Welcome to our series 'The Right Start', covering the major stages of the training of young horses, 'The KA Way'.
This series is based on a set of articles we wrote for The Scottish and Northern Equestrian Magazine back in 2011 and knowing that Spring is the time of year people think about starting their young horses, we thought we'd edit and republish the articles in the hope we can help you in your journey.
If you missed Part 1 about preparing young horses for backing, you can read it here .
The whole process of educating young horses is an exciting and rewarding experience, but for most owners, one of the most interesting and reassuring sessions, are those where their horse accepts a rider for the first time. Until this point, owners are often anxious about what their horses' reaction will be to carrying a rider and if they and their 'baby' will go on to enjoy riding time together like they've hoped.
In this article I'll outline our standard backing procedure and the basic principles that are important at this stage, and comment on some of the common challenges we come up against and how we work to overcome them.
Precursors to Backing
Having spent time with the horse establishing trust from the ground in the stable and general day-to-day handling, coupled with the horse being completely comfortable wearing and working on the lunge in full tack, we are now ready to back our horse.
Though, we can do it with two, at KA Equestrian we prefer to use three individual handlers to complete the first few backing sessions; one to hold and reassure the horse at the head, another to assist the rider in mounting and the other to actually sit on the horse. It's essential that each of these handlers are experienced, confident and know what their role is in the process. This way, we minimise the risk to any of them or the horse and prevent any bad experiences or injuries by being calm and in control. Should there be any hiccups along the way, experienced and knowledgable assistants will be best placed to get themselves and the horse out of trouble and to quickly defuse any anxiety shown bey the horse.
We always use the most balanced rider to be the first person on the horse's back so that any quick movements are absorbed by the rider's seat and they are most likely to stay on and be able to reassure the horse.
Whoever has been the main handler and lunger for the horse, should also be the one to reassure and hold the horse from the head - this way there is consistency and continuity of support and a familiar voice to listen to and trust throughout the session.
The Backing Process
We generally lunge the horse as normal before backing to maintain our normal routine and also to allow for any freshness to be expressed without a rider on their back.
We will then remove the side reins, untwist the reins, run down the stirrups and tighten the girth.
The lunger will then hold the horse from the near side of the horse's head by the lunge line that will still be connected to the lunging cavesson and assistant number two will bring the mounting block over and place on the ground beside the horse.
The rider will then also approach the horse at his shoulder and reassure him by talking quietly to him and stroking his neck.
The rider will then step onto the mounting block and lead onto the saddle while the horse stands. All the time the main handler will pat and reassure the horse.
Once the horse is relaxed and completely comfortable at this stage, assistant two will return and offer the rider a very slow and controlled leg-up to lean over the horse's saddle placing all of their weight on the horses' back for the first time. We'll quite often repeat this part of the process two or three times in order to ensure the horse is happy.
At this point the horse could be walked forward a few steps by the main handler with the rider leaning over him on their stomach. This allows the horse to feel the weight and movement of the rider on their back without also seeing a tall body sitting up on them (quite often a scary moment for baby horses). Again two or three repetitions at this stage, along with lots of praise and even a small treat, is normally enough in order that the horse is happy.
We quite often leave it there for the first session and let the horse have a think about it over night. The worst thing we could do at this stage is rush the process and risk over-fazing and worrying the young horse. What we want is for each horse to not fear a rider and to enjoy the process.
Before introducing anything new we will repeat all of day one again to ensure the horse is comfortable with all that happened yesterday and to resolve any issues that may have cropped up. If we think it's necessary or would benefit the horse, we'll leave it there again for another day - never moving on to the next stage until they are completely comfortable at the stage they're at.
The next stage in the backing process is for the rider to use her leg up and sit astride the horse keeping her upper-body forward over the horse's neck. We do this to ensure the horse has enough time to feel and accept the new feeling of legs either side of him without seeing the rider's body sitting straight up on him. Everything we do it broken down into smaller elements to avoid the horse feeling overwhelmed with new sensations and feeling like he needs to run away. By leaning forward, the rider also places more weight on he horse's forehand and therefore makes it less likely that the horse will tuck his hindquarters underneath him and scoot off.
Slowly, but surely, the rider will begin to sit up straighter and the main handler will be reassuring the horse at all times. The rider's seat will be light and over time, will be relaxed over the saddle thereby spreading their weight evenly over the horses's back. We'll quite often keep our feet out of the stirrups at this stage in case the horse does react violently and we need to jump off.
As with every single stage of the process, this will be repeated until the horse is completely happy.
Sitting up on the horse but keeping the weight slightly forward, the main handler will now be able to ask the horse to take a few steps forward with the rider on his back before halting and rewarding the horse with a pat and a "good boy!"
The rest is just a progression from these first steps and before you know it, you're walking around the arena on the horse and they're happy with themselves that they are now a grown-up horse!
Most horses will have very few issues with backing and it's really just a question of being confident in the process, having a balanced and confident rider and offering comfort and support for the horse at all stages. It is important to make the right call about when to press forward and when to ease the pressure off and spend a day consolidating and that only comes with experience.
Some horses however, do struggle and it may be useful to hear about how we overcome some common issues....
Rushing off and bucking are common behaviours that can be seen during backing and are mostly due to fear. Horses are hard-wired as flight animals and will run away from anything the perceive as a threat. To be fair to them, having a human sit on you for the first time, is a concept they've probably never thought of before! As far as possible, we like to be able to sit to the bucking and running, and normally after a few strides they stop. This way the horse doesn't learn that this behaviour will result in the rider jumping off. Only after the horse has calmed down and relaxed will we get off and start the whole backing process from the start. Of course, horse and rider safety is most important and if it's deemed to be escalating or highly dangerous, we would find a safe place to jump off. If this does occur, it could be that the horse was not entirely comfortable at the stage before and the process needs to be slowed down for this horse. Another possibility is that the saddle is uncomfortable or they have some discomfort in their back or mouth. We require that all horses we start have their teeth, back and tack checked before we start work with them but horses change shape when they start work and/or can easily tweak something in the field or during work which could cause pain. It's extremely important that the horse is listened to, the way they act is their way of communicating with us and if we don't listen, we are doing them a disservice.
Refusing to move forward and planting their feet, is the opposite issue from the one above, but also one we've come across. They just don't want to take those first steps forward. This is purely a confidence issue and we've found that being patient, encouraging and offering exaggerated rewards and praise when they do eventually find the confidence to take that step, is the best way forward. We would never chase a horse lacking in confidence with lunge whips or try to 'shoo' them forward in any way - they have to be completely on board with us in taking that first step.
Whatever the issues we come up against, there are always solutions, the skill is in knowing which ones to try, with which horse and at what time. What we must remember throughout the whole process is that these are young, inexperienced horses who have, quite often, only just left home for the first time and are way out of their comfort zone - our task is to be mindful of how they must be feeling and instill in them the confidence to trust in us and learn the new skills we can teach them.
In Part 3, we'll look at introducing the rider's aids and establishing the walk and trot.