Training Mythunderstandings: Applied Heeding: Backing

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Teaching a green horse to back provides a good example of how to combine and practice the training concepts used in heeding. Horse and handler must pay close attention to one another. The handler creates corridors of horse-logical pressures that shape the horse’s feel of direction and speed. To do this, the handler uses his or her body position relative to the horse’s primary and secondary lines of influence, along with the arena fences or walls and corners. The handler gradually refines these pressures, adds new ones, and eventually builds a sequence of pressures that create a feel in the horse of what the handler is showing him.

Once the horse understands what he is being shown, the handler starts asking him for it more often, confirming through repetition that the horse has figured out the right answer to the question posed by the sequence of pressures. After enough repetitions, the horse advances to the stage where the handler can tell him what to do and expect a correct response each time.

Teaching a horse to back using heeding is not anything like teaching him to back using sharp or loud pressures like a poke in the chest or a pull on a loud bit. Many people are able to use these pressures to get a horse to back in one direction, but they cannot use them to modify the number of backing steps the horse takes or their speed. Heeding allows the handler to modify the sequence of pressures used to ask the horse to back so that the horse backs one step at a time, with each step in the direction and at the speed that the handler requests. The handler can do this because the horse has learned to pay complete attention to him or her and waits after each request to move a foot for the next request and the next and the next and so on.

So let’s see how all this works in backing. We’ve talked about how we introduce our green horse to the arena then how we start working him at the end of a lead rope using the arena wall to help us form a corridor or pressures. We walk along next to him on his secondary line at a spot by his shoulder or about the girth, depending on where that particular horse perceives the pressure. At first we follow what he does, walking and stopping when he walks and stops. As he starts paying more attention to what we’re doing, we gradually start leading the dance, showing the horse that we want him to start and stop when we do.

So we walk and stop and walk and stop. We give our total attention to the horse and we want the horse giving us his total attention. As some point, the horse figures out that paying attention to what we’re doing and doing the same thing is the game. At that point, he’s starting and stopping at the same time when we do. Now we encourage him to stop more quickly by hooking our fingers around the front of his shoulder. We take hold as that shoulder moves forward and stop the movement of our feet. When the horse stops, we immediately release that finger pressure. The horse may not stop the first time you try this but over a series of repetitions, he’ll pick up on the fact that if he stops as soon as he feels the shoulder pressure, the pressure goes away.

If we think of the horse’s movements in a logical sequence, a galloping horse slows to a canter, a cantering horse slows to a trot, a trotting horse slows to a walk, and a walking horse slows to a stop. The next logical thing in this sequence is that a stopped horse “slows” to backing up. So once the horse is confirmed in his stopping as a response to the pressure of our fingers holding his shoulder, we can hold that pressure just a little longer rather than releasing it the instant he stops.

A backing horse picks up his feet in diagonal pairs, just as a trotting horse does. As we hold that shoulder a little longer, the horse looks for a way out of that pressure. At first we soften the pressure if he makes any move to pick up the forefoot on that side or the hind foot on the opposite side. As the horse takes that tentative step back, the handler must also pick up a foot (it doesn’t matter which one) and move it back at the same time.

Gradually we hold the pressure a little longer and move our feet back until, through repetition, the horse understands that if the pressure doesn’t go away when he stops, he can make it go away by moving his shoulder (therefore, that diagonal pair) back a step. What we’re showing the horse is how to correctly answer the question posed by the change in the pressure. We’re not trying to “cue” him to back up.

You want to develop a feel in the horse that if you restrict that shoulder and you move back, he should move back, too. Gradually, the horse will begin to associate your backward step with moving back and the hand pressure will no longer be necessary. He’ll be paying attention to the direction you move, the speed you’re moving, and how many steps back you take.

The handler asks for these backing steps one at a time. You are stopping the horse, then restarting him, stopping, restarting, stopping, restarting, etc. As the number of strides increases, your hand will be pulsing at the horse’s shoulder, asking for the backing step then softening as soon as you get it. Both handler and horse must pay close attention to one another. The handler does not pull on the lead rope. The horse should not raise his head or get “bunched up” in any way.

It goes without saying that you have to practice these backing pressures from both sides of the horse until the horse understands them equally well on both sides. It’s not the amount of pressure that’s important, it’s the timing of the pressure, the release of the pressure, and the handler’s step back. Good timing creates a light horse. If you ask twenty times and the horse isn’t getting it, you haven’t got the timing right. Don’t add more pressure. Just keep practicing until you get the timing right.

Eventually the handler can begin to refine things even more by varying the interval between steps or varying the speed at which the horse takes the steps. As the horse’s training progresses and his “heeding” of the handler advances, they can move away from the wall and the handler will be able to modify, step by step, the direction in which the horse backs by changing his or her relationship to the horse’s primary and secondary lines of influence.

Some people like to turn and face backwards when they ask the horse to back up. That’s OK. It just changes the hand they’ll use to put pressure on the shoulder. Some people prefer to use the handle of a whip to put pressure on the shoulder and that’s OK, too. Just be sure that you use a steady pressure that can be clearly released when the horse gives the right answer. Don’t poke or jab with the whip then wait for the horse to answer. That’s a cue, not a pressure.

As you work on timing, your horse will get lighter and rounder. He’ll be paying attention to figure out if you want one step, two, three or whatever. He’ll be paying attention to what direction you want him to take those steps. He’ll be paying attention to how fast you want the steps, whether they should come one right after the other, whether he should stop and wait between steps, or whatever else you want in the little dance the two of you are doing. Learning to ask your horse to back using a vocabulary of pressures that can be modified as the situation demands beats a “cue” to back every time.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I have a lot of very valuable knowledge that I can use to help people. The average 21-year-old doesn’t have a system, doesn’t have a solid background. Other than the saddle time you spend at Meredith Manor, having that system is probably the most valuable thing you learn. You can always go back to it.
Jana Armstrong: 2005 Riding Master VI Graduate