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Step 2: Get Outta My Space!

Backing Up

Back to Step 1: Hip-Over, Disengaging the Hip    Next to Step 3: Leading Your Horse

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

IMPORTANT TRAINING NOTE: When training a horse, it's important to keep in mind that your responses for good and bad behavior must be almost immediate. Therefore, you have to know beforehand what you want and what you don't so you can respond quickly. A horse will associate a reward or penalty with their action ONLY if it comes within a second or so after that action. If your horse performs the intended action, your reward can be the immediate release of pressure on the lead rope, a pat on the head, or a soft voiced compliment. Conversely, if your horse performs an undesired action, such as pushing you with his head, you need to respond almost instantly with a stern "NO!" or a couple tugs on the lead rope. If you can't do it that quickly, your horse will get confused and have trouble associating your reward or penalty with his behavior. You might actually be rewarding the bad behavior. Please keep this important note in mind with all horse training you will perform.

Of all the young, unbroken, abused, and "dangerous" horses I've worked with, nothing scares me more than a horse who thinks he needs to jump into my pocket for their own safety and security. If you're handling a horse who you know kicks, you avoid his hind end. If you know he bites, you stay away from his head. But if the horse wants to run over you or into you, and you're at the other end of the lead rope, there isn't much you can do except act like a matador with a bull or play dodge ball with flying hoofs.

A horse that stays out of your personal space helps to keep YOU safe. A horse that knows to back away from you, becomes more respectful of you and your leadership skills. And, believe it or not, a horse that backs up a lot actually WANTS to move forward!

There are 2 ways on the ground and on a lead rope to get a horse away from you. You can back them away, or send their shoulder away. Backing is easier for the handler and harder for the horse, so I always work on that first. Also, sending the shoulder away with a horse that won't get out of your space can sometimes backfire, and they may run into you until they understand how to back. So start with backing a couple of different ways first in order to get your horse thinking about going backward instead of forward. Horses are flight animals and always want to move forward. Doing this exercise now will also help you with trailer loading described later in Step 7. (Techniques explained in later articles build on those taught in these earlier installments — don't skip these lessons unless your horse is already competent in these techniques.)

Stand in front of your horse, but slightly to the side so that if he goes forward, he won't run over you. Grab your horse's nose and apply pressure with your fingers along his nasal cavity until you are cutting off some of his air intake like a hackamore would. If he tries to avoid this with his head, you need to try to stick with him and not lessen your grip. Eventually, he'll consider avoiding you by stepping back and you need to immediately release the pressure. Rub his head for a reward and within 3-5 seconds, do it again. Back him at least 5-10 times, one step at a time. If he takes more than one step, you're doing even better!

For horses who have head-shy issues, or if you're vertically challenged at staying with their nose as they raise their heads, you can use the lead rope/halter combination. But keep in mind, your goal is to eventually be able to do it with just your hand. Stand next to your horse's shoulder and apply steady pressure on the halter by pulling down towards the ground. He should bend his head and break at the poll, then take a step back. When he does, release the pressure immediately. Do this 5-10 times. If you're having success, try stepping in front of your horse about 5 feet away and shaking the lead rope vigorously left and right sending a rippling up the rope to the halter so it rubs back and forth across his nose. This should also back up your horse and your goal with the first 2 parts is to establish what you want so you can do it on lead while at a safe distance away.

With very unruly horses, I do use a whip if my safety is a concern. I stand in front, but slightly to the side in case they run forward (which is an instinctual response). I hit the ground in front of me with the whip to see if they will jump back away from it. If that doesn't work, I start tapping the front of one shoulder with a back-handed swing of the whip like you would backhand a tennis racket. I choose the shoulder that appears most likely to be on the same side as the horse's first hoof to step backwards (the one holding less weight or slightly in front of the other). If he bolts forward, I slap the whip on his shoulder as he runs past, pull his head around so he throws his hip over and faces me again, and start over.

Always start tapping before adding force and tapping his shoulder with the whip. Hitting harder with the whip is only necessary when the horse is a danger to your safety. A firm tap will work for most horses, and eventually with repetition, you'll be able to just hold the whip 1-2 feet in front of the shoulder and the horse will step back. Then, just raising your hand up will get the horse away from you.

Once you can successfully do all these things, try to achieve a shoulder yield from your horse. A perfectly executed "shoulder yield" will visibly show the horse's left shoulder drop down and away from you like when he goes into a circle to lunge. To do this, again stand in front of your horse about 5 feet away or more as needed. Send your horse away like when you lunge him. With your left hand, hold the lead rope and point to the left. Now, with your other hand, wave the whip at the horse's left shoulder (because you're facing him, it will be on your right). Only tap the horse with the whip if waving doesn't get him to move his feet. When your horse moves away, it's extremely important that he do it properly by yielding his shoulder to your personal space. If he doesn't, stop him immediately with the hip over and try again. What you're looking for are these signs:

  • When your horse moves away, he steps first with his right foot and not his left.
  • When your horse moves away, he DOES NOT walk towards you (not even by one step), and then he turns to his right.
  • When your horse moves away, his right hoof actually moves out and away from your personal space to his right.
  • If he overreacts and literally jumps almost sideways away from you onto his right hoof, don't get mad! Praise him! He responded perfectly!

You're teaching your horse that when he's nervous, excited, or scared, he cannot jump onto you for protection. Lead mares in the herd bite and kick horses who crowd them in panic and you're doing the same thing. This also helps build your horse's confidence and will make him more sure of himself and the world around him.

Every time you back your horse, no matter how you do it, say the word "back" as you also ask physically for the cue. Your horse will come to learn that word well and be even better for you on the ground and under saddle later. To this day, I never use legs when backing under saddle. I use my reins only on green horses. Legs and hips only come into play to steer when backing. I sit deep as I use the reins, and eventually, the horse learns my seat and backs better, and even STOPS better. This is also how you can teach your horse to stop with your seat and no headstall at all. But that is for another day!

Back to Step 1: Hip-Over, Disengaging the Hip    Next to Step 3: Leading Your Horse

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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