Cheyenne is a young paint mare at our rescue who I have recently started riding. She had about three rides last fall and a handful more during my winter break. Just recently we’ve had two short, but great, rides working on backing up with a rider.
Up to now, Cheyenne and I have worked on going forward and stopping. We’ve also worked a bit on steering and circles. I don’t force or even ask a horse to go forward during the first few rides—I like forward motion to be the horse’s idea.
Many people associate bucking and other bad behaviors with starting young horses under saddle. These “bad” behaviors often start because people are pushing or prodding the horse to move forward before the horse feels comfortable and ready. For a young horse, having a person on his back is a totally strange experience! It can take a horse a few rides before they really start to feel balanced moving forward with a rider.
I let the horse stand around as much as they want on the first few rides and click for any signs of forward motion. Soon, we’re usually taking a few small baby steps and then pretty soon afterward the horse is usually wandering all over the round pen! Then it’s time to work on woahs and make sure the horse understand that stopping will earn a reward too. (Some of this process is illustrated in this video of Tex’s second ride.)
Cheyenne figured out how to go forward pretty quickly. Then, however, she got a bit impatient because she always wanted to keep walking! So, I had to make sure stopping was highly rewarded so that she would learn that this was a good behavior too. Now that we have forward and woah balanced, it’s a good time to start working on a bit of backing.
I started on the ground. Cheyenne has had some groundwork and ground driving, so we did just a bit of review. I stood on the ground at her shoulder and asked her to take a step or two back. Then, I stood by her withers with my hands in approximately the position they would be while I was riding and ask her to take a step or two backward. We practiced this a bit and then I got on.
It’s always good to make sure a horse can do a behavior on the ground first. If the horse doesn’t have the understanding or confidence to do the behavior from the ground, there’s no way the horse is going to do the behavior with a rider! Also, by standing at Cheyenne’s withers, I was able to practice giving very similar rein cues to what I would give when I was on her. This helped make the transition from backing on the ground to backing with a rider much easier.
After we practiced some on the ground, I hopped on her back. I started by giving the same rein cue I had given from the ground, plus the seat and leg cues I wanted her to associate with backing. Pretty soon, she took one step back. I immediately clicked and gave her a treat. We kept doing this and she caught on super fast!
I’ve been watching Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training DVD. Much of the DVD discusses creating small, clean, tight loops of behavior. She also discusses how good it can be to use known behaviors to reinforce newer behaviors. (More info HERE about loopy training.)
So, Cheyenne and I started a nice little pattern. We started by the mounting block, which was about 15 feet away from one of her favorite cones. Cheyenne loves to target cones. This distance was far enough away that she was interested in the cone, but not completely drawn to it. I would ask her to back and as soon as she took one step back, I would click and treat. We would do this about 3 times, then I would release her forward and let her go walk forward and target the cone (for a click and treat, of course). She loves targeting the cone, so this was a great reward for several good steps backward.
Then, we’d either circle around back to the mounting block, or I would get off and lead her back to the mounting block. And we’d repeat the pattern. This pattern worked well because I could use the opportunity to walk to the cone to reinforcer her best efforts at backing up.
We made sure to take it slowly, just one or two steps backward each time. People often get into trouble when training horses to back up because they rush and ask for way too much at the beginning. A trainer might ask (and then demand) for a horse to take 10 steps backward, when the horse doesn’t even yet understand that the trainer wants 2 steps backward.
I am continuing to build this behavior slowly with Cheyenne. We’ll move on to asking for two steps back, then three, then four, and so on, until she has no problem backing all the way across the round pen. This is good shaping and good splitting and is the best way to create horses who back willingly without resisting or bracing against the pressure. Going in small steps at the beginning actually makes training go much faster later on!
This past weekend, we had our second session working on backing up. We kept building the behavior slowly, and by the end of this second, short session, she easily and willingly would take about half a dozen steps backward from a soft rein cue. I am really proud of Cheyenne’s progress so far! We’ll keep working on this over the coming weeks and I’ll try to get some video to share on the blog.