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Preparation Concepts


Eric Hought

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Forward to Back

Many successful systems are used to prepare the horse to back. Most systems require the horse to be soft in the face, elevate the shoulders, round the back, drop and drive from the hips, and trail the front feet with a consistent cadence. The horse must give his body. One can easily see the direct relationship of body position between backing and the stop. It’s the same.

Feel, timing, balance and consistency by the rider are required from any system. The building of sequential skills are cornerstone to developing and executing the back softly, supple, with good body mechanics and a smooth cadence. So what’s the system you ask?

Lateral flexion is one building block. It begins standing still and by suggesting with a feel to one side. Any recognition by the horse to the feel is rewarded by the release. The release is always the reward for the correct answer for any try by the horse. Build range of motion and length of hold time before the release. Progress to the walk and continue developing the lateral flexion . It will come easily if the rider has done his own mental preparation and practices feel, timing and balance.

Build the skill of right rein, right foot, left rein, left foot next. This concept is started from the walk. Hold the hand out to the right. When the horse’s right foot steps towards the feel from the right hand, release immediately. Slowly build both sides. This skill can also be described as floating the head. If he can only execute the drop of his head, release. Add the footstep once he has learned to drop the head. The value is when he drops his head, he relaxes. Wait, wait, I thought we were preparing the horse to back. Yes, first he must know these skills moving forward before he can learn to execute the same skills during the back. Oh yes, there’s more.

Simultaneously develop the concept of open door, closed door. The horse will soon recognize the open door is the correct answer because the consistent release is always found there. Thus far we are building lateral flexion, the rein is mentally connected to the corresponding foot and open door, closed door. Response to leg pressure has been developing through disengaging the hindquarters.

Momentum comes from the cluck or the rider’s legs. Never pull on the face to cause the feet to move. It can be confusing for the rider to differentiate between keeping the front door closed and pulling on the face by the rider. If he tries to go through the front door, increased pressure is needed until he hears the front door is closed, stops pushing and his feet are stopped, release. Let him stand still on a slack rein. Allow him to make the decision. He learns from his mistakes. If he moves, address that as the wrong answer by closing the front door only firmly as needed. You must address that until he stands still.

When the front door is closed he may move around and find that backing gives him relief from the pull of closing the front door. Once he finds the back, his pole will probably be high and he will be pushing on the snaffle bit. Encourage backing and begin pulling in cadence right rein, right foot etc. The rider must get his own hand co-ordination correct with the horse’s feet. That’s timing. The rider’s sitting position will probably be leaning back.

This series of actions is probably not very valuable, so one would think. Don’t weaken. At this point he is backing which is what we want, rider timing is important and we are looking for the horse’s release on the bit which is immediately followed by the release from the rider. Now, sit still and let him ponder what has just transpired. If he moves a foot forward, close the front as usual. Be consistent. The rider cadence of pulling on the rein simultaneously with the corresponding foot is real important. The good thing about his movement is that the rider does not have to ask for momentum. When the rider is given a situation like this, put it to use. Remember, when it rains lemons, make lemonade. So when you are given something such momentum make use of it . At this point one might ask, how long will I have to do this? Answer, forever. The difficult part is the rider. He must address every volunteer forward step by the horse as incorrect and correct that mistake by the horse. Gradually the length of time of correction will decrease because the rider has addressed the wrong answer every time. If the rider says to a single step, “ oh, that was ok this time.” That concession is the first chink in the rider’s consistency. Now the horse doesn’t know when its ok or not. He is not intellectual and only thinks in terms of black or white, no gray area which is the intellectual side of thinking.

Once he has it clear, return to the task of backing with right rein, right foot. Keep him quiet and listening to you. It may be necessary to walk along a few minutes. Float his head to soften, lift the reins and send feels to him. When he is responding softly, return to developing the backing skill.

Continuous suppling builds a soft, flexible body. Continue suppling by standing still, gently lift the reins until contact is felt. When he lifts his face, release. Remember the release is always the reward for finding the correct answer. Slowly build feel through the face, neck and shoulders. Eventually when the rider lifts his reins, pushes his sitting bones the horse will elevate his pole, lift his front end transferring his weight to the hindquarters and push off from behind.

What if he backs crooked? No problem. The exercises of disengaging the hindquarters has been developing sensitivity to the rider’s leg.

What about the rider’s body language during the back? The most common body position is for the rider to push with his seat bones, push his feet forward, lean backwards with the upper body and close the front and both side doors. The degree of the riders forward foot position and upper body lean will vary from system to system and the degree of skill development by the horse. Body language may be quite exaggerated early in development and gradually refined to a point where the change of the rider’s body position is only detectable by the horse. Yes, there are many touches, feels, pushes, suggestions and pulls here and there used to prepare the horse to a position of transition for the back. Once again the rider must focus on feel, timing, balance and consistency. The rider’s experience and past success will have emphasized the importance of patience to wait and “ let it happen.”

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