How to Back a Horse
In the equine world, there are three topics which can make the most placid equestrian foam at the mouth: bits vs. bitless, barefoot vs. shod, and the right way to back a horse. In the digital age, people have even more access than ever to information and the wisdom of sages – and people who think they are sages. For owners of young horses, there is a tremendous amount of clashing between people who follow particular trainers, people who look to science and the knowledge of experts, and people who follow outdated training methods either because A) it works, or B) it has always been done that way (neither of which, by the way, is a stand-alone proof of the quality of the method). Backing a horse is such a complex topic, there is no way to cover it completely in one article. The following is an overview of the process, with links to reliable information for more detailed research.
What Is Backing, And What Is Involved In The Process?
Backing, also known as breaking in or basic training, is the process by which a young horse (or not so young, in certain cases) is taught the basics necessary to be a riding horse, including familiarity with riding equipment, the rider’s aids, and basic manners under saddle. It includes everything from longeing through basic walk-trot-canter and simple schooling figures, plus hacking out (also known as trail riding). From this point, a horse can continue in the more specified and advanced training of its discipline.
What Should Be In Place Before I Back My Horse?
Your young horse should have impeccable ground manners before you begin to back him. He should know that nipping, even in play, is absolutely unacceptable, and he should not turn his backside towards people, even if asking for scratches. Leading and standing tied (under supervision!) are invaluable skills for a young horse to have as well. He needs to know that he is not allowed in a human’s personal space unless he is invited, and he should quietly and automatically be ready to move any part of his body away in response to pressure – turns on the forehand and haunches, backing up, dropping the head, picking up the hooves are all important skills to have. For further details on how to work on these manners, there are great instructions in Training your Foal: Raising a Foal from Birth to Backing and Bringing Up Baby.
Another important factor is the horse’s physical and mental maturity. This cannot be stressed strongly enough – no horse will be hurt by taking things more slowly and starting them a bit later. A two-year-old horse is the equivalent of a twelve-year-old child, mentally and physically. The growth plates in almost all of the young horse’s joints are still open (those in the spine do not close until between ages 5-6. For more information, here is a handy chart), and it is still actively in one of the fastest-growing phases of its young life. Its attention span ranges from five to maximum twenty minutes (and that only in very particular cases), after which point it can get tired, overwhelmed, and likely to misbehave. Furthermore, horses shed their first set of baby teeth between ages two and three, at the same time as wolf teeth can erupt, making bitting uncomfortable for them. Horse breeds that are stockier (such as draft crosses, quarter horses and Paint horses) or warmbloods (which develop even more slowly) have additional stresses on growing joints. The statement that some breeds of horses mature faster than others is no more based in science than the statement “going outside without a hat will make you catch pneumonia.” There are so many things to do with your youngster before you ride him, there is no need to rush him to be backed before he is three years old.
What Can I Do With My Horse In The Meantime?
One thing that all young horses can benefit from is going for lots of walks. You can take them up and down hills, on trails, over streams, along roads, wherever you can. The more things the young horse is exposed to, the better off he will be. You can also set up trail-course type obstacles in an arena or paddock, and work with your youngster to go over and around them. The book 101 Ground Training Exercises is an excellent resource for inspiration, or look up cavalletti and trail course patterns or barrel racing drills, and practice leading your horse through them. Many people prefer 10-foot long lead ropes for this kind of work, or a rope halter combined with a longer lead rope. Try to work on spook training, not flooding him and scaring him with too much desensitization, but encouraging his bravery and curiosity. If you have local shows or events where you could take him (assuming he is vaccinated and gelded, if you have a colt), see if the organizers would let you take him for an outing there to experience a new location and atmosphere, as well as traveling in the trailer.
My Horse Is Ready To Be Backed. What Do I Do First?
If your horse has been approved by the vet to start the backing process, you can start teaching him to free longe, then build to working on the longe line and ground driving. More specific details on these training methods can be found in the following books:
101 Longeing and Long-line Exercises (English and Western)
Long-Reining with Double Dan (Western focus)
Horse Training In-Hand (English focus)
In addition to starting these lessons, you can get your horse used to the equipment he will wear as a riding horse. For early longeing work, it is best to use a longeing cavesson and surcingle to get him used to the tightness of a girth and responding to pressure on his head. A longeing whip and longe-line are necessary, and if you want to teach long reining or ground driving, you will need a second longe-line or a double-longe. For a bit, it is best to get a double-jointed snaffle that is long enough, ideally an eggbutt, full-cheek, or D-ring. Some horses like the flavor of apple-flavored bits, and some like the flavor of copper. Another popular first bit is a Mullen mouth loose ring rubber bit. Experiment to see which bit your horse likes best.
Regarding the saddle, Wintec makes high-quality, affordable all-purpose English and Western saddles. They feature an adjustable gullet system as well as a riser system to adjust as your horse’s back muscles change with regular training. Finally, they offer riser pads, both basic and with extra padding in the front and back to alleviate specific muscle soreness.
Regarding the process of backing, it is extremely discipline specific, and should not be attempted without the supervision of qualified trainers and a capable veterinarian. In addition to the resources mentioned above, the following books are a good start for learning more about starting horses for English or Western disciplines:
Starting Colts (Western)
Countdown to Broke (Western)
Basic Training of the Young Horse (English)
Training Horses the Klimke Way (English)
Training the Young Horse (English)
Backing a horse is like raising a teenager – it takes a village. It is important to study as much as possible and surround yourself with people who can support you with your youngster. There is so much that can be taught to your young horse before he is physically and mentally mature to become a riding horse, that there is no need to rush into it. Enjoy every step of the process!