THE BACK UP
By Evon Montgomery
Objective: To get a light responsive “rein back” -“back”- “reverse” cue one step at a time. Your horse should back with a good attitude and using his legs in diagonal pairs to make it look smooth. The horse’s head should be level and hocks engaged, not resistant or bracing on the shoulder, mouth closed and not agape. All of this may be easier said than done.
When I judge a back-up obstacle, the most common picture I see is a rider pulling the reins like they are playing tug of war with the horse. The horse is tossing its head with mouth agape. I hope you are getting a mental picture. Imagery creates a “reminder tab” that helps a rider put their mind in the game as much as their body. This is huge in creating a winning team.
I am going to use the easiest method I know to teach maneuvers. 1) Spell out each step. 2) Eliminate guess work. Be kind as you read, mutter softly. As in everything horses, there are many different ways to get a result. This is just one of my ways of teaching how to back, see if it works for you. If you don’t get it, don’t worry. This technique may work for you with one horse, and not another. That is the beauty of horses; each one is a unique individual, just like YOU! The difference is that you have a reasoning ability.
Please learn to use your knowledge to the best of your ability. Read your horse’s warning signs. If you cannot get a teaching method to work, do not panic. Stop, take a break, and try again OR try another method. If necessary, seek professional help to learn if it is you or your horse that has a problem. Horses can be dangerous and you may inadvertently teach a horse to rear if you have unskilled hands and legs. The best way to have a horse without bad habits is to not create them in the first place.
Step 1: Prepare. In order for a horse to have a smooth calm back up, their mind must be in reverse as well as their body. How do you get that? Preparation it’s like putting a car into reverse. Are you getting the picture? As you shift your car into reverse, you feel a gentle rock back. Same goes with your horse. Here’s how you put your horse into reverse. Are you getting the picture? As you shift your car into reverse, you feel a gentle rock back. Same goes with your horse. Here’s how you put your horse into reverse.
1. Shorten your reins so you make light contact with your horse’s mouth.
2. Lift your reins up, NOT back. LIFT your reins up above your horse’s neck about 8-12 inches. One of my favorite Evon’isms is “exaggerate then graduate”. (Just like teaching a child to use the potty seat, reward the small steps.) Polish and finesse will come later.
3. Hold firm but gentle pressure from the up position until your horse “gives to the bit”. As the horse gives or yields to the pressure, it gives the appearance of “saying yes” or “nodding”. If your horse has its mouth gaped open; it is not “bit broke”. Bit broke is a term I will discuss later.
Step 2: Request ONE step. Since I am teaching the back up for primarily obstacle and trail type horses for these articles, I will aim my coaching as such. An obstacle trail horse should willingly back up as many steps as the rider requests and in whichever direction you choose. Your job as the rider is to know how to request each step and make it easier for you and your horse to work in unison.
1. After the horse “gives to the bit” and “shifts” into reverse, it is time to ask for one step backward. The best way to teach a horse a cue, is to give an “immediate” reward when the HIND foot moves. This means that as soon as the first HIND foot moves, you release the pressure on the bit. Do not be fooled into releasing pressure or “rewarding” if the front foot moves. The HIND foot must move. Either hind is ok for this phase.
2. The next request is a second step back. Smoothly lift the reins up again, making contact with your horse’s mouth. Gently but firmly request another HIND foot to move back. Most horses will stay in “reverse” for a few requests if you have good timing with your hands and release cue. It doesn’t matter which hind foot moves, just so that an “immediate” release of your reins follows your horses “try” at backing.
3. Only back 3-4 steps on the first practice. Go do another exercise or walk around before you do this again. If you keep requesting the back up when your horse gets it correct. The horse will assume it got the wrong answer because YOU KEEP on requesting it… A horse will quit trying if you ask for too much when you are teaching something new.
If your horse is not understanding, and begins to bob its head, try holding LIGHT, FIRM pressure, just a few seconds longer. Your horse may try forward, sideward left and sideward right before it tries to back up. If you let go of the pressure when your horse is doing any of the previous responses, you will have successfully taught your horse that when you apply the backup cue; you really mean bob the head, side step left or side step right. A horse thinks it has gotten the right answer when you let up the pressure.
Next month: Adding Leg aids to the back up.
Life is an Adventure, Saddle up and Ride !
Evon Montgomery, Horses-123