Native American Horse Breaking/Training Techniques

Now that I own horses I am curious how other cultures have domesticated and trained horses throughout history. As I understand it, many Native American tribes, particularly those of the Southwest US, were introduced to horses by the Spanish. I assume that these tribes learned how to train and ride them from the Spanish themselves.

But other tribes, for example tribes of the northern plains, didn’t have much contact with the Spanish, although they likely had contact with tribes that were familiar with the Spanish and their horses.

Is there any written record of how these northern tribes broke and trained “wild” horses? (I realize that these horses weren’t wild but were in fact offspring of the horses that the Spanish brought and left behind). If they were following Spanish methods then why didn’t they adopt the saddle? My guess is that they taught themselves how to catch, break and domesticate horses so that they could be used for transportation and warfare.

Any thoughts?

Okay, not a full answer to the question itself, but: please, please don’t break your horses! It’s completly unneccessary cruelty. Get yourself a book or a video from Monty Roberts - the real horse whisperer, though that’s a wrong name - and read about his Join-Up method. Basically, you use the natural body language of horses (Roberts calls it “Equus”) and their desire to join a herd to become the alpha female leader which the horse will trust to protect and willingly work with and cooperate.

In his first book, when Monty Roberts tells about his trips into the wilderness to catch wild horses and spending his time watching them in their natural habitat, he mentions as an aside that he heard that the Native Americans used to catch horses with a special method: they would drive the horses before them for several days into a restricted area - a flat top with a cliff or a cul-de-sac. Then, after several days of chase, they would stop and turn around; and though it sounds paradoxically on the surface, the horses would turn around and follow the Indians back.

Monty explains that this sounds like a basic Join-up, and helped him convince that, if this idea had been used successfully, then his idea about body language wasn’t complelty crazy.

Now, to your real question:

IANAAnthropologist, but generally there’s very little record about anything of Native American culture left, since the Indians themselves had an oral tradition, and since the missionaries and offical white men were too busy killing or adopting the Indians into the white way of life to keep records. By the time the offical stance changed, in the late 1970s (due to AIM), most keepers of old knowledge were already dead.

However, prairie Indians had used specially-bred dogs as animals long before the Spanish arrived - that’s why they called horses “big dogs” at first.

As for being introduced by the Spanish: the Prairie Indians didn’t have direct contact with the Spanish like the Southwest tribes. Rather, the horses escaped the Spanish, turned wild in the prairies, and the Indians caught them (at least, that’s how I always read about it). Later, they went on specific raids against the Spanish, but that was after horse culture had developed, and stealing horses had become a way to gain riches and show your courage and cleverness.
The german wiki says

(translation by me)
Wikias the quickest english source says

(bolding mine)

To me, that adequatly explains the lack of stirrup - the Spanish didn’t want them to have advantages. As for saddles, from what I know the Indians did make saddles from bones and fur or simply woven blankets. They also are said to use ropes around the body of the horse to drop to one side, using the horse as shield, and still shoot their bows. They are said to have been superb riders, better than any cavalry at that time. Maybe a stirrup would have been a hindrance to that level of artistic riding.

To give a real source: From this PDF file
Page 19

About the horses themselves (Page 22-23)

Nothing about horse training techniques, though.

I am not a horse expert but my daughter is pretty into it. As such I’ve gained some knowledge by skimming some of her books. No cite but I clearly remember reading that, while they may have been excellent riders, they had no special attachment to their horses and viewed them more as tools to be used hard and then thrown away when not performing optimally.

Many moons ago I had a book that described a Native American method for backing a horse (meaning, the first time you climb on their back) by standing the horse in knee deep water. If the horse bugs out, he’ll get tired quickly thrashing in the water and see the wisdom in standing calmly. As a side benefit, if you get bucked off, the water will cushion the fall a bit. But mostly the “make the right thing to do the easy thing to do” philosophy.

Monty Roberts is 2 cents worth of sense in a $200 package. “Breaking” is just a term for early training it doesn’t mean throwing a horse to the ground or beating it till it submits or “breaking its spirit”. It means training the horse from the point where it is running with the herd to the point where it can carry a rider and bridle, saddle, pull a cart, etc if desired. ideally, such training begins at birth or at a young age, with the foal being handled by people and learning how to be lead with a rope. Maybe some people think better terms could be used, but whatever.

Great information and it makes a lot of sense. Thanks everyone.

BTW, my two horse were ‘broken’ long ago. One of them had a successful career as a cutting horse while the other was trained to be a trail horse. If they hadn’t been broken then I wouldn’t be able to ride them, :slight_smile: although I am aware of a variety of ways to break a horse, some apparently more humane than others. FWIW I don’t think my horses were ever abused… but I suppose you never really know what happened before they became yours.

I’m more ignorant than a one-eyed hornytoad when it comes to these things, but I felt compelled to acknowledge the scholarship that went into this thread. Personally I love horses and think they are among the most majestic of this world’s creatures.

only until it comes to mucking out stables…

I even miss that. :frowning:
Horse-less since 1986.


How about Francis Parkman? Or Edward S. Curtis? (To name just two.)

A saddle requires a supply of leather (heavy cowhide leather, not deerskin). Which means raising herds of cattle. Plains indians didn’t have cattle to supply the leather to make a saddle. So they substituted with a riding pad.

they had enough leather from the buffalo to make clothing, shoes, containers and tents … I am sure they could have squeezed in a few saddles if they wanted.

I was once told by a leathermaker that buffalo was not very suitable for saddles – rather hard, uncomfortable, and too ‘grippy’. And I think that would be especially true given Native American tanning methods.

Grippy is not exactly a bad thing when you haven’t invented stirrups yet. Buffalo is used in saddlemaking even today, and is considered desirable in some disciplines.

This website has some information about Native American saddlery techniques. From the exhibit “Song for the Horse People” now at the National Museum of the American Indian.

I rode in a cutback saddle when I rode saddle seat that had a buffalo seat and panels and let me tell you, it was a LIFESAVER when my horse decided he wasn’t going to be a nice horse and trot round the ring like a gentleman but turn into a fire breathing, man eating demon thing.