Breaking a Horse vs Gentling It: What’s the Difference?

breaking a horse vs gentling it

While certainly not as popular as it was back in the day, breaking a horse is still considered a valid training method. If you ask me, it’s a lazy approach to forming a relationship with an equine, and it definitely should be frowned upon in our modern times. But what is the difference between breaking a horse and gentling (training) it?

Technically, breaking a horse represents bruce force training that aims to establish the human’s dominance over the horse. It provides quick results, as it basically works by breaking the horse’s will. Gentling a horse or training it properly involves many days of careful work, and it always offers better long-term results. In other words, if you invest time and patience into your horse’s training, you’ll get more out of your relationship with it.

How does breaking a horse work?

Horse owners that are in a hurry to get results often employ a variety of methods, some of which are more or less humane. Some of them choose to rope the horse, blindfold it and hobble it before saddling it up. They then proceed to stay on the horse until it gives up fighting. It’s a crude method, but one that has been known to deliver fast results.

Remember that breaking horses often leave both emotional and physical scars. Depending on the severity of the method, the horse will be in pain and there is the risk of it becoming traumatized. If you would like to learn more about horse PTSD, have a look at my article right here.

The sad reality is that gentling doesn’t work for every horse. Some of them are simply more stubborn by nature, in which case breaking might be the only available method. In our modern times, however, going the extra mile for your horse can make all the difference. Don’t give up too soon is what I’m trying to say.

The traditional philosophy behind breaking a horse is that the human needs to establish dominance over it by breaking its will. Back in the day, it was believed that a horse would only listen to its owner if it managed to establish its superiority. Another popular method involved tying the horse down until it yielded.

How does gentling a horse work?

The difference between breaking a horse and gentling a horse ultimately boils down to methodology. Gentling a horse takes a lot of work and know-how. Fortunately, once horsemen discovered that they can build a strong bond with their equines based on trust and mutual respect, more and more decided to follow this “gentler” path instead.

A gentle(d) horse behaves exactly as the term implies. It has received at least basic training and is able to obey simple commands. Typically, one only needs to gentle a wild horse or a horse that’s been through traumatic events and has become a danger for itself and the people around it.

There is a difference between gentling a horse and providing specialized training. Specialized training focuses on teaching the horse a specific skill, while gentling aims to curb its wild instincts in order to make it more manageable.

Therefore, in order to successfully gentle a horse, one must strive to meet three basic criteria:

  • Establishing leadership. Horses need a leader, whether we’re talking about humans or other higher-ranking horses in a herd. When a horse views you as a leader, it will feel safer, it will have a purpose, and it will fill fulfilled when it successfully does what is asked of him.
  • Creating a bond. Horses will bond with their handlers, and they will feel at ease once the bond is achieved. A horse that has bonded with its handler will be much more responsive to its commands. Bonding means improved communication and social interaction. When it comes to communication, listening to the horse and paying attention to its own needs and subtle hints is just as important as issuing commands. If you would like to learn more about improving communication with your own horse, I previously wrote a guide about it. You can find it right here.
  • Provide security. A horse that feels safe is so much easier to handle. It’s also much more responsive to basic training. Handlers looking to gentle a horse will always value its security above all else, at least at first. Figuring out how to make a horse feel safe is not too difficult. They need to be around other horses for starters, but if that’s not possible, ensuring access to a quiet, sheltered stable is definitely a good place to start.

Another extremely important part of the gentling process is to keep the horse’s emotions in check. It’s also realistic to realize that some horses will get worked up no matter what the handler does. Whether their anxiety comes from within themselves or from an exterior source, the important thing is that the handler must not be the catalyst, the source of these fears.

Is breaking a horse considered animal cruelty?

By definition, cruelty is “willfully or knowingly causing pain or distress” but breaking a horse doesn’t always result in pain per se. It all depends on the methods employed by the handler. While some horse owners would be quick to equate breaking to training, I beg to differ.

Breaking a horse is a quick and harsh process that doesn’t take into account the horse’s well-being and state of mind. While not strictly categorized as animal cruelty, breaking a horse can often border on it, although I suppose the exact boundaries of animal cruelty varies from region to region.

What I propose is this: if there’s a gentler, more humane method of taming a wild horse and suppressing its wild instincts, I say we use it. But jumping straight to breaking a horse just because it would involve more time and patience to gentle it is just laziness and cruel in its own right.

As modern training methods evolve, and we find newer and more efficient ones, we have to leave the old ways behind. Horses are intelligent animals with a great capacity for learning. We should leverage their intelligence, not ignore it. At least that’s my personal opinion.


There’s certainly a difference between breaking a horse and gentling it. One involves a rope and a blindfold, while the other relies on expertise, careful training, and patience. The results are incredibly different as well. One breaks an animal into submission, while the other forms a long-lasting bond.

Horse breaking is still being used as a default training method in some parts of the world. Hopefully, as time goes by, more horse owners will turn to kinder and more professional training methods.