Backing Young Horses

by Gemma Austin

As stud owners, the start of our job obviously begins with getting the mares in foal and safely delivering their offspring. Of course this really is just the beginning; starting a horse under saddle correctly is the most important part of their education, mistakes made here often stay with the horse for life, so it is imperative to get it right.

There are many different methods that people follow when backing young horses, from the very effective to the not so effective! The process I am describing here is one that we have found works for us, but the important thing when working with young horses is always to be adaptable; they are all different and you need to be able to respect and nurture their individual personalities.

The work you will eventually do when backing starts almost from birth. We expect our foals to be able to be led easily from either side, obeying voice commands to speed up and slow down, and move away from gentle pressure when asked. These are very basic lessons, and done correctly at a young age, will mean a much easier young horse when it comes to backing. We don’t give the foals any specific ‘training’ in these activities, it is just part of their day to day handling when coming in and out of the field and when you are in the stable with them, doing hay, water or whatever. It is always part of their life and the way they are just expected to behave, so it doesn’t become like school for them.

The age to back a horse is always subject to many differing opinions. Personally I like to at least have had the horse sat on during its third year. Many are not yet mature enough to go on and work, but the majority are strong enough to at least be sat on and learn their first basic lessons. After this initial work we find with fillies, it is then a good time for them to be turned away and put in foal for the first time if they are to eventually join the breeding herd. They get to have a foal nice and early, and then are much more mature after that to crack on with schooling and competing.

When backing horses, as a rule we always have them stabled with turnout during the day. This gives you a good opportunity to have more contact with them and just reinforce their basic manners on the ground.

The first stage of the process is bitting the horse. It is important before this stage to have the horse’s teeth checked over and any wolf teeth removed. Problems in the mouth at this stage can lead to a lifetime of contact issues. All our horses are started in a basic loose ring snaffle with lozenge. I dislike ‘training’ bits with keys on, I have found they encourage the horse to be fussy in the contact; I also dislike eggbutt bit rings, as I feel they give a very fixed feel to the bit rather than a nice elastic feel. Youngsters all have a cavesson noseband on the bridle. For the first couple of days we leave the youngster in their stable with the bridle on for about an hour a day, just letting them mouth the bit and get used to the feel. After this, a lunge line is attached to both bit rings and the youngster is led in hand. During this time, we make sure the youngster understands voice commands and will walk, trot and halt off the voice. This is invaluable when you move on to teaching the aids under saddle. We also carry a lunge whip at this point in time and introduce the idea of body language to the youngster, moving the shoulders and the quarters away from us in preparation for lunging.

Once we are happy that the horse fully understands voice commands we then move on to introducing a roller. This is done in the stable, and we use a roller with a poly pad underneath. Using a pad is a good introduction for saddle cloths under the saddle – the horse gets used to the sensation of a pad that far back. Again, as with the bridle, the youngster is left in the stable for approximately an hour for a couple of days to adjust to the feeling of the roller. We then go back out into the school, and make sure the voice commands still work now there is something on their back! Once happy with this, it is time to introduce lunging.

Again, there are differing opinions regarding lunging. Some people prefer to long rein their youngsters. We find for us that lunging works better – for starters, if you have something fresh, it is one less rein to sort out! We also find that young horses are so wobbly, it helps them start to find their natural balance to have a circle to work on. We are always careful not to over-do the lunging and risk damage to the horse. Short sessions are key, and this is where teaching the horse about body language comes into play, as you can take them onto straight lines, larger circles etc. We always lunge off the bit rather than cavessons – I have yet to find a lunge cavesson that doesn’t rub and doesn’t slip - the things drive me crackers!

Once the horse is lunging sweetly in the roller and bridle and responding well to voice commands, we introduce the saddle. Again in the stable the youngster is left to work out the feeling themselves. There is absolutely no point in buying a new saddle for your youngster; they change shape so much as they grow, and new saddles are hard and unforgiving. We have a soft (and very squeaky – great for bombproofing!), old saddle here which is perfect for the job.

We then repeat the lunge work with the saddle rather than the roller. For the AVERAGE horse these stages would normally take 2-3 weeks to accomplish, but it does vary enormously from one to another.

The next stage for us is the introduction of side reins. I feel it is very important to ensure a horse is happy in these before they are sat on. It is their first introduction to a contact, and such an important part of their education. Our side reins have an elastic insert and we attach them at the bottom of the saddle flaps, so nice and low. We ALWAYS attach the outside side rein only first. This not only gives the horse some space should they panic, but also introduces the idea of seeking the outside rein from the word ‘Go’. Once happy and relaxed with the outside rein, the inside rein is then introduced. It is important that the young horse is always going actively forward into the side reins, but is not pushed out of their natural rhythm.

Now the exciting bit….it’s time to get on! Responses to this vary hugely from horse to horse. It is very important that this stage is done with care and by very experienced people. We have three people involved. The rider must be athletic, sit lightly on the horse, be able to read a horse’s reactions very well, and should have great stickability! You then need another person to help with legging up, who should be fairly strong, and able to move quietly around the horse without startling them. The third person, and arguably the most important is the one on the ground. Again, they should be able to read a horse’s reactions very well and communicate these quickly and easily to the other two people. They should also be quick and able to keep hold of a horse without getting anyone tangled up or getting themselves pulled over! The horse should be wearing a neckstrap in addition to its normal tack to give the rider something to hold on to in case of emergency!

As long as a horse is quietly and correctly introduced to each stage, you should not have any issues once you are actually on. It is important to remember the things that bother the horse about the whole process - firstly, seeing someone at a height is often a very scary thing, secondly, it’s the added weight on their back, and thirdly, it’s the fact that that weight can also move!

We always do this work in the arena, whereas some people still back horses in stables. Quite frankly the thought of a possible panicking horse and three people in such an enclosed space terrifies me! We start with having a mounting block in the arena and making sure the horse is comfortable standing next to it on both sides with the rider stood up. The rider should reach over the saddle, bang their hands around the horse’s back, and just make sure that the horse is comfortable with the fact that something is going on above the saddle. Once happy with this, we then start to lean over the horse. The rider is quietly legged up and gently leans over the horse’s back. You want the horse to relax, and be aware that the rider is there. Once standing quietly, we want the horse to walk on with the rider leant over the back. This provides a way of the horse moving with weight on their back, but the rider staying relatively safe. This can be a moment for explosions, and it can also be a time for planting of feet as the horse tries to work out how to balance with the weight on their back. The smallest steps should be rewarded - let the horse work it out for themselves.

This stage accomplished, it is time to sit on properly. This is where the rider’s athleticism is important, as kicking youngsters in the bum with your leg on the way over is not the way to prolong your life expectancy! Make sure you can lean over without any drama and shift your weight around on the saddle. The person legging up should then gently help the rider to shift their weight into a position where they can quietly put their leg over. You want the horse to be quietly accepting, but it is important that they realise what the rider has done. The helper can turn the horse’s head so they can see the rider. At this point the rider should still be crouched low over the withers. We then make sure the horse is happy to walk on with the rider like this before we sit up straight.

This stage can be done in one session, or it may take many: it is totally dependant on the horse and their temperament. Different horses respond in different ways. As a general rule, if the horse is worried about something, you need to go back a stage and make sure they are happy with that

This is of course a rather abridged version of the backing process but gives an insight into how we get to this stage with our youngsters. Of course, once you have managed to sit on, that is the start of a whole new stage in the horse’s life!

Photo descriptions:

1. Lunging nicely in tack
2. Leaning over and walking to familiarise them with weight on the back'
3. 'First time sitting properly on this 3 year old'
4. Ricky - 'Young stallion by Keystone Rhondeo shown here as a 3 year old while being backed at Touchwood Stud. He has since gone on to win his first two dressage competitions at open novice.'

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