Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Training and Fitting Horses for Work

Training and Fitting Horses for Work

by Professor M.W. Harper, 1917

This article, which originally appeared in SFJ in our 6th issue, 42 years ago, was lifted from FARM KNOWLEDGE (1917). Over four decades we have cycled through a wide assortment of approaches to horse training and some things remain paramount and true. It is important to mention that the beginner unfamiliar with horses should be extra cautious when undertaking to train a horse to harness. Also, although this article is a good, detailed discussion of the subject with an approach and attitude which we enjoy, it is by no means the last word. As long as we continue to publish SFJ with our steadfast belief in the practicality and suitability of animal powered systems we’ll continue to offer such information. LRM

“The third stage in horse management for those who can and care to enter upon it, is the training of horses for useful service. Some men are born trainers; others never learn the art. But any farmer who has to do with horses should know something of the principles upon which their control and instruction are based.”

CATCHING THE FOAL THE FIRST TIME. To avoid confusing the foal the first time you catch him place one arm behind, about the buttocks, and the other in front under the neck and about the shoulder joints. Now should the youngster attempt to move forward, apply pressure in front with the hand about the neck; should he attempt to move backward, apply pressure behind with the hand about the quarters. To stimulate the foal to walk forward, relieve the pressure in front and apply it at the rear, and to induce him to step backward, relieve the pressure at the rear and apply it in front. The colt caught in this manner will understand what is expected of him.

The usefulness of the horse depends largely upon his training and his obedience to his master’s will. The best methods of training him, and of establishing agreeable relations between him and his master are therefore of the greatest importance. With few exceptions training the horse for his life work is not difficult, yet much of the viciousness existing among horses is due to improper training or unwise management. The trainer and driver, though innocent of the fact, are often at fault, and the horse, having been confused in his training, consequently is unable to understand either what is expected of him or how to perform his work to advantage.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 1. Horse “breaking” as commonly practiced on the Western ranges.


In common usage, the word “training” implies fitting a horse for special work, as racing, coaching, saddling, and the like, while “breaking” signifies fitting him for every day work and overcoming bad habits. This usage of words is unfortunate, for only too often the horse is “broken” in spirit and obeys (or more accurately ceases to resist) because he is cowed down or worn out, and has not the energy to refuse. The horse thus managed often surprises his driver by running away, kicking and the like when given a few days’ rest. To avoid such trouble and to increase his efficiency every horse should be trained step by step until he thoroughly understands what is expected of him as well as how to use his power most effectively.

METHODS OF TRAINING. The many ways of attaining the desired results in training a horse may in a general way, be divided into 2 classes; the slow and the rapid. In the slow method reliance is placed on repetition in fixing ideas in the horse’s mind, while in the rapid method intensity of impression is the main reliance, although in this method, too, some repetition is needed to fix the idea.

The horse occupies a unique position in economic life for he is constantly associated with man in the performance of daily work, and this constant interdependence establishes close relationships between them. Because of this the horse’s intelligence is often overestimated and he is often credited with the power of reasoning. In reality the horse lacks the ability of acquiring knowledge by drawing conclusions. This being true he can be taught only the associating of ideas. However, he has a good memory, and what he once fully understands he seldom forgets. Thus a touch of the whip on the hind quarters implies that he is to go forward, but if given the command “get up” just before being touched, he soon learns to connect the command with the stroke and to act at the spoken word.

The horse that has thus learned by heart only desirable ideas is said to have good habits; if the ideas, and hence his acts, are undesirable he is said to have bad habits. To the horse, however, the habits are neither good nor bad, but only his way of responding to any given treatment.

There are 3 factors that influence the ease with which events are remembered and hence the ease with which habits are formed. First, the power of connecting ideas (and therefore of memorizing) decreases with increasing age; consequently the training should begin at a comparatively early age. Second, fatigue, either mental or physical, impairs the memory; hence, the training should not continue at any one time so long as to tire the horse either in mind or muscle. Third, the greater the number of ideas associated with the same event the weaker each becomes; thus each idea should be developed around a different event – whether command, signal, or act.


The foal should be taught a few simple lessons very early in life. At this time he has few ideas and few fixed habits and is trained with comparative ease. If the youngster is thrifty, the very first day of his life is none too soon to begin as we can show rather than force him to do that which he does not understand. First, obtain his complete confidence. To do this carefully handle the foal all over, exercising special care with the ears, the back of the front legs, the flanks and the front of the hind legs as these parts are extremely sensitive to the touch.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 2. How to catch and hold a foal.

In this connection it is interesting to note the factors governing the movements of the horse. For example, when the horse gets his front foot over an obstruction and feels the pressure on the back of the legs or feet, he pulls backward until he frees himself, even though he may seriously injure himself in so doing, whereas he could very easily free himself by taking a step forward. Likewise if the hind leg or foot is caught he struggles forward in the same unreasonable manner, though he could free himself by a step to the rear. It appears that the center of action in the horse is somewhere near the center of the body and that pressure from behind that center induces a forward motion, and pressure from in front of it a backward motion. Thus it is much easier to back a horse when grasping its head or neck than to drag it forward. Similarly if a tin can partly full of stones is tied to a colt’s tail so as to drag on the ground he goes forward just like a dog. This is an important principle in the training of horses.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 3. Three rope hitches for leading a foal: a. the tail hitch; b. the quarters hitch; c. the loin hitch.

TRAINING THE FOAL TO LEAD. The best time to teach the foal the use of the halter is when he is about 10 days old. For this purpose a web halter is preferred to either rope or leather as it is much lighter and not so likely to injure or frighten the foal. Also a halter that has been in constant use is better than one that has been hanging up or a new one that smells of things that are strange to the colt. With the web halter properly adjusted coax the foal along with his mother on some accustomed route to the watering trough for instance. A taste of sugar will usually induce him to follow promptly. Do not pull on the halter for at this stage, this only induces the foal to shake his head and step backward.

If the foal refuses to lead, take advantage of his natural instinct and apply pressure at the rear, since we wish him to step forward. There are three hitches used in teaching the obstinate horse to lead — the loin hitch, the quarters hitch, and the tail hitch. To make the loin hitch, procure a small rope or sash cord about 10 feet long and tie a small loop in one end. Place the rope about the foal’s body with the loop on the under side so that when the free end of the rope is run through it the rope may be drawn closely about the loins and flanks. The rope is now passed forward between the front legs and then through the ring on the halter. To make the quarters hitch, make the loop or bowline knot of such size that when placed in position on the foal it will go around the quarters and leave the knot well forward on the back. In the tail hitch the loop is made about the size of a crupper and placed under the tail like one.

With any one of these hitches in place, pull gently on the halter strap and as the foal begins to shake his head, give the hitch rope a sharp pull and he will spring forward true to his instincts. Then secure his confidence by feeding a little sugar and try again. Soon he will lead by the use of the halter strap alone when the hitch rope may be removed.

TEACH ONLY USEFUL LESSONS. The young foal should be taught such things as will be useful to him later in life. Thus he should be taught to be handled, to lead, the meaning of such commands as “whoa,” “get up,” “back,” etc., as well as that frightful objects and sounds will not hurt him. Because the foal is bright and easily taught it is not an uncommon practice to teach him tricks such as rearing, kicking, biting and the like, all of which he is likely to remember throughout life, at the cost of some of his usefulness.


Before the training begins the horse should be examined to see that he is in good physical condition and that he does not possess some defect that may interfere with his learning. The teeth may possess sharp edges which may injure the tongue thus causing pain which will detract his attention from the work in hand. His sight may be poor or his hearing defective. If the animal has received little or no attention as a foal it will be necessary to get him used to handling and then teach him to lead much as suggested under “Training the Foal” above. But at this time the same simple task will require much more patience.

AGE TO TRAIN FOR WORK. The kind of work to be performed will decide at what age the training should begin. Where the work is light and the working hours comparatively short the colt may be put to work at the age of 2 or 2-1/2 years, particularly if well grown. If the colt is thrifty it is poor economy to keep him idle after he is 3 or 3-1/2 years old. But a two- or three-year-old filly that has been bred and is in foal should never be put to work that is the least bit fatiguing.

The horse should be trained within an enclosure from which all objects likely to attract his attention, such as wagons, barrels, and the like, have been removed. Here it is much easier to get his entire attention and should anything go wrong and the horse free himself, he will be unable to get away. It is a good plan to first turn the horse loose in the enclosure for a while in order that he may become familiar with the place in which he is to receive his early training.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 4. Bitting harness.

BITTING THE HORSE. Because of the importance of a responsive mouth, bitting is the most important phase of horse training. Most horses can be taught the uses of the bit by means of the bitting harness which consists of an open bridle with side check reins, surcingle, back-strap and crupper and two side lines running from the bit to rings on either side of the surcingle. See that it is perfectly fitted and adjusted, especially the bridle and bit, then turn the horse into the training enclosure to become familiar with the bit. Leave him alone with neither man nor animals to attract his attention. At first the check reins and side lines should be slack, and during the first periods the bit should not be retained in the mouth more than an hour at a time, although the harness may be used two or three times a day. Gradually shorten the side lines taking care never to make them so short that they hold the horse’s head in an uncomfortable position or draw the bit so tightly as to make his mouth sore. The number of such lessons needed to train the horse to the uses of the bit depends entirely on his individuality; some horses can be driven after bitting once or twice whereas others will require a good many bittings before they fully understand what is expected of them.

DRIVING WITH LINES. As soon as the horse becomes familiar with the uses of the bit, replace the side lines with driving lines and drive him about the enclosure. To prevent him from turning his head, pass the lines through the rings on either side of the surcingle; however, it is sometimes a good plan to keep one line free to be used as a lead strap in case he refuses to drive or turns around and gets mixed in the lines. By keeping the lines low in turning the guiding is favored.

As soon as the horse goes ahead nicely, teach him to guide to the right and left. To train him to turn to the right, slacken the left line and pull with a swinging movement on the right one, tapping the left shoulder with the whip at the same time should he refuse to respond. Should he come around too far, hold the whip at the right shoulder. Do not pull him back with the left line and do not hit him with the whip, as either act may confuse him. In a similar manner teach to turn to the left.

TEACHING THE COMMANDS. As soon as the horse becomes responsive to the lines, teach the commands “whoa,” “get up” and “back.” To teach the horse to stop, command “whoa” and follow by pulling on the lines, but the instant the horse stops slacken them, otherwise he may become a lugger. Give him a first taste of sugar when he obeys. It is a good plan to stop him in the same place the first few times as this aids in fixing the idea. To teach the horse to start, give the command “get up” followed by a tap with the whip. Repeat until he will start and stop at the commands alone. To teach the horse to back, stop him and when ready, draw the left line firmly and command “back,” following immediately with a sharp pull on the right line. This will induce the horse to step back when he should be given a taste of sugar. Repeat until only the command is required.

POLING THE HORSE. To prepare the horse for hitching, he should be made familiar with the pressure caused by the harness. To do this procure a light pole 6 or 8 feet long and let the horse smell and feel it with his nose. Then gently run it over the nose, up the side of the face and to the crest. Work it back along the body and down along the outside and inside of the front legs. Continue until every part of the body and legs are familiar with the pressure. Finally lift the tail gently and place the pole under it and across the quarters as this will aid in cruppering the horse.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 5. A training cart and harness showing kicking strap over the horse’s rump and a single safety line to be used in an emergency.

HITCHING TO A CART. To avoid the possibility of an accident the first time a green colt is hitched, use a regular training cart provided with long shafts, and a seat and step so arranged that the driver can get off and on quickly. A practical cart may be made from the rear wheels and axle of a buggy by fastening two long hickory poles to the axle and arranging a cross bar and whiffle tree in front and a step and board seat in the rear. The shafts should be 12 feet long and provided with a strap across from point to point.

Such a cart has many advantages, especially for training fractious horses. For example, in rearing the horse strikes his front legs against the cross strap and cannot get them over the shafts, in kicking he is so far ahead that he does little or no damage; in attempting to turn suddenly, he is obliged to make so large a circle that no injury results; and in throwing himself, the shafts are so long and springy that little damage is done.

Before securing the horse to the cart, he should be familiarized with it. To do this allow him to feel and smell the shafts, rub them along the head and indeed all over the body and between the legs as in poling. The first time the horse is hitched a kicking strap should be used. As a precautionary measure, an assistant provided with a lead strap should remain near the horse’s head to aid in starting, turning, and stopping him.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 6. Double Rarey safety in place; also a simple rope halter with which to lead fractious horses.

SAFETY APPLIANCES. To aid in training the fractious horse employ safety appliances which use his own strength in overcoming him, or inflict the necessary punishment at the instant he cuts up. The most widely used appliance is known as the Rarey safety and consists of a surcingle fitted with two rings at the bottom, two on either side and one at the top, two short straps about a foot long fitted with D-shaped rings, and a long rope. As the short straps are to be buckled about the horse’s front pasturns they should be padded to prevent chafing.

To arrange this harness, put the surcingle and short straps in place, then pass one end of the rope through one of the rings on the left side of the surcingle, then down and through the D-shaped ring at the left pasturn, then up and through one of the rings at the bottom of the surcingle, then down and through the D-shaped ring at the right pastern then up and tie it to one of the rings on the right side of the surcingle. Now to restrain the horse when he attempts to rear, bolt, run away, or buck, it is necessary only to pull on the free end of the rope which brings him to his knees. To avoid injuring the knees they should be padded. A few hard falls are usually enough to convince even the most fractious horse that he must not run, rear, bolt, or buck.

Training and Fitting Horses for Work
Fig. 7. Both old and young colts gain confidence by being driven beside an older, steadier horse.

HITCHING DOUBLE. Some trainers prefer to hitch double from the very first although a horse is not well trained until he will work single and double, and on either side. The first time a green horse is hitched double a well trained, gentle, but active horse should be used with him as it is important to teach him to walk fast from the very beginning. The wagon used should carry a good brake so the driver can control the load according to the disposition of the horse.

TRAIN THE HORSE TO WALK FAST. There is no gait so practically useful as a fast walk, yet it is often entirely neglected in training the horse for his life work. To train the horse to walk fast, urge him from the very beginning to walk up to his limit. Do not permit him to mope, as the habit rapidly becomes fixed. Should he break into a trot, steady him, then try again. He should not be made to walk far at first without frequent rests.

To illustrate the value of fast walking consider a team plowing with a sixteen-inch plow and assume that it cuts full capacity. To plow one acre the team must travel a little over six miles. If the team walks one mile per hour, in a 10-hour day it will plow 10 miles or one and two-thirds acres; if it walks a mile and a half per hour, it will plow about 2-1/2 acres; if it walks two miles an hour, it plows over three acres; and if it walks 2-1/2 miles per hour, it will plow almost four acres in the ten-hour day. Of course a team cannot do this in all kinds of soil, but the figures illustrate the value of fast walking.

TRAIN THE HORSE TO PULL. To train the green horse to pull, hitch him alongside an active, even puller. The first few loads should be light – say 300 pounds – of bulky material such as hay, and the road should be smooth and hard. After driving a short distance the load may be doubled, the object being to get the horse familiar with the pressure of the harness, especially the collar, and to endow him with the idea that he can pull anything that is loose at both ends.


The preliminary training of the roadster or the coach horse should be similar to that outlined above. The further training of the light horse calls for patient effort, unlimited tact and native ability. Indeed no set of rules can be laid down that will apply in every case, as horses vary widely in disposition and temperament, and the methods that will bring the desired results with one will not apply to another. The horse of good disposition, mild temperament, and correct conformation will respond quickly to proper bitting and shoeing, whereas the horse with a wild disposition, vicious temperament, and poor conformation may offer so difficult a problem as to make his development hopeless.

The action often can be improved by the use of a curb bit. If the head is held up with the check rein, and the nose is held in with the curb bit, the horse, when urged forward, will step up, so to speak, instead of forward. Very little pressure need be exerted to hold the nose in. Likewise the action can be improved by proper shoeing; if the horse extends too far, reduce the weight of the shoes at the toes and gradually increase it toward the heels; if he folds and bends his knees too much, increase the weight toward the toes and reduce it toward the heels. Of course this must be done so as not to interfere with the level of the foot for if the natural position of the leg is interfered with the wear will not be equally distributed and lameness is likely to follow.

To show his action to advantage, the horse must be in fine condition, he must be strong and full of nervous energy, and he must be regularly and judiciously exercised. He must not only know how, but he must also have the power and will which come only from high condition and wisely regulated exercise.