By: Pat McKnight
In the hobby horse trainer’s training program, there will be times when one needs to go backward to advance the horse’s education. Those times could be when the horse seems to have developed amnesia, even after it’s shown it understands the cues and can perform the maneuvers learned in previous training sessions. The horse will seem to have taken two steps forward and one step back. It’s during such frustrating times the hobby horse trainer will need to step back to bring the horse’s training forward.
Why horses seem to regress in their training only they know. It could be the training really didn’t become part of their repertoire. Or, they might need more time to process the maneuver. Or they could be trying to see whether performing as they had at a lower level will end the training session sooner. Or, they could be just having a bad day. We all have them.
The best approach for the hobby horse trainer and the horse is to go back to the maneuver the horse is willing to perform, and when it does perform as cued, call it a day or do something the horse seems to enjoy. Generally, those backward periods don’t last, and the horse will eventually advance in its training in future lessons.
The backing maneuver itself can be a tool in the hobby horse trainer’s tool kit. Generally, horses prefer to go forward instead of backing, so it can be used as a form of discipline or redirection. An example of backing as a discipline was used with one of my first horses. The mare had, for the most part, two speeds – full gallop and a prancing jig when heading back to the barn. Whenever we went on a trail ride, she would do a nice flat walk heading away from her pasture, but it was a different story when we turned and headed for home.
Any slack in the reins would send her galloping, a habit I didn’t relish. If I tried to put on the brakes, she would prance and jig, anticipating the cue to gallop. While I wasn’t sure how she was ridden before I got her, it’s likely her previous owners made a habit of galloping her home. And since she was likely rewarded for doing so, (by ending the ride), that was the lesson she learned.
To retrain her to do a flat walk on the return trip, I would stop her and back her a few steps whenever she started jigging. This meant our half hour ride away from the stable ended up being an hour or more on the return trip. Through consistent training, she did learn to do a flat walk and became a great trail riding horse.
Because backing can be a form of punishment, the hobby horse owner should be mindful when using it as part of a training program.
University of Wisconsin-River Falls Horse Science former reining instructor Larry Kasten advised his students against asking horses to back after they had performed the maneuver. Asking a horse to back after it has done so would be punishing the horse for having performed as it was cued to do.
While horses generally prefer to go forward, they tend to back whenever they want to avoid an obstacle.
I once worked with a three-year-old brought into a stable after it had only been pastured. The stall the filly was kept in required it to step up to enter. The filly didn’t have a problem stepping up into the stall, but when it came time to exit the stall, it didn’t know how to negotiate the step down. Horses have difficulty seeing depressions or drop-offs near their front feet. Since the filly had learned to back out of a trailer, I turned it so its tail faced the open door of the stall and backed it out of the stall.
Approaching the situation by using the information the horse already knew solved the dilemma. The young horse did eventually learn how to leave the stall stepping forward instead having to back out.
While having to think about going in reverse in your horse training program can seem like a retreat, it might seem less a failure if viewed as a time for regrouping. It is possible to go forward by taking a few steps backward.
Through her horse training and rider instruction business, Equest-ETS, Pat McKnight travels to work with horse owners at their stables, helping horse owners develop a training program suited to their abilities and situations. She welcomes feedback and input about the techniques discussed in her columns; she can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org