Carl Nafzger: Horses Teach Themselves

During his 25 years training racehorses, Carl Nafzger has trained some of the finest Thoroughbreds in the world, including 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup Classic winner Unbridled.

Over the years, Nafzger has earned the reputation of having a gift for understanding horses and developing them as individuals. He’s also respected for his efforts to place ex-racehorses in homes with new careers. We talked with him about solutions to common problems.

HJ: In your book, you discuss a filly who was aggressive to anyone or anything who passed her stall. What did you do to help this filly’

CN: When you have a problem like this you have to go back to “Basics One.” First, you have to make sure that the horse is not in pain. In this case, the filly was sound. But she was nervous and not comfortable around other horses. In her stall, she would get frustrated with all the traffic, yet I noticed when the morning activities were over and all was quiet she would settle down. It occurred to me that she was simply trying to protect her own territory.

I replaced the stall guard with a screen door and instantly she felt safe. I also adjusted her training schedule by taking her out later in the morning when there were fewer horses on the track. With these adjustments, she relaxed and became a stakes-winning filly, earning over $200,000.

If you want to understand horses, you need to know that there are two keys to a horse’s mind: First, there are only pleasure and pain in his life. Second, if you want to train horses correctly, you have to train them under one theory, the monkey-in-the-tree theory.


HJ: What is that’

CN: “Lead horse under tree. Monkey jumps on back. Horse doesn’t go back under tree.” Horses learn, they don’t reason. They don’t understand that the monkey has been caught and returned to the zoo. All they know is that they stood under the tree, the monkey jumped on their back, so the monkey comes from the tree.

If a horse learns a bad habit, you cannot reason him out of it. You have get him to figure out an approach so he learns by himself that the behavior is not good. Horses have to teach themselves.


HJ: What do you do with a horse that regularly bucks’

CN: A horse regularly bucks for three reasons: Fear, pain or giddiness. You have to recognize the difference between the first two, which are serious, and the last, which usually is just an expression of fun.


HJ: And if it is more than just feeling good on the horse’s part’

CN: Slow down! Let the horse catch up with you. You may think you are just putting a saddle on, but the horse has no idea what a saddle is. Always wait on the horse. . . . The horse will tell you what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. Then you work in his media to get him to do it to the best of his ability.

You can make a horse do a lot of things, but you can never make a horse do anything at 110 percent like winning a race or a cutting or jumping contest, or a dressage show, if he doesn’t want to do it. So listen to your horse. If your horse isn’t wanting to do what is right, you are probably misunderstanding his psyche and what he is trying to tell you.

And remember, pain has caused many a horse to be bad. A horse is a flight animal not a fight animal. A horse will only fight if he has to.


HJ: Suppose you are riding and your horse is a little disrespectful of your aids or hauling on you maybe.

CN: My father used to say, “Never ride a horse without a pair of spurs.” You don’t have to use spurs on a horse, you only have to let him know that they are there. Spurs are not used to make a horse submit. Spurs are used to make a horse respect you. Now if you are on a horse that is jigging and pulling and not minding your hands, then you have been riding him wrong. You have to back off the bit and relax.

My dad also said that one of the best things for a horse is a wet saddle blanket. That means ride the horse till he sweats. Don’t ride him hard. Don’t run him to death. Ride him steady until he sweats. When the horse starts coming to you, be smart enough to leave him alone. That’s enough. You don’t have to have the horse going perfectly in one day.


HJ: In other words, it’s important to know when to back off.

CN: You have to know when to stop. When you are working with a horse on one specific point, 15 minutes is maximum. However, you might ride that horse around the ring or out in the pasture for an hour to get him settled and listening before you work on that one point.

I am not saying you should only ride a horse for 15 minutes. You will need longer than that to get him in the right frame of mind. What I am saying is that when you are teaching, when you want the horse to learn, work no more than 15 minutes on that one point. Now, the old pro horse can work longer than that, but even he will get frustrated if you drill something too long.


HJ: Then the horse will blow up or go sour on you.

CN: Right. And you will have to figure out how to make his work enjoyable again. So the next day you will have to go out and do just a little bit with him so he enjoys it and then stop right away. If you work him hard again, he’s going to resist.

(Trainer) Tom Dorrance wrote a wonderful book the main theme of which is “Leave the horse alone, let the horse come to you.” It takes a knack when you sit a horse and you want him to walk in a straight line and he drifts to one side to try to let that horse come back on his own. And then if you have to correct him, correct him slightly and then let him walk again.


HJ: What would you do with a horse that rears and falls over backward’

CN: If I had horse that was really rank who learned he could fall over backward, I hold him down by the head and make him lay there for a while, because horses hate to be held down to the ground. Of course, I don’t want people to misconstrue what I am saying here. . . . But let me tell you something about horses, and you must understand this: A horse is a beautiful, emotional experience. And he is as dangerous as a rattlesnake. Always respect your horse because he can hurt you in a second.

A horse will not want to hurt you unless you have taught him that. But if you do something that he doesn’t understand and he gets scared and throws a fit, he’s going to hurt you and himself both. That is why it is so important to always let the horse understand what is going on. He will respect you for that.

And remember, if a horse kicks you, you will never see it coming, because he is faster than you. And if a horse bites you out of disrespect, he is going to bite you hard.


HJ: What do you do if he bites you out of disrespect’

CN: I would kick him in the belly. Why’ Because that’s how horses establish dominance among themselves in the wild. There’s a lot of muscle mass in the belly and you won’t hurt your horse there. Do NOT try to hurt him. Do NOT kick him with your toe. Kick him with the side of your foot. And do NOT kick him hard. Or if you want, you can reach under and slap him on the belly.


HJ: What if a horse appears to be threatening to kick you’

CN: Let him know that you are not going to hurt him. Only discipline him when he does something that actually threatens to hurt you.

For example what if he suddenly strikes out “BANG!” and kicks the wall’ Find out first why he kicked the wall. Is he hurting in the area you just touched’ Or is he just reaching around in an ornery manner to bite on you’ Well, then you have to make him respect you. BUT DO NOT TAKE A STICK AND GO BANGING ON HIM! You are not going to help him this way. Just boot him on the belly with the arch of your foot and hold the halter while you are doing it . . . just one quick “Boom!” Don&r squo;t kick him like you are trying to kill him. And when the horse lets up, talk to him and pat him.

You walk down my shed row and every one of these horses will want to be petted or will want a carrot. These are racehorses! “Mean” racehorses! My pony horse?”kids ride him?”is an old racehorse. Horses are aggressive only if they are trained to be. There is no reason for a horse to be mean or to bite, or to do anything like that. They only do that if they are scared or hurting somewhere.

If a horse has been treated roughly by a person, who hits on him and yells at him, he will learn, and pretty soon he will come to fear all humans. People who treat horses in an aggressive manner like this don’t know anything. They don’t understand the horse. Horses talk to you. They talk to you through licking their lips. They tell you by their ears. They tell you by that eye. I can walk in a corral and look a horse in the eye and tell you what that horse is going to do.

And never think that a horse won’t hurt you. They are great emotional beautiful animals, but they also will hurt you if they don’t respect you. Remember you are not as quick and fast as they are. It is nice to pet them, but they have to learn how to eat the carrot slow.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Traits of a Winner.”

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