A horse that backs well is much safer as well as much more maneuverable than one that does not.

Generally, a horse that learns to back out of your space will have the basics in place for not biting. A horse that learns to move sideways away from us has the basics in place for not kicking (I will cover sideways movement in a future column). These days, neither of these valuable movements are used much by most riders.

Freddie Kniee, a famous circus horse trainer, said “a backing stallion is not a biting stallion” (stallions are wired to be dominant, and are very good with their teeth). Kniee was well known for using many stallions together in his circus acts that performed incredible feats at the wave of his hand, all working together with great respect toward him and each other. This can be contrasted against the lady in the Buck Brannaman documentary who also had many stallions, but minus the respect. One stallion in particular was extremely dangerous and had been raised as an orphan foal in the lady’s house. She raised it much like a lap dog, not realizing that its cute antics when young would backfire on her when it later weighed 1000 pounds.

The horse was responsible for putting her in the hospital. At a clinic hosted by Brannaman, even he gave up on the horse and the decision was made to have it destroyed. I would like to ask Buck why he had the handler sacking the stallion out rather than teaching him to back away. Sacking out helps a timid horse, whereas backing directly works on a disrespectful one.

Mike Daniels

Mike Daniels

A great example of backing for maneuverability is found in cutting horses. They are beautiful pictures of turns, and make a four-wheeler look like an old lady pushing a shopping cart. The most efficient turn possible needs to happen pivoting over a horse’s hind end. Backing helps transfer weight to its hind end so this can happen.

There are three ways to back a horse, and it is good to know and use all three in conjunction with one another.  This gives us a wider range of tools available, and helps make it clear to the horse what we want. I always like to point out that these three free tools can be listed under God’s third commandment: Do not misuse God’s name. The opposite of misusing God’s name is giving him credit for the free stuff he gives us all to use. Every endeavor has examples of this, and in horsemanship it is pressure, rhythmic pressure, and a combination of pressure and rhythmic pressure.

In teaching a horse to back with pressure, the most important aspect is the quickness of release of pressure, when we observe a horse start to respond. The second most important point is to start pressure extremely lightly, and slowly increase pressure until the horse makes an attempt to move away from the pressure. We can apply pushing pressure anywhere we want,  including nose, chest, hip, belly and more. We can also apply pulling pressure to the halter at the same time. The whole point is to slowly add pressure until the horse moves away from it, and then quickly release pressure. If the horse does not care about the pressure, or the human is not strong enough to apply pressure with fingertips, a sharp rock or hoof pick might need to be used to start with.

Remember that the release of pressure is what teaches a horse and encourages it, so be very alert to your horse’s attempt to respond. If a horse moves into pressure in the beginning, do not release until it moves away, even if it first moves you the opposite direction. A horse will just try different things to get away from the pressure, so hang in there and do not give it comfort until it moves away from the pressure. Good timing and avoiding poking, tugging, and rhythmic movements is the skill that most horse people need to improve on here.

In teaching a horse to back with rhythmic pressure, the most important part of it is initiating a clear, rhythmic (hitting) motion with our hands, body, or stick. A horse needs to see clearly that this rhythmic object is heading toward them, and if they do not move, it will indeed “run into” the object. The second most important part of this is that we actually let it run into the horse if it doesn’t move. Otherwise we lie to the animal and desensitize it instead.

Sometimes people worry about doing this to a horse’s head, but I feel a horse can see it coming better and can respond better when I concentrate the motion between their eyes and their nose. Working with many hundreds of horses, I have never injured any of them this way. Usually the horses that end up running into the object most are the insensitive, spoiled ones. They have learned to crowd and push their owners around. On the other hand, it doesn’t usually take much to get the scared, sensitive ones to respond, and we can usually be pretty sensitive to them in return.

The spoiled stallion in the “Buck” film would have needed this tool as close to its nose as possible for defensive reasons (its hard to bite a rhythmic object – much like a fan), as well as for teaching how to back away rather than charge. The four-foot stick with a six-foot string can keep us out of dangerous range until we start to observe a learning frame of mind with a reasonable degree of respect (we still need to be very alert because horses can be tricky and fast). Once a horse learns to respect the rhythmic motion, it becomes one of the lightest ways to signal a horse – like moving them with a cushion of air.

The third tool for asking a horse to back is how most people try to back their horse, but it ends up being extremely rude and crude, partially because people are missing the slow, sensitive nature of the pressure language, along with the warning nature of the rhythmic pressure language. This would be the poking, tugging theme that most people are familiar with.

The better way to initiate this is to use rope wiggling instead. It can slowly build discomfort, and have a warning element to it as well as keep us from babysitting a horse’s head by hanging on to it with pressure all the time. A horse can ultimately learn to back up with a wiggle of our finger this way.

To teach a horse using this method, we start the lead rope into to a wagging motion, making it jump around. We start it easy, but then gain momentum if the horse doesn’t respond by moving backward away from it.  Sometimes horses will move forward first, but just as in the pressure language, we do not stop the stimulus until the horse backs away from it. Sometimes a fence can be used in between human and horse to make it easier for the horse to learn.

The warning part is to gradually wiggle the rope more and more, getting to the point where the snap attached to the halter will start slapping their chin if need be to get them to respond backward. A horse learns to start backing before we get to that point in the future. Just as with the pressure tool, we need to give them a break quickly when we observe them begin to respond.

Next time I will cover how to transfer these languages to the horse’s back when we ride.

Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville. Email: rlhorse58@yahoo.com.