What is a Broke Horse?

Bronco Bustin' Western Canada
Breaking horses in the old west was often a quick and rough process. Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Traditionally, a horse that is trained to be ridden or driven pulling a vehicle will be called broke. Many people don't like the term 'broke' because it suggests training done by force or by breaking the horse’s spirit. When horses were rounded up off the range and ‘bucked out’ by a rough rider who wanted to quickly make them useful, this might have been true. Most trainers, while valuing methods that get a horse trained quickly, know that it’s better to train them well and it is acceptable to take the time to do that. The bronc busters of yesteryear may have been motivated by the need to replace a horse quickly so that they could get back to working cattle. The term ‘broke’ breaking in, or breaking has stuck, as unfortunate as that may be.

Today, however, a broke horse is considered a horse that can be ridden or driven. There is no need to break a horse’s spirit by rough riding and handling. A well broke horse is one that is well trained and understands more than just the basics of go and whoa. A horse that is said to be broke to saddle or harness indicates what the horse has been trained for. Saddle breaking is training a horse to carry a rider, and harness breaking is training the horse to pull a vehicle.

Dumb broke may mean the training has just started. The horse knows to move forward when the rider uses simple leg aids and will stop and turn. This may also be called green broke. Green is another term used in the horse world to indicate a horse or a rider that is just starting to learn their job. A green broke horse will know the basics, but there is still a lot of refinement that can be worked on until they are well broke.

Well broke may mean the horse is well trained and can be relied on to perform reliably and safely. They’ll understand leg and seat aids and be sensitive to the reins. They’ll know how to pick up the correct leads at a lope or canter, and the transitions between gaits will be smooth. They may respond to leg aids to move sideways and know how to do a rein back. In different situations, such as at shows or on the trail, the horse will not be spooky, quiet and will always be obedient.

Un-broke means the horse has not been trained to carry a rider or pull a vehicle. Some people may also say a horse is broke to death. It sounds awful, but it usually means a horse that is well trained, and quiet and is a safe ride for almost anyone.

Young horses or foals are often halter broke. This means they are trained to be accustomed to wearing a halter and will walk obediently on a lead rope beside the handler.

There are lots of opinions about the differences between well broke and well trained. So, if you’re buying a horse advertised to be well broke, it’s best to have the seller explain exactly what that means, see the horse ridden, and perhaps ride it yourself to find out if the horse is suitable for you. One person's broke horse can be another person's barely rideable horse.