I’ve started a lot more horses in the past year than ever before, and it definitely shows in the techniques I’m using now compared to early last year. I thought I’d outline the process here both to monitor its progress and for interest’s sake.
First, the most important thing about the process is it isn’t an important thing. It’s fluid and adaptable and changes to suit every horse. The majority stick with the same principles and on most completely green horses it stays the same. But a tricky temperament, physical issue, personality quirk or remedial problem demands flexibility. It varies according to age, maturity, type and intended future use. Like everything about horses, it’s about listening, not teaching. All I’m sharing is a general pattern, not a one-size-fits-all quick fix.
So here it is.
On my own horses, good citizenship is required before backing can be done. They have to lead, load, tie up, stand for dentist – the whole nine yards. On a sale pony or client horse, to save time we do a day of “citizenship” between backing days, so it’s not a prerequisite for the horse to get in a box before I get on its back.
There are a few prerequisites, though. First, he needs to be comfortable with human contact. Ideally he must crave it. He needs to be good to groom, not flinchy in any way, and enjoy being touched. He can’t spook at sudden movements or noises from us. He needs to be happy around us, but not ever aggressive. No nipping and no turning bums on us.
Second, he’s got to be good on the halter – not just halter trained but good. Good halter training introduces principles he’ll always use: obedience, carrying himself forward, the first voice commands and pressure and release.
Physically, I want him healthy and in good condition, at least three (preferably three and a half or four) and having just had his teeth done and any wolf teeth pulled.
Then we can move on to the first stage of backing.
Stage One: Lunging and Desensitisation
The first step is lunging. I put boots on from the word go because they’re usually a non-event, but apart from that he just goes in a headcollar.
Again, lunging can’t just be done, it must be done very well. It doesn’t help much if he just tears around at a mad trot. I only consider him trained to lunge when I have three forward, balanced and rhythmic gaits from voice commands. This develops the horse’s brain and body together. I may also begin to play with poles or free jumps – whatever the individual needs to improve his way of going. I certainly don’t mess with gadgets at this stage. I’m fixing the back end now; the front comes later.
The walk and canter are immensely important. He needs to be comfortable walking or he won’t be when you get on him. I also like my babies to learn a really balanced canter now so I never have to fight with them when I’m on them later. Mine lunge for 20 minutes once a week long after backing is done; 5 minutes trot, 5 minutes canter each rein. The canter needs to be done all at once when the horse is fit for it. Cantering for this long on a 15m circle makes him very strong and balanced.
I make exceptions for young or immature horses. Mature horses that are well into their third year and four-year-olds can do it, but not babyish ones or newly three-year-olds.
When lunging is well established we begin to desensitise. I don’t do much. No tarps or bouncy balls unless the horse has a remedial spooking issue. You don’t have to do much if you do it right and become your horse’s anchor. I’ll flap a numnah at him and that’s it. Then I add the bridle because it takes the longest, lunging him wearing the bridle but with the line on a cavesson or headcollar at first and only adding bit pressure later, and then the lunge roller and finally the saddle. If he ever freaks out, I’ll know I’m going too fast.
Manners also have to be maintained here. If he’s jumping around while I tack him up, I shouldn’t be tacking him up yet!
Once he’s happy lunging in tack, we move on.
Stage Two: Riding from the Ground
Incremental steps are absolutely key. It’s vital to introduce only one thing at a time, and never more so than here. When I introduce the rider, I don’t want to be adding aids at the same time. I want him to have whoa, go, and turn aids before I ever sit on him.
Go aids have been established during lunging with the voice, but they have trouble making the connection to your leg. I use a funny exercise the Mutterer showed me to help with that. Standing beside the saddle, you hold the reins as if you were riding and give the horse the voice command to walk on. If he doesn’t, apply your heel to his guts (softly at first, obviously). Looks awkward but works beautifully.
Whoa and turn is established by long-lining, as well as rein back. It’s extremely important to make your aids soft and light. If you do that now, you never have to go back and fix it later. Again, absolutely no gadgets. Teach whoa before you try and teach frame.
Lastly, I use a turn on the forehand from the ground to establish the leg aid for turning.
Stage Three: Backing
Now for the fun part. This is important: at no point should the horse melt down. If he melts down, I know I’ve messed up. Bucking during backing is not normal. It means you’re going too fast.
First, and I start this right after adding tack, I stand and jump up and down on a block beside him until he’s cool with that. Then I start to put weight in the stirrup, lean over him, and stand up in one stirrup.
When I can lie over him without holding the reins and pat him loudly all over with both hands, then stand up in one stirrup and swing my free leg up and down along his butt, without anyone holding him, then he’s ready to be sat on.
A lot of trainers like somebody to hold the horse when they have their first sit. I used to, but since the yard was opened I don’t really have experienced help and began starting them on my own. I found this works far better. It removes a distracting variable. My new rule is that if I feel it needs to be held, I probably shouldn’t be sitting on it yet.
The first sit should just be another day in the life. I do my leg swinging thing and then I just swing my leg over and sit for a couple of breaths. Then I pop off and we’re done for the day. Walking off is NOT allowed at this stage. He must stand dead still as I mount and, in the next few sessions, wiggle my weight, swing my legs, pat his neck and bum, and bounce (gently). Once he’s cool with that we get some motion going.
Stage Four: Establishing Gaits
I start with rein back, for two reasons. Partially because from my long lining I know it’s an aid he 100% understands, and mostly because I lock up frozen stiff when presented with the first step forward. I nearly got killed by a youngster I pushed too fast a couple of years ago and that memory is not leaving anytime soon. The last thing he needs is for me to be nervous, so I keep it low key and take a step back. This reassures me that he’s not going to blow and reassures him that he can in fact move with me aboard, so then off we go.
The walk takes forever and a day. They’re usually not at all sure that it’s a terribly good idea to cart your butt around and convincing them otherwise cannot be rushed. I refuse to ask for trot until I have an excellent walk. In the walk I establish all the basics; at the touch of my leg he must flow freely forward and stay forward until I say otherwise; he must halt responsively from my seat and stand dead still until I say otherwise; he must turn with reasonable balance.
It is vital to ride him from my seat and leg now. Teach him that he never halts off my hand alone and he’ll never have to. Midas could halt and turn with both reins floppy in a couple of sessions. Taking the time to implement these responsive aids and forwardness saves months of work later.
Once a quality walk is firmly established, the trot comes quickly, and as soon as we have a good trot with good transitions we move on to canter. These days I do this in the ring, but I used to love the 35 x 15m oval we had at Ruach. They have to have their lunging really good to canter with a rider on in the ring.
If they are going to buck, this is when they do it. I’ve found it’s usually not a fear issue; they’re just figuring out their legs and sometimes it’s easier to try and throw a buck than to actually think about it. These bucks are very minor. They usually do it only once, you pull up his head and shout at him, and that’s an end to it.
It’s also important not to accept the wrong lead once the horse is confidently giving a few strides around the ring. Punishing him for picking up the wrong lead achieves nothing. I just bring him back and quietly ask again. Once again, get the leads right now and it doesn’t become a fight later.
Once we have three gaits in the ring or oval, then congrats, pony is backed! We move on to riding in open spaces and beginning proper schooling. Which, once backing has been done so painstakingly, is just fun.
Now for the million dollar question: how long does it take? As long as it takes. I no longer train a timeline, I train a horse. It certainly doesn’t take 6 or 8 weeks, that’s for sure. But the extra time is well, well worth it in the long run to create a willing, obedient, physically fit and well-rounded partner.
Glory to the King.