Defining "Broke"

How do you define when a horse is well-trained?

How do you define when a horse is well-trained?

I’m not sure there’s ever been a full-on consensus with regard to the definition of a “broke” horse. Among professional trainers, professional horseman, anyone who shows reiners, cutters or cow horses, and handy ranch-hands we’ll likely get close. But if you’ve ever tried to buy a horse through an online site or the local classifieds, you’re likely to read many different descriptions. Sometimes they miss the mark; sometimes, they’re spot on.

We’ll hear terms like: green, broke to ride, not suited for a novice, experienced rider only, gentle, fancy, and dead-broke, used to describe horses in varying levels of training. I’m of the mindset that many people mistake gentle for dead-broke. Gentle doesn’t equate to broke. To me, it means he’s less likely to freak out, and that he’s probably not bronc-y, snorty, watchy or likely to stomp your head in. He’s probably good on the ground, safe for kids to do what kids do when they’re around horses, and he’s likely to be friendly.

To me, a truly well-trained horse is the following: they go where I want, when I want, at the speed I want – not an ounce faster, not an ounce slower. He rides straight or round as my seat/feet dictate and I don't have to use the reins to do anything but make sure he’s soft in the face, or to prepare him for something else, such as a stop or turn around. When I reach for him, he reaches back to me – at any gait, in upward or downward transitions. I can flag a colt on him; rope a calf, a yearling or an unruly bull on him; and then have a novice rider take him down the trail.

He should be able to run, turn, raise his energy level and come right back to quiet as needed.  We’ve likely all been on the one that has a hard time with that, and if you’ve ever been in the sorting pen on a horse like that, it certainly doesn’t make your life easier.

My preference is that my reins and my feet should shape the movement of the horse, not control the speed. If I’m having to pull back on the reins to keep him from going faster than I ride, I’ve still got to some work to do. I’d prefer my horse ride at any gait on a slack rein. To achieve this, I practice the gaits within the gaits. We’ll walk real slow, like we’re on eggshells – because if I’m sorting pairs, I might need to go this slow. If I want to walk faster, I ride faster. This doesn’t mean I won’t use my feet to help my horse go faster. I’m happy to use my feet to reinforce what I’m asking with my body. We’ll do a lot of jog-trotting, to extended trot, to super-extended trot and work within that gait. There’s really nothing better than a horse that can really extend that trot. It’s pretty comfortable to ride and the horse can do it for many, many miles in a day.

All that said, how you define a broke horse is really an individual choice. If you're enjoying what you're doing with your horse, and getting done what you want, don't get too hung up on other people's opinions. I’ve been there, and done that, and it takes all the fun out of enjoying the ride.

Until next time, happy trails!

Jenn Zeller is an aspiring horseman, photographer,freelance writer, barrel racer and collector of horses and chickens. She resides in South Dakota on the DX Ranch, a third-generation cattle ranch where the family raises Angus and Brangus cows, as well as Quarter Horses. Contact her at