By Keith Hosman, John Lyons Certified Trainer
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Getting any horse to back readily is simple with a few key concepts as outlined here.
Hey, you know why your horse won't back up? Know why you can pull on those reins all day long and the horse just throws his head up and plants his back feet? The more you pull, the more "planted" you become?
A very big reason is this: Backing isn't natural to a horse. Duh. When was the last time your horse turned to his buddies and said, "Check you guys out later..." and backed away? Or backed into his shelter? Ever notice how infrequently you see them back? When they do, they kinda waddle, like ducks. Even when the big honcho mare is in their face, they'll usually pivot on their back legs and turn away. (Or push right past her FAST.) I've seen boss mares back forty feet to deliver a good kick - but Darwin would tell you she's the boss in part because she's figured out tricks like... how to back forty feet.
When you sit on your horse and think "back" and pull and pull and pull... you know what your horse is thinking? The old ones think: "How ruuuuuude" and plant their legs. The young ones just get scared and go up (as in "rear").
The horse that balks rather than moving backward isn't giving to (rein) pressure; you're pulling and so is he. And, because he has no experience backing (smoothly, at least), when you pull he doesn't know to "assume the backing position." (It's like giving the gas to a car that's in park.) Here's the most important thing you can learn when it comes to going backward: Go forward. From now on, if you even for an instant feel your horse resist as you ask him to back, get him going forward - and do so right away. Don't let him learn that balking is an option - correct that thought immediately by goosing him forward. Two fundamental John Lyons Training concepts are at play here: 1) "The horse can't decide to 'not move.'" and 2) "Get the feet to move, get them to move consistently, then get them to move consistently in the correct direction."
So he balks, you move forward and keep rein pressure till he gives to the bit and his whole body softens. Then think "back" and ask to back again. It's a lot like parallel parking on the streets of Chicago: You back in, then pull forward till you hit the guy in front of you, then backward till you hit the car behind you. Like a chicken settling onto its nest. Do that a few times and you're parked. Do the same thing with a horse that freezes when you ask him to back: First walk forward, then ask him to back. If he resists, move forward right away, keeping the pressure on the bit, till you'll feel him soften through his neck. His head should drop, his shoulders should raise; you'll feel his belly move up and away from your legs. Then give back a little rein pressure (as a reward), change your thinking to "back" and ask your horse to do just that. Be patient. Resist the urge to take up the reins and pull him backwards. What a joke that is to the horse after all: He's 1200 pounds moving forward and you with your little human body are trying to out pull him. Remember, as Xenophon said thousands of years ago, "Nothing forced or misunderstood can be beautiful." Couple that with Newton's law about "objects in motion tend to stay in motion" and you've got a mess.
Walking backwards is not hard for your horse. It's you deciding out of the blue to start yanking on the reins with no pre-cues, together with his natural resistance that makes this difficult. Horses who have learned to back correctly - and are then given the proper cues - will do so willingly - and at a faster clip than one might think. Wanna know the key to getting this point across to your horse? It's this: You must at all times keep in mind that a horse walks backwards in basically the same posture that he walks forward. Your game plan, then, is to do what it takes to get your horse in a soft, "moving forward" position BEFORE YOU EVEN ASK HIM TO BACK AND THROUGHOUT HIS TRANSITION FROM FORWARD TO BACKWARD. Keep the parking analogy I described in your head and never "keep asking" your horse to back up if he loses his "forward-going posture" as he backs. Keep moving, regardless of the direction.
Pay particular attention as the horse stops moving forward and begins moving backward. During that transition did he tense his neck muscles, raise his head and drop his shoulders and belly? If yes, FORGET BACKING UP and get him moving forward IMMEDIATELY. If, instead, he stays soft through the transition...
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John & Josh Lyons Certified
Clinician and Trainer
Utopia, TX (Hill Country of San Antonio)
Keith Hosman is based in San Antonio, TX and is available for clinics, lessons and training. He frequently travels to Los Angeles, CA and Kansas City, MO where he partners with fellow clinician Patrick Benson for clinics and demonstrations. You can find him on Google+ and Reddit.
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Lyons Training 101: Issue Sixteen, Part 1
"Teach a Horse to Backup: Backing Up"
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