is always me and something I did to cause it. ALWAYS!!! But it is amazing how awful people can make you feel because they traditionally think that it is the wrong way to train horses. I have not been around horses all my life. I just think that there can and IS a better way to train horses then the ” I am the boss method”. Thanks for this post, I feel so much more motivated to keep doing what I do with him after reading things like this.

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