Preparing a young horse for Backing
The making of an FEI horse starts when they are weaned from their mother.
When my horses are two years old everything I do or my staff does is geared toward making them the best horses they can be for the future. At two years old they are continuing to learn from the other horses in their herd. They are being brought to the stable 3-5 days a week for work in hand.
Our goal is to have them comfortable with the saddle and bridle by the end of 6 months. At the end of the 2-year-old year your horse should be comfortable in the cross ties and being groomed. They should be able to hand walk and jog in hand with good manors and stand quietly and obediently for their feet to be picked. I teach my horses to have their feet picked with the softest of aids.
3 year olds are started in hand for one or two months and then we back them. I make sure that the horse is trained to walk trot and canter by voice command on the lunge line with side reins prior to any rider actually mounting the horse.
While we are gentle and kind; manners at this age are of the utmost importance. Good manners are established in my program by positive reinforcement especially at the fragile age of 2 and 3.
We set the horse up for success and make sure only a qualified handler is working with these horses. How do we do this? Some examples would be when starting the horse in the cross ties begin by always having two people. One person holds the horse in the cross tie area while another person grooms her. When that is possible we put one side of the cross tie on the horse while again someone stands with a lead rope to hold manually the other side. We allow the horse to move around and feel the pressure of the cross tie but the handler is there to comfort the horse.
Once the horse is comfortable with the tie on one side we switch it to the other side. We put the horse in the cross ties for two to three weeks before taking off the lead rope. At this point I find they are easy and comfortable with cross ties and one person can now do this alone. The reason to go slow with this is because once they learn to break the cross ties it’s a habit they return to each time they are frightened.
One very important note is that you don’t want your horse to learn to break the cross ties as they will forever have that in their knowledge and flee the cross ties whenever they are the slightest bit scared.
To prevent this make sure you have a wall or bar behind your cross ties to discourage the horse from backing up and hitting the cross ties which will surely scare them. Also remove the horse immediately if he or she becomes frightened for any reason. We want the horse to be very solid in the cross ties before handling anything scary.
Nothing you do with a young horse is insignificant. They have a blank canvas to work with and we can put on that canvas both good and bad. Remember nothing is removable from a horses mind as they have incredible memories. We have to be careful in the early years to ensure they only learn good things.
I believe strongly in positive reinforcement and for this reason I believe it takes timing, patience, and a thought out plan for young horses to succeed. When I use the word timing I mean experience from the handler, rider and trainer to know exactly when and how to teach the horse.
Tips and Training examples
1. Get your horse comfortable being led from both sides. Not always leading from the left but sometimes lead your youngster from the right. This prepares them for later work in hand for piaffe and passage.
2. When teaching your young horse to have their feet picked, ask softly and if they don’t do it move them a bit or lightly tap the leg with a whip. Often they just don’t know what to do. By moving the horse he associates your hand with moving that leg and picks it up easily. For some horses this comes easier than others but the important thing is to stick to one method. A common mistake I see is people doing is holding the back legs too high. This is not comfortable for your horse so allow them to keep their back feet low to the ground. This is helpful when they are three and get tired behind easily. After work I teach them they can even rest a hind leg while I pick their back feet.
3. When starting the saddle work, ( putting the saddle on) start with just the saddle pad. Only when your horse is comfortable with that should you attempt the saddle. Make sure you have a person holding the horse. After the horse has had the saddle taken on and off several times and they are calm I put the girth on very loose. I take a few weeks to do this before making the girth tight enough to loose lunge them in the ring with the saddle. Remember how the horse feels about having the girth tightened will last a life time. Take your time on this subject, never making the girth too tight in the barn.
4. Getting your horse familiar with the whip is important. I want my horses to understand the whip and not be afraid of it but also to have a respect for it. So I begin to teach the horse about the whip by using it in various ways when I’m loose lunging. One will often hear me give a horse the verbal command to trot and then make contact with the lunge whip lightly on their hind legs or rump area. I want the horses to feel the whip, otherwise they can’t understand it or respect it. My mom calls the whip our 6th. Finger. It’ an extension of our body and another important aid we use.
5. Be sure whenever you turn out your youngster you turn them around and ask them to wait patiently while you take their halter off. A horse should never run away before the lead rope and/or halter is removed.
6. When feeding young pasture horses do not except them bullying you or threatening you when you walk in with the grain. Often I’m feeding multiple horses at one time and this can be a dangerous situation for the care taker. So in the beginning I will often keep a whip in one hand to teach them to wait and keep space between me and them until I have backed away from the grain bins. Horses bite and kick as a form of communication with each other but they must learn we are not another horse and they must never come into “our” space unless we invite them there.
7. Give time and love to your horse, but do not treat them as a pet. Never take for Granted they are 1000 to 2000 pounds and it only takes a split second for them to make a mistake and kick, bite, or step on you. In keeping with positive reinforcement set your horse up for success by leading them correctly ( shoulder to shoulder). I prefer a chain over the nose to keep from fighting and have more control early on. Don’t play with them in a way that encourages biting. An example would be hand feeding treats to a baby. I prefer to feed all treats in their feed bin until they are older and not so oral as all babies are. That is why if your not careful you can create a beggar and biter by hand treats. Once horses are older say 5 years old this oral stage usually goes away. However if you have an oral type of horse that loves to put everything in their mouth then continue placing any treats in their feed bin. My only exception to this rule is I do use sugar in the arena when the bridle is on as a direct reward for something well done upon my request.
Always keep a well thought out plan for your daily work with your young horse. Enjoy the long journey of making a well trained horse as it takes many years to complete the basic training process.