Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hands-Free Backing

If it weren't for my horses understanding the verbal command of "BACK!", my chores would take twice as long and probably result in an injury here and there. On the day that I took my first tour of an Arabian horse farm in hopes of purchasing my first horse, the breeder and I approached a pasture gate and two geldings cantered up to it to greet us. One was a four-year-old and one was a three-year-old. She wanted to show me the older one, because he would be ready to ride sooner. She put the halter on his head over the gate, and then opened the gate just enough to let the one horse through.

However, the three-year-old was more aggressive and he attempted to shove his way ahead. The breeder jumped in front of him, stuck her chest out and said "Ho!" in a firm tone. The horse stopped. She then said, "Back!" and the horse took a step back. She repeated the back command as many times as it took for the horse to move far enough back for her to get the other horse through the gate. That moment left quite an impression on me. I wondered what it was that stopped that large animal from just deciding that we were much smaller than it, and plowing its way through us. I couldn't believe that pure words were powerful enough to stop and back a horse, and I especially couldn't comprehend how the horse understood English.

Now that I have been around horses on a daily basis for ten years, I think I have a better understanding. It's not the words you use, but your body language, your energy level, your intentions, and what you put out telepathically. If you are thinking about a cheeseburger while giving the command, you probably won't get the right response. If you imagine your horse taking steps back, your horse will probably pick up on that and respond correctly.

For me, the best hands-free method to start teaching a horse to back up on verbal command is to make the horse back up in order to receive its food. This was originally done because I got tired of the horses ripping hay off a flake that was still in my hands. They would snatch the hay with their teeth and yank so violently that they caused me to pull muscles and have pain in my arms, neck and back. Once I made the decision that I wouldn't tolerate hay snatching anymore, I put them in their stalls, approached their windows with flakes of hay, and as soon as they stretched their necks out to snatch a bite, I stepped back out of reach, stuck my chest out, said "BACK!" in a firm tone, and imagined them stepping back. It didn't take long for them to figure out that they would not be fed until they got their heads out of the windows and stepped back far enough to allow me to put the hay through the window. Now when I approach their windows with a flake of hay, they automatically pull back and turn their heads to the side to show me that they are waiting politely, as opposed to aiming their teeth at the hay.

The back command also works well with preventing horses from busting out gates and stall doors. It helps when your horse steps on something and you need it to get off, such at your foot or the lead rope. It keeps horses from crowding or mugging your visitors. It should help in getting your horse to back out of trailers, although we all know that can be unpredictable. Once you get the back command mastered from ground level, you can translate it from the saddle. While riding you may get into tight spots where there is nowhere to go but back. Also, horses don't speak English or German or Spanish or any other human language, so the word you choose does not have to be "back". You can say "snicker doodle" or "macaroon" if you want. I just like "back" because it's a strong word that ends with a snarl and showing one's teeth.


Callie said...

Good post, I have to incorporate that myself when carrying hay out. I had the occasional snatch and gotten bit.Punishment insued and hay was revoked until behavior became acceptable.

Rising Rainbow said...

I don't always use verbal cues, sometimes I point or direct my eyes the way I want my horses to move.

We don't allow our horses to grab hay either. It is a bad message for them to get. Being able to take hay on their own terms tells them that they are in charge.

Lulu said...

I am very strict about not letting the horses grab a bite, while I am feeding. They aren't even allowed near the feed cart! I have found that it makes chore time so much safer when they know they will not be fed until they wait polietly!

Pony Girl said...

I liked this post. My trainer did that when feeding horses through the feed door in their stalls, too. But I also agree with how you say it and the body language you use. I have been working with my mom on that, she kind of begs her horse nicely for things. It is important to communicate confidence. I think that is why all of those natural horsemanship trainers make it look so easy. They are so confident!

photogchic said...

I like backing my horses through gates when I bring them in and out of the arena or the pens. Maddy started swinging around and then I would surprise her and lead her through...gotta keep it interesting:-) I haven't tried voice commands...just pointing. I usually just use my voice for praise.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Callie -- Oh oh. I guess girls have their moody moments and have to snatch hay from time to time.

Rising -- I'm curious. Do your horses move to where you direct your eyes even when they are foals, or only after years of working with you? My horses follow my eyes when I ride them, which is interesting because they can't see my eyes. However, it's not a good thing if I look behind me to see what's going on, because the horse will whirl around too.

LuLu -- Yes, it can be a real problem if you bring a feed cart out to them while they are in a paddock or pasture. I once saw a lady feed a herd of horses in a pasture from a golf cart, and the horses chased the cart while ripping hay off the back of it. She just kept driving faster.

Pony Girl -- Good point. Confidence doesn't come naturally to everyone. I guess we can also think along the lines of intention. Go out there with the intention of making those horses back up and don't give up until they do.

photogchic -- I never thought of backing my horse through gates. That makes perfect sense, because it prevents them from barging in addition to helping them develop the skills to back up through obstacles.

Twinville said...

Good post!

I'm not the most confidant person and tend to be a bit meek and non-confrontational, but having a horse try to rip hay from you and block your path was a perfect way to help build up that confidance.

My horse knows the word 'back' and she will also back with one finger to her neck or chest.

So, she seeme to slip up every so often, usually when we are a little late in delivering her breakfast or dinner, and she stands at the gate and tries to reach in for a bite of hay.

I only have to strongly say "BACK" and put my hand straight out to her(as in traffic cop) and she backs up and then will walk right beside me to her feeding spot in the paddock. She doesn't crowd me and she will wait until I lay her hay down and move away before she rips into the hay.

It feels so good knowing that she respects me and that I can do that without using force or being physical.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Twinville -- That's excellent that you've taught Baby Doll good manners.