Storey's Guide to Training Horses, 3rd Edition

Ground Work, Driving, Riding


By Heather Smith Thomas

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Storey’s Guide to Training Horses is a one-stop reference for every aspect of horse training, including a complete program for turning a shy and gangly foal into a calm, confident, well-balanced equine partner. Now with full-color photography, the third edition includes step-by-step guidance on all the essential training procedures for both English- and Western-style riding, including haltering and leading, saddling and mounting, and addresses the finer points of gaits, lightness, and collection. Best-selling author Heather Smith Thomas draws on her decades of equestrian experience to anticipate every situation that might arise and provide answers to managing all the potential challenges of training different types of horses.


To my daughter, Andrea

Your early love of horses and riding was a joy and a help to me as we rode on the range and worked our cattle. As soon as you were big enough to get on a horse by yourself, you began helping train our ranch horses.

I wanted someday to dedicate one of my books to you — if I ever wrote one on horse training — because you were my training partner with so many young horses. Then in July 2000, you nearly lost your life in a terrible fire. I feared that our wonderful days of riding and training together were over. But you hung on and eventually fought your way back to physical fitness. It's a long, hard road for a person recovering from severe burns, and some things are never the same again, but nine years later, when I wrote the second edition of this book, you were riding and helping me train horses again. Today, as I work on revisions and updates for yet another new edition, you are still training horses with me. Most recently you trained a Morgan filly that will eventually be a horse for your own youngest daughter. I have enjoyed riding with you as we put miles and "work experience" on the two fillies we were both training.

I am very glad to have this opportunity, again, to dedicate this book to you and I am so very thankful that you are still here and able to read it. I am also grateful for your help in looking over the first manuscript and this update, just as I have been thankful for your help during the past 38 years in training our horses.




1. Basic Safety Practices

Safety First

Safe Ground Handling

Safety When Riding

2. Horse Sense and Training Psychology

Understanding Horses

The Horse-Human Relationship

Training Principles

Training Aids

How to Avoid Conflict and Common Pitfalls

3. Handling and Training the Foal

Learning Begins with Imprinting

Imprinting Your Foal

Handling a Foal during the First Weeks

First Leading Lessons

Beginning Lessons in Foot Handling

Beginning Lessons in Tying

Grooming Lessons for Handling and Patience

Advanced Leading Lessons

Basic Lesson Planning

Avoid Spoiling the Foal

Dealing with Challenging Personalities

Know the Foal's Limits and Abilities

4. Handling and Training the Weanling

Weaning a Foal

Train Consistently, Gently, and with Authority

Training Lessons for Routine Health Care

Life Lessons

Loving without Spoiling

5. The Yearling and 2-year-old

Crash Course for an Unhandled Young Horse

Round-Pen Training

Leading Lessons for the Yearling and 2-Year-Old

Teaching a Horse to Back Up at Halter

Beginning Tying

Perfecting His Tying

Lessons in Blanketing

Continue the Leading Lessons


Ponying the Young Horse

6. Ground Work Before Riding

Bridling Beginners

Saddling Beginners

Maneuverability and Control

7. Bits and Their Uses


Curb Bits

The Pelham

The Double Bridle

Ensure Proper Fit

Choosing a Training Bit

The Importance of Good Hands

The Hackamore

8. Bitting and Driving

Bitting Ground Work

Bit Resistance

Training the Driving Horse and Pony

Selecting a Cart

Pulling Preparation

Pulling a Cart: First Lessons

Gradual Conditioning

9. First Mounted Lessons

Accustom the Horse to the Saddle

First Mounting

Moving Out

Stopping and Turning

Short Rides around the Pen

First Trotting Lessons

Don't Canter Yet

Nip Problems in the Bud

10. First Rides in the Open

Safety Precautions

Everything Is New and Different

Overcoming Fear of Strange Obstacles


A Little Quiet Time

Riding along Roads

11. The Walk

How the Horse Moves

Training at the Walk

Teaching a Faster Walk

Calming the Excitable Horse

12. The Trot

How the Horse Moves

First Trotting Lessons for the Green Horse

The Jog

The Slow Trot

The Working (Medium) Trot

The Extended Trot

Walk-Trot Transitions

Change of Speed and Stride Length

Improving the Stop from a Trot

Trotting in Circles

The Most Versatile Gait

13. Lightness and Colletion

What Is Collection?

First Lessons in Collection

Teaching a Collected Trot

Perfect Balance, Greater Agility

Collection at the Canter

Don't Overdo It

14. The Gallop, the Canter, and the Lope

How the Horse Moves at the Gallop

How to Ride the Gallop or Canter

Teaching the Green Horse

Working with Leads

Control of His Leads

The Flying Lead Change

Changing Leads on the Straightaway

Refine Your Cues

Don't Overdo It

15. Further Schooling

Fine-Tuning Your Communication

Teaching a Smooth Stop

Teaching the Horse to Neck-Rein

Turning on the Center

Turning on the Forehand

Reining and Pivoting

Teaching the Backup

Lateral Work

Opening a Gate from Horseback

Beginning Dressage

Beginning Jumping

Avoid Souring the Horse

16. Trailer Training

Load the Foal with His Mother

The Weanling or Yearling

Trailering the Adult Horse

The Reluctant or Spoiled Horse

17. Retraining the Spoiled Horse

The Pushy Horse

The Body Basher

The Hard-to-Catch Horse

The Confirmed Avoider

The Hard-to-Lead Horse

The Hard-to-Bridle Horse

The Hard-to-Saddle Horse

The Hard-to-Mount Horse

The Horse Who Won't Tie

The Biter

The Kicker

The Turnout Terror

The Barn-Sour Horse

The Horse Who Rushes Home

The Herd-Bound Horse

The Head Tosser

The Horse Who Resists the Bit

The Bolter

The Balker

The Rearer

The Bucker


Appendix A: Equine Anatomy

Appendix B: Gait Sequences


Additional Photography Credits



Metric Conversion Charts

Expand Your Equine Education with More Storey Books

Storey's Guide to Raising Series


Share Your Experience!


Before you begin to train a horse, familiarize yourself with the basics of good horsemanship and be aware of general safety practices. You should also be a good rider and adept at handling horses. The first two chapters of this book are an overview of the fundamentals of good horsemanship and safety and a discussion of horse psychology — essentials a trainer must know to properly handle and understand an equine pupil.

Next, the book covers training the horse, starting when he is a baby and moving step-by step through his growing years. You will learn the manners and habits he should be taught as he grows and as you begin his education as a riding or driving horse. Finally, the book discusses further schooling and retraining of a spoiled horse.

You can use this book as a basic training manual for starting any horse: the child's riding or driving pony; horses for Western pleasure or trail riding; horses for working a farm or ranch; horses for English riding and jumping; and horses for any other sport or competition. You'll also get advice on how to handle and correct an older horse with bad habits.

It's always nice to start with a young, unspoiled horse, but sometimes you acquire a horse who is already ill-mannered or afraid of people, and you must figure out ways to correct his bad habits or overcome his phobias. It's also important that you do not spoil a young horse as you train him, or create additional bad manners or problems in an older horse. This book can help you avoid common mistakes that novice horse owners often make.

Many methods of handling and training horses are discussed, and some may seem contradictory. There are a number of approaches to training a horse or dealing with a specific problem; some work well for certain horses but not for others, and sometimes you must resort to something completely different.

As a trainer, you don't always have ideal conditions or the ideal horse. You don't always have the opportunity to imprint a newborn foal or a chance to trailer-train a young horse before you have to haul him somewhere. You may acquire a yearling or 2-year-old who had no early training and have to start "kindergarten" lessons with a horse who is bigger and stronger than you.

To help you, this book covers the basics, provides some alternatives to traditional training styles, and offers encouragement to be creative and, if necessary, come up with some approaches on your own. The important thing is to be in tune with your pupil, constantly evaluating what is best for him in each phase of his training and in each lesson. If you always put the horse first — choosing methods that will work best for him and moving forward at his individual pace — you will do a good job. Your ultimate goal is to see how well you can train your horse, not how far you can progress within a certain time frame. Be patient, and progress at a speed that's right for him.

Horses are often our best teachers. We shouldn't force a horse to conform to our favorite method but instead should strive to accommodate his needs, adapting our training programs to whatever it takes to gain his trust and respect.

Some advice and some discussion of methods will be repeated in various chapters, as they apply to different phases of training or working with a horse under different circumstances. The goal of this book is to help you with all of these phases or circumstances to create a positive and willing partnership.

Author's note: For simplicity, in this text a horse is always referred to as "he," unless the discussion specifically focuses on work with mares or fillies. Riders and handlers are referred to as "she."


The training principles discussed in detail in this volume will help you provide your horse with a solid foundation for lifelong learning. Consider them touchstones to be relied on and returned to each time you work with your horse.

Develop correct patterns of behavior. A horse reacts to your actions. When you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing more difficult, he will choose the proper response. If his reaction reduces the pressure he feels from your legs, hands, rope, or bit, in the future he will keep doing whatever it was he did that relieved the pressure. If, however, pressure is not reduced or is increased, his reaction is either to try to get away from it or to fight it. Always try to help him make the correct response.

Practice makes perfect. The horse learns through repetition. He may make the correct response to your cue accidentally when first learning, but gradually he will learn that the stimulus (the cue or pressure given by his trainer) is removed or released when he gives the correct response. Through the repetition of this cue-and-response process, he soon learns what he is supposed to do. He becomes comfortable with it — giving the correct response more quickly the next time he receives that same stimulus. Over time, you can refine your cues, to a slight pull on the rope rather than a firm tug, for example, and a slight press with your leg when riding, because he has learned what is being asked of him. If you are consistent in your requests, repetition reinforces good habits — unless you overdo the repetition to the point of annoyance or boredom. A fast learner may tire of repetition and need something new to stimulate his mind and his interest in learning.

Work progressively. There is much a horse must learn before he can perform advanced maneuvers. Start with the basics, and build a foundation for the next steps. If you skip some of the early steps, the foundation won't be as solid, nor will the end result. The shaky foundation will eventually reveal itself and your horse will develop a problem.

Building on what he already knows gives your horse a sense of security. He is at ease and confident with the tasks you require of him. He knows what to expect from you because you have been consistent in your requests, and he knows that when he gives the correct response, he will be rewarded. He is willing to try new things because he has confidence from earlier lessons accomplished without trauma or confrontation. If he accepts a new step and finds the new response equally nonconfrontational, he will do it willingly from then on. Work step-by-step.

Master each detail. Take one thing at a time; you'll be less apt to confuse your horse or to alarm him. A horse becomes confused or upset when you go too quickly and proceed before he is ready. If this happens, drop back to something your horse already knows, so you can both feel good about the lesson. If you try to do something difficult before he has mastered earlier steps, you may create problems that are time-consuming to correct.

Some days you're better off not trying any new steps at all but just concentrating on things he already knows. To insist on a new step when the horse is not ready may set back your training several steps. Always wait for the right time to ask for something new.

Quit before he gets bored. If you can sense your pupil's mood and always stop before the horse gets tired or bored, you'll keep him fresh and willing in his lessons rather than sour and resentful. Be alert to any signs of overtraining, whether mental or physical. This will usually show up as resistance or reluctance. If the horse starts resenting lessons, back off and do something easier or do it more slowly. Generally, the younger the horse, the shorter his attention span and the shorter the lessons should be.

Don't overdo lessons. This advice is repeated elsewhere in this book, but it is always important. Take your time. Occasionally, you must be content with a small amount of progress or even just holding ground. Your horse is the best judge of how long or intense a lesson should be. There are no timetables for training or for how long any specific lesson should last. A lesson is always a good one if you end it on a positive note.

The benefits of a positive approach to training over one that uses harsh punishment cannot be overstated. How you teach the basics makes a big difference in how solidly the horse learns them. If a training relationship is built on trust rather than trauma, the horse will accept a lesson more quickly and remember it better. If he is compelled to do something through pain and punishment, he'll remember the pain instead of the lesson. Always, always favor a positive approach.

Let's get started!

1Basic Safety Practices

A safe partnership with your horse is built on trust.

A horse and his human handler can forge a great partnership if they understand each other. Much of this understanding comes from the horse being handled enough to become relaxed and comfortable with the human and handled consistently so he knows what to expect. The human is trying to know and understand the horse and to be attuned to the horse's body language. If you understand a horse, you are able to anticipate his reactions and will be better prepared for what he might do next.

Safety First

One key to working safely with a horse is good training. You want to get him used to what is expected of him so he will react in predictable ways. Another key is preparedness and attentiveness; a good horse handler is always tuned in to the horse and aware of what his reactions might be to any given situation.

The horse is a large, strong animal, and if he becomes upset or frightened or moves suddenly, you may be injured if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can prevent most problems with common sense; make it a practice to handle yourself and your horse in such a way that there's less chance of unexpected or serious trouble. If you always have safety in mind, there will be less chance of getting caught in a dangerous situation.

Attitude Is Important

A good horseman or horsewoman has a trusting, respectful rapport with the horse and is never careless. Never take any horse for granted. Even the most dependable horse may move suddenly if startled and can hurt you unintentionally if you happen to be in the way. Always have proactive, safety-conscious work habits, even when training a horse you know and trust. This is part of good horsemanship, and it makes for fewer stepped-on toes, bumped heads, and other, more serious, mishaps. Anticipate which way a horse will move next, and be prepared to move with him.

An important factor in minimizing accidents is a good working manner that emphasizes handling a horse with quiet confidence. A gentle but firm demeanor transmits "good vibes" to the horse, making him less apt to try to test you if he's an aggressive individual and less likely to be insecure, afraid, or flighty if he's timid.

If you are angry or afraid, a horse will sense that. He won't be able to relax and trust you. A nervous horse who is uneasy about your handling is more likely to become unmanageable and give you problems than a horse who feels secure about what you are doing. A large part of getting along with a horse and avoiding trouble that might lead to an accident or an injury is your attitude and feelings as you handle him. If you are at ease and comfortable with him, he relaxes and becomes comfortable with you and is more likely to trust you.

Body Language

Horses communicate their feelings and intentions quite well, and you can tell what a horse is thinking by watching his body language. Ears forward means alert interest; ears flat back signals a threat that could be followed by a bite or kick; ears to the side means boredom or sleepiness. Tenseness or relaxation of the body can also be a clue to a horse's mood. Tail swishing means irritation and sometimes anger — a prelude to a kick.

These common positions of the equine ear reveal much about a horse's state of mind. Remember, though, that each horse is unique, and the meaning of these ear positions may vary from horse to horse and from circumstance to circumstance.

I'm angry.

I'm fearful.

I'm attentive.

I'm relaxed or sleepy.

I'm alert.

I'm unhappy or in pain.

Know Your Horse

You control a horse through your mind and your body. Controlling the way a horse thinks comes with familiarity, mutual understanding, and the horse's knowing what you want and being conditioned to obey. He knows, from previous work, that Whoa means "stop and stand still," that he must respect restraint by the halter, and that he must behave when you pick up a foot. This is all part of the relationship you develop as you work with him.

The horse is stronger than you are, but through training and your confident attitude, he accepts your dominance. If he is momentarily frightened or upset, however, he may forget his manners and become difficult to work with. You must be able to calm and restrain him. If he respects you, he'll be more apt to listen when you want him to stand still and behave, even under difficult conditions. Use proper leverage and contact with him to best advantage, to keep him under control and to keep from being kicked, bumped, or seriously injured if he becomes alarmed. (See Safe Holding and Safe Leading.)

Safety Tip


  • “Heather Smith Thomas’s explanations are homespun, practical, and solid. Hers is advice you can rely upon.” — Cherry Hill, horse trainer and author of How to Think Like a Horse

On Sale
May 28, 2019
Page Count
448 pages


Heather Smith Thomas

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas has written extensively on animal health care, authoring thousands of articles and 24 books on the subject. Her books include Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, Getting Started with Beef & Dairy CattleThe Cattle Health Handbook, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey’s Guide to Training Horses, and Stable Smarts. She raises cattle and horses on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho.

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