In my last column, I emphasized the importance of backing for safety and respect, as well as maneuverability. I explained three different ways to get a horse backing while on the ground with them. This time we will transfer it to the horse’s back while riding.
Practicing backing is like practicing stopping, because the better the horse will back, the better they will stop. I practice stopping and backing quite frequently to make sure I have a pretty good handle on the brakes. We do not want weak brakes on a 1000-pound horse. Many horses will move forward as we try to mount on their back. I will have my reins held short enough so I can back them when I sense this either before or after I get on their back. They may also move forward when we let loose of the reins. Backing helps balance these tendencies out, letting them know not only do we not want them going forward, but they might have to back instead. Since horses are such “forward-aholics,” backing helps them think about us more rather than getting out of Dodge at the drop of a hat. Even spirited horses can be ridden on a loose rein when they achieve this balance.
The pressure language is the most important tool for backing as well as stopping. Most people go to a harsher bit rather than get good with the pressure language. It is all about the timing of pull and release. The release encourages a horse that they are doing the right thing by slowing, stopping or backing. Good feel and timing gets a horse backing rather than rearing. Pressure at the right time works in rhythm with the release, helping us be black and white in our communication. I teach people to handle the reins with one hand behind the other on both reins. These hands are used in tandem with each other so that the reins can be shortened or lengthened quickly. Many people back with one hand on each rein, which is more awkward and slow. We cannot develop as much power if we need it nor be fast enough with our pull and release this way. If a horse is taking too long to stop, I will pull hard to give them a wake-up call so they listen to my easy signals first. As soon as they respond, I will release quickly. I will challenge them to have a faster backup by pulling and releasing in rhythm with their feet. I emphasize that I try not to jerk on the reins, but will increase pressure quickly if I do not get a reasonable response. I need to be sensitive enough to sense their athletic ability at the time. Speed in the backup helps us practice controlling our horse when the emotions are up. If we always practice slow and easy, we will not have the control when the emotions come up on their own. On the other end, we need to see how light we can back a horse up. The key here is to be aware of all we do to warn a horse to stop and back before we actually pull. The horse needs to feel us actually stop riding with our body, and hear a soft voice cue. Then it needs to feel us get ready to pull before we pull. We can exaggerate these things at first to give them clear warnings. If the horse knows we will give a hard pull if he ignores these obvious warnings, it will not take him long to learn to listen to the soft cues. We always need to be aware of the warning time we give before we crank down.
The rhythmic language always supports the pressure language. That is why I call it the daddy language, and the pressure the mama language. If the horse tries to overpower the mama language, then daddy can step in and make it harder for the horse to ignore. We can teach our horse to back up with our feet moving rhythmically near the front cinch so we have another signal to stop and back without pulling. It looks like the kicking motion but more up front. This is the way great horsemen of the past would stop and back their horse when their hands were not free such as handling weapons in battle. Of course, any situation where we are working a job on our horses back makes this come in handy. They are now making cars where you can unlatch doors with your feet when your hands are full (horsemen have known about this for thousands of years). We teach a horse this on his back by using two sticks, one in each hand moving rhythmically in front of his nose. We start in the round corral at a standstill, and teach them if they do not start moving backward when our feet begin moving rhythmically, then the sticks will run into their nose up front. If we are consistent with our timing, horses can learn this fairly quickly. I usually work on this the fourth week of training. We usually think sticks and spurs are used to get a horse moving forward faster. Great horsemen use them more for more responsive stops, backups, turns and sideways movement. They will motivate a horse to listen more closely to our easier body language. If we are consistent and fair, a horse will not blame us for enforcement when the easy warnings were clearly there. Usually we will start with sticks, then graduate to spurs for hands-free signaling (spurs can be used very lightly).
I call the combination pressure-rhythmic pressure language the god language because it tries to blend mom and dad as perfectly as possible. I think of it as that delicate balance between mercy and justice that is so important. Too much mercy gives the impression that there are no consequences, and too much judgment makes it seem too unfriendly. As humans we can easily under do or over do both. We look to God as the one who can balance them perfectly in everyday life. In the saddle, we can wiggle the reins much like we wiggled the lead rope on the ground as another way to remind a horse he should be slowing or backing. The tugging, or checking motions can also be included under this language. They are used as added reminders not to be quick to charge.
Remember that like a growing human, a growing horse has many ways to communicate. And many times, growing means having to go backward.
Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.