Firebreak: Dealing with Evasive Backing
No one told Acey she’s tiny.
It was her fiery attitude that caught my attention years ago at Quien Sabe. Among a hundred mares and fillies, her spirit flashed bright as the diagonally matched pairs of white and black legs that named her Alternating Current.
When I started handwalking her out on the roads, she proved the kind of horse that prefers being driven to being led. Oooh, look at that, she seemed to say, marching along. Let’s hurry up and see what’s next! I was pleased to oblige, so long as she remained light and responsive to my hand on the rope.
Under saddle, however, she began tentatively. In the round corral, she was slow to walk forward, and even more unwilling to trot. I chose to bide my time while she gained confidence, focusing on riding her through obstacle courses of cavaletti until I felt she was ready to ride out.
She handled the challenge admirably, and within a few rides of this post, she found her trot. As anticipated, it happened out on the trail, and it was easy. Not just easy, either. Fun! She offered speed! After two years of dealing with Consolation’s more, erm, relaxed personality, I was delighted to ride such an eager and forward horse.
But it’s never quite that easy. In horses, as in people, every positive trait tends to be mirrored by its negative side. Acey was quick and bold and clever…and in one ride, that turned to lithe, resistant, and evasive.
It happened last Sunday. We went for a ride along the irrigation canal, in the opposite direction from Saturday’s ride. On our left ran the canal, a steep six-foot bank falling into running water. To our right stretched acres of wheat and potato fields. Our only company was the occasional snake, rodent, or hawk.
Early in the ride, Acey began pausing, refusing to move. I moved her head back and forth, nudged her forward. A couple times, I dismounted to get her past particularly sticky areas. (Strike one!)
When she threw me a particularly stubborn balk, I asked her to back in an attempt to break her loose. She backed all right. Fast and far, and I had trouble getting her stopped. (Strike two!)
The next time she balked, she started backing before I could ask. She tucked her chin and backed, and backed, and backed… I tried turning her out of it, of course, but if you’ve ever ridden an evasive backer with a flexible neck, you know that doesn’t always work. It didn’t. I ended up dismounting in a hurry to slap her rump and stop her backing right into the canal. (Strike three!)
Why didn’t I smack her rump from the saddle? Because I was alone out there, and I didn’t know what she’d do. I was afraid of bucking, bolting, and injury. As a result, I had a big problem on my hands.
If there’s a problem with the horse, look to the trainer.
Our discussion over continuing down the trail degenerated rapidly. I knew I would lose the war because I hadn’t come properly armed, so I looked for a battle to win instead. I directed Acey’s backing down a farm road leading away from the canal. Carefully, so as not to put rearing into her mind, I kept her backing after she wanted to stop (and believe me, we backed a long distance to get to that point).
Then, I asked her to move forward. She did, because we were no longer pointed directly away from home. When we arrived back at the irrigation road, I directed her toward home. She went willingly, of course. A little too willingly. So willingly that we spent a couple hours getting home because we had to stop frequently and discuss the fact that, yes, I was going to make her stand still when told.
Finally back in the round corral, we worked on leg yields, then spent several minutes free lunging before I turned her loose and went inside to think things over.
The situation didn’t look good. Uncontrolled backing can be a particularly difficult form of evasion with which to contend. It’s dangerous in itself and can lead to the much more serious habit of rearing. Equally alarming was the speed with which Acey had discovered its effectiveness. This problem needed to be nipped in the bud. Immediately. But how?
A horse that gets behind the bit (or bitless bridle, in this case) takes away all your leverage. If the horse refuses to listen to legs and seat, you’re out of luck for turning or stopping. Many people recommend keeping the horse backing after it wants to stop, and that does often work, but Acey had already proved her athleticism and ability to back, very fast, for an extraordinary distance. Furthermore, I felt that attempting that method with such a quick-minded horse would escalate the problem rather than curing it. So, how could I stop her backing?
A hour later, the obvious answer smacked me atop the head. It’s not about what the horse IS doing. It’s about what she’s NOT doing. I don’t need to STOP her backing. I need to START her going forward. Duh.
We began that very evening. I dug out my little-used dressage whip and brought it along to the round corral. We started in hand, with me ground driving Acey through walk-trot transitions until she leaped forward into a trot at the slightest request. (I hardly touched her with the whip; she’s very sensitive and its very presence was sufficient to make my point.)
Next, I mounted up. Still aware that she might panic when I demanded a trot, I chose to leave the whip behind and focus on installing a stronger “go” button using only my voice, seat, and legs. We already had this lesson down at the walk, but Acey’s prior reluctance to trot in the round corral provided the perfect avenue for teaching her that she must move forward when cued.
It wasn’t a hard lesson. Sure, her head went up and her back hollowed with concern. Her steps were uneven and her tail tucked. But here’s the key: Every time she tried to stop, I boosted her onward with as much force as she required — a click, a squeeze, even a kick. I didn’t worry about her headset or collection or anything else. She simply needed to move forward no matter what. And so she did.
We repeated the lesson a couple times in the round corral, establishing consistent, prompt transitions and a steady pace, before I mounted up for a road test. We headed not for the irrigation canal, but for a place where Acey had balked somewhat less vehemently. My intention was to face the issue head-on while still giving her every opportunity to succeed.
As we approached the sticky area, I asked her to trot. The moment she hesitated, I booted her onward. As in the round corral, I took great care to avoid punishing her with a yank on her face when she leaped forward in response to my cue.