Horse as Teacher
Horse as Teacher
Horse As Teacher

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Wintertime Groundwork Review (Part 3 of 3)

Backing With a Soft Feel or Collection

To back your horse, face the opposite direction of your horse and grasp the lead rope where it connects to the halter with your thumb turned down. Apply steady gentle backward pressure on the rope until your horse drops his nose toward his chest. Immediately release the pressure on the rope when your horse makes the slightest effort in that direction. If your horse raises or lowers his head while you have pressure on the rope, acknowledge his efforts to search for the place of softness but don’t lighten your pressure on the rope until he tips his nose toward his chest. If your horse backs without softening, stop him and begin the exercise again. Once your horse gives his nose consistently, hold your contact on the rope until he thinks about shifting his weight back. Doing this exercise on the ground improves your timing so that you release your pressure the instant your horse makes the correct action. Your horse will respond to your timing with a great attitude—good timing means your
horse will never be confused and is always rewarded for his efforts.

Backing in Circles

Once your horse is backing freely in a straight line and moving his diagonal pairs of legs in rhythm, you can introduce the more complex exercise of backing in circles. Begin by backing in a straight line. As your horse’s outside front leg leaves the ground, move the hand holding the lead rope to the outside to direct the front leg to step out as well as back. Don’t be surprised if your horse loses all rhythm at this point and gets stuck. He will have to make the appropriate adjustments in the movement of his hind legs to accommodate this change in direction. If both of you get stuck, try developing a deeper understanding of this exercise by getting down on your hands and knees and mimicking what you’re asking your horse to do. This will give you a better idea of physical coordination required to complete this exercise.


Now that your horse is leading and backing with softness and lightness, ask him to do some simple transitions in hand. Start by walking beside him with your body even with his head. Break into a jog and ask your horse to keep pace with you. If he fails to do so, drop back behind his shoulder and drive him forward into a jog, then return to your position by his head. Slow to a walk again and ask your horse to stay with you. As your horse catches on to the rules of this “game,” increase the difficulty by going from a trot to a halt, or from a trot to a soft back, and then return to a trot again. Keep your horse fresh by introducing new variations. Be sure and lead your horse from both sides, and when changing direction it is good to get in the habit of turning your horse away from you by driving his shoulder rather than pulling him toward you with the lead rope. This helps your horse stay more balanced and keeps him from leaning into you.

The Basics

These basic exercises empower you and your horse to refine skills, and are perfect to keep your training program on track when the weather refuses to cooperate. My thanks to Buck Brannamon—many of these exercises are adapted from and based on those described in his “Groundwork” book. Please refer to his book for excellent pictures of many of these exercises.

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