You don’t have to be a professional horse trainer to successfully train a horse. You may have been told that it takes months and months of intervention by an experienced trainer for a horse to become confident and proficient at doing the fundamentals – basic groundwork, walk, trot, and lope on a loose rein, lope circles, yield hip and shoulders, back up, turn, begin to stop, etc. But the truth is, a young colt can be doing all this after only 30 rides. Even an older horse can be totally transformed into a safe and solid mount in a very short amount of time with the proper timing and approach.

Basic Principles Of Successful Horse Training

Successful horse training requires the proper implementation of a few basic principles:

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  1. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.
  2. A horse learns more from the release of pressure than he does from the application of pressure, so timing is everything.
  3. Be as firm as necessary and as gentle as possible.
  4. Break everything down into very small steps.
  5. Little changes bring big changes.
  6. The fundamentals are vitally important. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Speed ahead of accuracy is useless.

There’s a saying that I love: “The beginning rider wants to work on intermediate horsemanship. The intermediate rider wants to work on advanced horsemanship. The advanced rider works on the basics”. Advanced riding is simply the fundamentals accurately done faster and smoother.

Work At The Horse’s Level

Working above the horse’s level is a common mistake. However, successful horse training requires working at the level your horse is at on any given day. But, that level will rise and fall often until the horse becomes confident about what he knows. So work at the level of the horse that shows up for each session.

To read about a time when I failed to work at the horse’s level, go here: Horse Training Mistake

Plan For Successful Horse Training

Below is an outline of the basic action plan I use with every horse in the first 30 days to achieve optimal results. It’s been successfully tested on thousands of horses and consistently generates major, positive improvements to create a willing and confident riding partner.


Firstly, establish some leadership, communication, and attention. Basic groundwork exercises will acheive the goal of obtaining and maintaining control of the horse’s feet, therefore his mind and attention. Consistently reinforce these concepts throughtout the horse’s education. For example, you teach the horse to respect a human’s personal space. But once that lesson is taught, it remains an important part of every interaction between the human and the horse. If you go to the arena and teach the horse to maintain his distance when leading, but then allow him to creep up into your space when you lead him back to the barn, the concept will never be firmly established. Successful horse training requires being particular and consistent. 

Grab my Groundwork Checklist here:  Groundwork Checklist

Get Above The Horse

Once the groundwork is successfully smooth and clean, and before you continue on with riding, make sure your horse is okay with a human being above him. You want to make sure your horse does not view you as a predator. Spend some time ‘fencing’ your horse. After all, the horse you have been riding around for years may actually be unsure about having a human on his back.

Read this article for more instruction: Fencing Your Horse | Does He Really Want You Up There?

Fundamental Horse Training Success

The Fundamental riding exercises come next. If the horse is hesitant about moving out with a rider on his back, untrack the feet by moving the shoulders right, left, right, left. In fact, successful horse training requires that you allow the horse to travel freely on a loose rein.

The key to successfully teaching front and hind end control, turns, stops, backing, slowing down, etc is to get in their way (which will present an idea), and then get out of their way when they respond. Many times, the outcome of how the horse responds depends more on HOW you ask than on WHAT you ask. Always ride with energy and purpose. A dull rider creates a dull horse. Keep the life up in your legs, your reins, your seat, and your mind. Then when you stop riding with life and ask your horse to slow down or stop, it will actually mean something to him.

Access the Fundamental Riding videos on the BuckarooCrew membership site:

Do Lots Of This

Spend a lot of time on long-trotting and up/down speed transitions. This will contribute to your success more than you can imagine.

It’s also important that your horse can travel ‘straight’ or in a neutral postion. Learn more here: Is Your Horse Straight?

Never Settle For Dullness

Once your horse successfully grasps the fundamental maneuvers, eliminate the gray areas of pressure. Go through all the exercises being self aware that your horse can feel your slightest cue. If your horse does not respond to a light touch, then you will immediately go from one oz to twenty lbs. This is a vital key to successful horse training and building lightness and refinement. Additionally, this is how you get to the place where your rein or leg will simply be a back-up cue if the horse does not first respond to the adjustment you are making with your mind and body. 

Read more about a dull or lazy horse here: Lazy Horse Tips

The Road To Success

Lastly, remember that no one is born knowing this stuff. All successful horse trainers started somewhere. Undoubtedly, the wise ones have allowed each horse to be their teacher. The horse will tell you where he’s unsure and what he needs help with. Listen to the horse. Additionally, filter everything you do through the basic six principles listed above. Successful horse training is within your grasp.

Carson James
Carson James

Carson James' background is in Vaquero Horsemanship, and for the majority of his career, he worked on cattle ranches where he rode horses all day, every day. His knowledge comes from real life experience using traditional Buckaroo horsemanship to train horses and fix problems. He is now taking all of this knowledge and experience and sharing it with horse owners through his blog, his Insider list, and his Buckaroo Crew. He has a unique way of breaking things down where they're easy to understand, both for the horse and the human.