While I have not ridden a horse in years, I did grow up with them and remember a few life lessons from those days. It was then that I was exposed to the difference between “breaking” and “training” and that difference was etched permanently into my memory banks. In the equestrian world of getting the horse ready to accept a rider, both methods can accomplish the final goal but the methods are extremely different and the end result has differences that we may be able to apply to the world of construction. Breaking a horse is the appropriate term for the process; it is much faster than training a horse. Training takes time and patience on both the trainee and the trainer. Breaking is the process of quickly establishing who is in charge.

It was in the 1960s and a horse ranch with a questionable reputation was a place I frequented. Stories always lingered about this ranch of cruelty to horses. One morning, a truck load of wild horses were brought in. I vividly remember this one amazing animal. He was unloaded from the cattle-car type trailer and was magnificent in form, power and spirit. He was also very frightened of the situation he was in and the people around. His fears were soon to be justified.

Two ranchers with ropes around his neck in opposing directions kept him somewhat under control or at least from escaping. He would rear up while keeping his eyes on the two men yanking him down. His attention was constantly shifting from one man to the other. I have never really seen the whites of a horse’s eyes before but his clearly displayed total fear of the situation he found himself in. This was just the start of breaking.

One of the ranchers took a halter, which is a leather head harness with steel couplings, and started to violently beat the horse with the halter around his head. Understandably, the horse tried even harder to get free but after about an hour of relentless beating, he realized the only way the beating would stop was total submission. How violent was the beating? At one point the horse was thrashing his head about wildly and a bloody tooth landed at my feet. The horse had finally succumbed (whether it was submission or exhaustion, I was not certain). He would now allow a blanket and saddle to be placed on his back. However, when a rider set himself in the saddle, he found a bit more spirit and last remaining strength, and began to buck wildly in an attempt to throw the cowboy off. He again soon realized submission was inevitable. It reminds of the pirate phrase “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”


Training, unlike the breaking process, is built more on trust between horse and human. At the end of the day, the result is the same but long term is what should be considered. I have owned horses that have been trained and broken; I eventually came to believe that the word “broken” was very appropriate. Horses that have been broken-in could not be trusted, which limits their full value. This is where I see similarities in our industry. Do we break or train our young people?

Unfortunately, the construction industry is a world of little patience and meeting schedules dictate the day. The motto “lead, follow or get run over” is appropriate. Whether intentional or not, we tend to reward those who break in new crews—they make these horses able to ride in a very short period of time. After a short time, the young wild horse learns to submit to authority, stay alive and safe and keep a job. For many in our industry, the end result is the same—the breakers just get us there faster, and since time is money in construction, it is hard to argue that point.

 Training takes time, building trust is work but worth it in the long run. Companies that train typically outlast companies that break in apprentices.