Reinforcing/Improving the Back - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 11 Old 08-03-2019, 07:23 PM Thread Starter
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Reinforcing/Improving the Back

Hi all! It's been a while. Duncan and I have been doing pretty well; we have our good and bad days. On thing I'd like to work on with him is the back-- he will sometimes take three or four steps back and then will begin to resist my cues, curling his neck down towards his chest and opening his mouth to avoid the contact. He does so in everything from our snaffle to the correction bits, in patterns or on the rail. On the ground (Showmanship) he arches his neck after five or six steps and tries to avoid the contact. In the nylon halter, occasionally, I have to lean my whole weight against him to even get him to stop. What training and/or exercises can I do to improve it?
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post #2 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 08:19 AM
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Work on using a verbal cue to ‘back’ on the ground.
You can use a long whip to lightly tap his chest if he refuses to move or just push on his chest with your hand until he moves just on voice command
If you use clicker training at all you can add that in, just make the click with your tongue ahead of the word ‘back’
You can then use the verbal command from the saddle along with the hands.
Be careful what your legs are doing.
Leg pressure for ‘back’ should only be enough to ask the horse to lift its leg and then take the pressure off immediately that happens
Continuous leg pressure in rein back is confusing to the horse
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post #3 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 09:26 AM
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If he is trying to avoid contact, then use less? Less pressure or less constant or less frequently? A cue is a request to do something. If he knows what you want him to do when you do X, and is willing, it doesn't take repeated, continuous requests.

Have you considered positive reinforcement? Treats, or a good backup followed by something he wants/likes to do? If he does back up nicely, what's in it for him?

Riders ask "How?" Horsemen ask "Why?"
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post #4 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 11:49 AM
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First, it is important to understand that a horse will not generally back if it has an alternative such as turning around. While it is good to teach a horse to back on command, we should do this in a way that does not set up unnecessary resistance.

Bill Dorrance (brother of Tom Dorrance) was one of the foundational trainers of what has come to be known as “natural horsemanship”. Bill taught that teaching a horse to back started from the ground with gentle pressure on the lead rope directed toward the horse’s front foot he wanted to step backward. If the horse did not step backward, he did not increase this pressure; he just kept it steady. As soon as the horse gave the slightest response, Bill would release the pressure as a reward. Progress would be made using this same method at whatever pace the horse required.

The idea behind this method is that only a minimal amount of pressure should be employed. Therefore, any resistance in the horse will be minimal. As a result, once the horse begins to respond, it does so without undue tension.

A similar method can be employed when in the saddle.

I, however, use a method that varies from more popular methods. I’ve found this method to work almost immediately with most horses despite how they may have previously been asked to back.

I take up the slack in the reins while trying not to actually pull. The reins will simply form a barrier to prevent the horse going forward if it misunderstands the cues. Then, I incline my upper torso slightly forward to “open the door” for the horse to move backward. This incline needs to be slight or the horse may try to move forward to keep the rider balanced. Leg cues may vary depending on the horse’s response. It may be a slight pressure or rubbing with both legs or a single leg. The idea of using a single legs is to activate the hind leg that you want to step backwards first – the rider’s right leg to activate the horse’s right rear and left front. If the horse doesn’t respond, I will try using my other leg, rather than using more force with the initial leg. Again, the idea is to use as little pressure as possible.

When first teaching the back, release of pressure comes immediately upon the horse’s response. Later, when the horse begins to respond with regularity, more steps may be asked for either using continuous cues or “pulsing” cues.
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post #5 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 09:54 PM Thread Starter
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Thank you all for the wonderful replies!

My issue is that with less pressure, he won’t move.

Do you think that learning to use a rope halter vs. a nylon one would improve anything?

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post #6 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 11:38 PM
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It is not about the pressure applied but the release you give him when he shifts his weight back on his hind or takes a step back.

I use a method very similar to @TXhorseman .
You can start on the ground like others have suggested. It is a great way to see what is happening and get a feel for what your looking for.
I find instead of pulling in both reins in the saddle, I am for each foot with one rein. I shift my weight to release that side and use a rein to ask for the foot. Asking for the front foot is the easiest but work on asking for the hind foot. I have read/heard the term, " pulling a chain is easier than pushing it". The horse needs to to use his hind end, lift his ribs to get the front end to follow lightly.Think about connecting the rein to the hind foot.
It is easy for a horse to get stiff and resist on both reins pulled back. As a cow horse person we use backing a lot to soften, we back on circles and serpentines. For me it also makes it easy to identify where those hard parts are at going forward by backing and asking for softness going back.
I promise if you can get a soft back up and be able to move his body on the back up asking for that softness forward will be awesome.

Don't pick a fight, reward the little gives.
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post #7 of 11 Old 08-04-2019, 11:56 PM
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Yes, a rope halter can help make your pressure a bit more 'pin point', and a bit less comfortable for the hrose to lean into.

If you apply a little pressure, and he just leans against that, you have three options;
1. quit in frustration and release the tension and think about what you did wrong, and maybe try again. ( and if you are doing this, you are basically teaching him that leaning against the halter gets him his way).

2. just stand there with the same amount of pressure that he is leaning into , but prepared to outlast him in this , never lessening or increasing until HE gives first.

3. increasing the pressure until he gives.

My instructor used to say "put in one more ounce than he does". this applies to everything you do, on the ground or in the saddle. If the horse meets you with a brace, yoiu have to do something different. First , use the tiny amount more than he puts in, but keep it just a hint more than he pushes, and WAIT.

I have found if a horse knows how to back up, and I have asked him politely several times , and he's looking everywhere but at me, I may become very firm, very quick. Meaning after asking lightly, putting in the one ounce more than he does, and him still just blowing me off, I may do something like slap my thigh loudly, or give the rope end in my hand a bit of a swing toward him, or kind of swing the lead line up under his chin so it slaps him on his neck .

This is basically, "Wake up! listen now, I'm asking you a simple task, now here's that gently cue again. . . . . " and usually , he will move much lighter

The thing is , you can get 'big' all the time. If so, you aren't getting big enough to make an impression on him so that he will listen, so that the soft cues will be 'heard'
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post #8 of 11 Old 08-05-2019, 10:06 AM
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I am going to ask you a question, and before you read on I would like you to answer it clearly – to yourself.

Question: “Why does a horse stop or go slower if you pull on the reins?” If you answer, “Because it hurts the mouth,” I am sorry to have to break the news to you – you have failed.

But no, I'll give you another chance: “Why do you jump up instantly if you sit on an upturned tack or drawing pin?”

If you answer again: “Because it hurts” - you really do need to read every word in this book!

The horse stops – and you jump up – not just because it hurts, but to stop it hurting. By no means the same thing.

And there isn't any doubt: if jumping up didn't stop the pain, you would try doing something else. So, too, eventually, does the horse. These are not trick questions. If you really believe in and act on the answer you gave to the first, then you think that all you have to do is to hurt your horse's mouth and he will stop.

On the contrary, the important thing is to let him know – to teach him – how, by doing what you want of him, he can avoid any pain, irritation, inconvenience and discomfort the bit (or whip or spur) might otherwise cause. Good trainers do everything they possibly can to avoid hurting the horse or even letting him hurt himself. Our real goal should be never to have to hurt our horse. - Tom Roberts, Horse Control - The Young Horse
I want to mention here another experiment I made with a young horse, first handled and ridden by me and trained by me. I wanted to prove that jumping is an unnatural movement to the horse, but that any horse could become a good jumper if it was trained in such a manner that it did not realize it was doing anything unnatural. I trained it in the manner explained in the chapter on training the young horse, but every time it jumped I rewarded it generously with a good double handful of sugar, whether it did well or not. I never once used a whip in the training, maintaining that the moment the horse was punished it would associate jumping with pain.

The result was amazing. After some months of this training the horse would think of only one thing: to get as fast as possible into the jumping paddock and look around for a jump to leap over! Jumping became its obsession. When I took that horse out into the open it would still be looking for something to jump over, and when it encountered a hunt jump, wall or garden fence it would make off at a gallop and jump happily over it, then stop, look back and ask me for sugar! I could go with that horse into a huge open field with one solitary jump erected in the centre and it would immediately make a bee-line for the obstacle and jump it. - Modern Show Jumping, Count Ilias Topiani, 1954
Another good bit by Tom Roberts:

Punishment, when we use it, should be reserved for exceptional occasions. Don't think “Reward and Punishment.”

Encourage and discourage is a better guide, as it drops the term “punishment.” When riding a young horse we alternate from encourage to discourage very frequently and quite often change from discourage to encourage several times in a matter of seconds.

But the term “discourage” still has the drawback that it can include punishment; and we should discard any term that could include punishment as a normal training procedure. Punishment and teaching are “divorced.”

It is to avoid using any expression that could possibly include punishment as a normal teaching procedure that I suggest you think in the terms:

“That will profit you – that will profit you not.”

These terms mean exactly – exactly – what they say.

“To Profit” is to benefit or gain: to be better off. The profit to the horse can be any reward or encouragement the trainer may think his pupil should receive – and it must, of course, be available to give.

“To Profit Not” means that the horse will gain or benefit not at all. Just that. It certainly does not mean that he will suffer a loss or be worse off – as he would be if he were punished.

This is what is so important about these expressions – and why I use them. By no stretch of the imagination can “Profit you not” be construed as punishment. It consists of withholding any gain, reward, encouragement and profit. That, and only that.

Quiet Persistence

“It will profit you not” means that the horse will not be encouraged to follow a line of conduct other than what we have in mind for him. We withhold any gain – which means we quietly continue with our demands, whatever they may be.

We persist. We quietly persist with our demands.

This gentle discouragement of “quiet persistence” is something that horses seem to find irresistible. Whenever you are in doubt as to what course to follow, mounted or dismounted, revert to “Quiet Persistence.” Your quiet persistence is the real “That will profit you not.” It discourages the horse without punishing him.
Denny Emerson has the credentials to prove he is a genuinely great rider. Here is an interesting thought from him:

What I failed to realize back then was that by ramping up the intensity of my leg pressure, for example, while I did get the result of him moving away from it, I had obtained the result I wanted with a substantially negative byproduct. Yes, he moved off my kicking leg, but the sharpness of my kicks had made him more nervous and anxious. Now I had to deal with a more reactive horse, which meant very often I would feel the need for stronger rein contact to control the nervousness that I had actually created. As I used stronger rein contact, the horse got even more nervous, and the downward training spiral had begun. What I was doing was forcing the move away response rather than teaching the move away response...


"So, how should I have obtained the response? He didn't listen to my light leg pressure. Why shouldn't I use more if he fails to respond? Well, because of what I just said. Harder and harder pressure makes him more nervous. The way to get him to move is not to bang on his sides, but to 'pester' him until he moves.

I have never read any book about riding that talks about 'pestering' a horse. They always use the terms like 'Apply the aids,' as if the horse will magically understand what the heck that means.

But think. Why does a horse swish his tail at a fly? Because the horse knows the fly will bite him if he doesn't get rid of the **** thing. The horse is not terrified by the fly. The fly isn't an attacking mountain lion. It isn't even a stinging wasp. It's a fly. Even an annoying fly will get a horse to respond, but it is not a panicked response.

In a way, we riders need to be mildly annoying flies..." - Denny Emerson, Know Better to Do Better, Mistakes I Made With Horses (So You Don't Have To)


Neither the quotes nor the video specifically discuss your issue. However, I've found them very helpful when working on a variety of issues. It often boils down to two things: Does the horse understand your request? And does your horse gain anything he wants from doing as you ask?

PS: A horse who has long experience with "Ask, Tell, DEMAND" may take months to learn that listening works. If so, those months are the foundation of a soft horse. A horse who wants to do what you want is a soft horse. A horse who feels he has to do what you want is an obedient horse. Not the same thing at all.
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Last edited by bsms; 08-05-2019 at 10:13 AM.
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post #9 of 11 Old 08-05-2019, 10:24 AM
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"A horse who wants to do what you want is a soft horse. A horse who feels he has to do what you want is an obedient horse. Not the same thing at all."

I like this quote, bsms.
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post #10 of 11 Old 08-06-2019, 03:04 AM
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Originally Posted by TXhorseman View Post
"A horse who wants to do what you want is a soft horse. A horse who feels he has to do what you want is an obedient horse. Not the same thing at all."

I like this quote, bsms.
Me too! Great quote!

It reminds me of my current mare. She was used to being spurred over to open gates so she will nervously swing herself into position but really isn't listening to what you are asking her. It's almost like she is on auto-pilot and saying "Oh boy, I better swing over there quick." But it's like something she does automatically and only from one direction. She isn't actually listening to how I am requesting she does it. And my leg cues make her nervous in that situation (afraid of being spurred I guess, even though I don't ride with spurs).

But over the past year or so I have been working on getting her to move off both my legs, when I ask for it. She now sidepasses really nice and soft and wherever I want. BUT, she still switches over to "nervous auto-pilot" at a gate. Obedient but not soft or relaxed!
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