The Beauty of Backing Up

God may have spread the gifts equally among His creatures but He put an extra dose of “let’s get those feet moving and git goin’!” into every horse. This means horses are gifted for going forward. Everything in them yearns to go—ahead. Up there. Forward! And that’s what makes backing up such a perfect training exercise. There’s a whole host of reasons. I scarcely know where to start but let me try.

First, horses naturally move forwards and sideways but backing up is something they do rarely. It’s unnatural because God blessed horses with forward ability. So making a horse back up is training the horse to learn something they do not like to do.
That means that they’ll only do it for you when they respect you.RESPECT
Not like you.
Respect you.

So every time you work on getting your horse to back up, think Aretha Franklin:
“Ooh, What you want…Ooh, Baby, I got it!…Ooh, What you need…Ooh, You know I’ve got it….

Every time you see your horse backing up sprightly, stepping lively, prancing rearward, slamming into reverse, be thinking how every step is a dance of respect for you.

 Now how do you get your horse dancing out of respect for you? You do it, as they say, “the old fashioned way…you earn it.” And here’s how:

There are a thousand ways to back up your horse but here are the basics. There are two fundamental ways to back up your horse. One is facing the horse and the second is facing away from the horse; i.e., facing in the same direction as your horse.


1. Backing up facing the horse:

     A. Making your horse back away from you while wiggling the lead



  B. Making your horse back away from you wiggling the training wand (or dressage whip, lariat, plastic bag…name an object, any object. A goat?)




    Image  C. Making your horse back away from your active, elevated 
           energy (chi) in your body language

      D. Cue the horse to step backward by pulsing tiny amounts
          of energy (literally only the energy focused in one finger
           tip!) into the lead

       E. Cue the horse to step backward by rearward pressure
            on his nose

       F. Cue the horse to step backward with pressure on his shoulder and chestImage

G. Making your horse back away on a curve (using A through F….P.S. Forget the goat)


2. Backing up facing away from the horse:

ImageA. Cue the horse off your active, elevated energy (chi) given off backwards from between your shoulder blades

B. Cue the horse to step backward by cueing off the energy in the elbow nearest the horse’s neck

C. Cue the horse to step backward with your training wand, whip, bag, lead rope

D. Cue the horse to step backward with fingertip pressure on the lead



3. Backing up for lovers:

                        A. Back up a ramp

                        B. Back over a log

                        C. Back around blind turns

                        D. Back up over a tarp

                        E. Back up through a pool of water

                        F. Back over a plywood board

                        G. Back up between trashcans

                        H. Back up over empty plastic containers           

                        I. Back up over inflated balloons


You get the point. You can never, ever practice backing up enough because there’s always more respect to be earned from your horse. To quote another song, this time written by Paul Simon: “You just slip out the back, Jack…Make a new plan, Stan….You don’t need to be coy, Roy…Just get yourself free.”

Oh, one more thing, to paraphrase the most interesting man in the world: I don’t dance often but when I do, I dance backwards…Stay thirsty, my friend.




Posted in Uncategorized

Trailer Tips

When it comes to getting our horses into trailers, we instinctively do everything wrong. So, to succeed, we have to learn to do things better, smarter, and to overcome our innate predatory drive to make the horse get into the trailer.

Here are some rules:

First, as a general principle short of a true, life-threatening (i.e, your horse is seriously sick or injured and where you may to just resort to a block and tackle[1]), we can never, ever force a horse into a trailer. As I have written about trailering extensively in my book, Zen Mind, Zen Horse [pages 125-131, 279-284], the key to getting our horse to calmly, reliably, easily, and willingly trailer are these:

1.     First train your horse to trailer when he’s tired, not when he’s fresh at the beginning of the day. He will be less reactive when he is fatigued and more inclined to find the least energetic solution, i.e., loading onto the trailer.

2.     Always practice making your horse backing up straight.

Patience and practice are important. Though I prefer a ramp, the same principles apply in a step-up trailer.

3.     While training your horse to trailer, never disturb him when he is standing quietly on the ramp or in the trailer space. This includes sniffing, nosing, tonguing, biting, and pawing at the trailer. This is a sacred moment. The key to building the horse’s confidence is for him to believe the trailer and ramp are safe places. If you start pressuring your horse when he’s investigating or checking out the trailer he’s simply going to say to himself: “Yep, I was right. There’s no peace to be found in that trailer. As soon as I try to figure out what it’s about, somebody starts tapping on me with the end of a rope or a whip.”

4.     Do not close the ramp or the trailer doors even for a split nano-second until your horse has climbed in and out of the trailer at least one hundred times.

5.      Keep your trailer parked close to the barn[2] so your horse(s) can practice loading every day.

The trailer should always be a calm, inviting place. Some feed inside helps.

6.     The more your horse wants out of the trailer, the more you want to make him work outside the trailer. In other words, standing on the trailer is a break, getting off the trailer is getting back to work, moving his feet, running around, getting winded[3], and so on. The harder your horse has to work outside the trailer, the better the inside of the trailer begins to look. After working a while outside, the horse looks inside and says to himself: “Hey, my owner really fixed this trailer up nicely from the last time I looked in here.”

7.     Always invite your horse into the trailer (that means don’t pull on his lead rope!) but it is always your horse’s choice as to whether to accept the invitation or not. If he declines the invite, then it’s time for him to do some physically demanding work outside the trailer. The alternative to running around is to stand quietly in the trailer. Eventually your horse will catch on and dive for the inside of that trailer!

8.     Never let your horse turn around inside the trailer and head for the exit nose first! Horse must always step in straight and back out straight.

9.     Get a ramp. I know. It’s like being Republican or Democrat. You either vote for a step-up or vote for a trailer with a ramp. I am solidly in the ramp camp. Ramps make it much easier for your horse to load and unload patiently and slowly. Ramps just make a horse feel safer and more confident about where they’re putting their feet. The more confident the horse, the easier he’ll trailer.

10.  The more you practice trailering, the less you’ll ever find yourself with a horse that gives you trailering problems. The less you practice, the faster your horse can turn a chance to trailer into a day in hell.

11.  Trailering is about patience. It’s the essence of giving up our predator nature, of forgetting about how the horse gets into the trailer and focusing on how our horse feels about the trailer.

Happy trails…and trailering.

[1] Before I get a thousand letters and emails, no, I’m not recommending you use a block and tackle. I’m trying to make a point. That said, if my horse was dying and the only way I could get him into a trailer to get him to the animal hospital was a block and tackle, you betcha I’d use it if nothing else would work.

[2] As a rule, never practice loading horses onto a trailer that is not hitched to a truck. Loading a horse into an unhitched trailer can actually lead the trailer to lurch unexpectedly in the air. A no-no.

[3] Don’t get your horse so winded, he cannot catch his breath. He will just stop thinking when he gets too short of breath. To the contrary, you want to keep offering your horse breaks near or inside the trailer where he’s got plenty of time to catch his breath.

Posted in Uncategorized

Bits Blown to Bits: Baffling Snaffles, Disturbing Curbs, Rank Shanks, Renegade Spades, Dumb Thumbs, Awful Bosals, the Felon Pelham, and Whacko Hackamore.

There are so many bits on the market because each one represents an attempt by one horseman, one engineer, or one school of equitation to solve the age-old question: is there a better way I can get inside my horse’s mouth to communicate with him when I am under saddle? And the answer to that question is a simple “yes, no, and maybe.”

To use John Lyons’ analogy, picking up the reins is like picking up the telephone and dialing up your horse. You pick up lightly on the rein and ask “Hello? Are you home?” In truth, a lot of horses are out. Out to lunch. Gone fishing. Or just plain retired forever.  So you ring and ring and ring and there’s no answer.

ImageThat’s where the designers of bits come in. One says: “Hey, you know what your problem is? Not enough current when you ring your horse up! You need a better a cable, plenty of copper and insulation, so when you ring him up, that bell just rattles like crazy!”

 Another horseman wakes up and says: “No, no, you’re dead wrong. You need a bigger bell. Something like the Liberty Bell or Big Ben. Then your horse will answer.”

And yet another says: “No, your problem is you need some firecrackers so you can set them off. That way you’ll wake him up every time so he’ll answer the phone, see?”

So bits come in all manner of designs. But each has the same objectives: (1) tell the horse where and when to turn his body, (2) guide his head, neck, and shoulders and coax his frame, his body, into the configuration you need, and (3), last but never least, stop, stop, stop when I tell you to stop!

 ImageSimilarly, every bit, no matter how radically different in structure and form, is designed to do one thing: apply pressure (be it inside or around the horse’s mouth, tongue, and jaws) so that it can be released when the horse has exhibited the behavior that his rider is seeking. Some bits, like the snaffle, apply pressure in a linear fashion. In other words, you can theoretically apply one pound of pressure on your horse’s mouth when you apply one pound of tension on the reins. Others, like curb bits, magnify their rider’s authority by using a shank—essentially a lever arm that amplifies the pressure a rider can exert. You can apply one pound of pressure and get one pound of pressure. But if you yank back on the shank with a lot of pressure, the amount of force applied through the reins is multiplied two, three, five, and some times even ten times higher. The longer the shank attached to the bit, the greater your ability to multiply the force applied by the bit. Finally, as a rule of thumb a snaffle bit is meant for two-handed riding while a fixed shank bit is meant for one-handed handling. That leaves the loose (or swivel) shank bit as a little bit (no pun intended) intermediate.

Bits can range from minor discomfort or annoyance to outright excruciating pain. The problem with pain is that it stops the horse from thinking. The more pain, the more reaction. In other words, the more pain your bit inflicts on your horse, the more likely his training will get shorted out and he will respond instinctively. By analogy, imagine someone asking you to balance your checking account with one hand while the other is being slammed in a desk drawer! By contrast, the more your bit can exert a mildly annoying or uncomfortable sensation (as opposed to pain) in your horse’s mouth, the easier it is for your horse to think hard about solving the problem.Image

 Finally, it does not really matter what kind of bit is in your horse’s mouth as much as it does whose hands are on the reins. Even if you have a huge spade bit with ten-inch long shanks, if your hands are feather light then so is that bit. That’s one reason the snaffle bit is as popular today as it is: since many riders are heavy-handed, the snaffle is the most forgiving. By design, it does not have any curb action or shanks to amplify or enhance the pressure being exerted on the horse so it’s less likely to inadvertently pressure the horse. On the other hand, it may also be the worst of bits as the bit can only exert as much pressure on the mouth as the human being can summon. If you’re a professional weight lifter that’s substantial. If you’re ten years old and weigh fifty pounds soaking wet, that can be a problem.

Two final principles. First, in order to get a horse to be light and responsive, you must first practice on the ground getting you horse as light as possible. Your goal should be to have your horse drop his head slightly and then bend his neck all the way around to one side until his nose touches the area where the cinch passes right behind your horse’s elbow whenever you pick up the rein on that same side. The lighter the horse, the less pressure you need to exert on the rein. Ultimately, when you got it right, you should be able to stop, turn, and back up your horse with your reins tied to the bit with only a short strand of thin yarn. You can’t start off teaching your horse with yarn but that is the place you want to end up. Whenever you’re tempted to get heavy-handed and pull too hard, it simply breaks the yarn. The lighter your hands become, the more your horse seems to know. The fact is, the less you pull on the reins, and the more your horse will listen. Going back to that phone analogy with which I started, the lighter the hands, the more the horse is straining to hear it ring. It’s the difference between knowing the President is about to call you up or you’re about to get a message from an automated telemarketing advertisement. In the former, you’re sitting on the edge of your chair waiting for the phone to ring. In the latter, you can’t wait for the ringing to stop. Same thing with your horse. You want your horse just dying to feel the slightest change on that rein. That’s when your horse is saying: “Did I just hear the phone ring? Just now. Did I? Man, I’d better hustle and get to the phone! That could be my rider trying to contact me!”

Second principle: each bit requires a different technique and a different understanding. Horses are smart but if a horse is trained to respond to a snaffle, you must re-train the horse to understand what the pressure from a curb bit means. How is he supposed to understand that what was pressure on the bars of his mouth yesterday now means pressure and pinching under his chin today? You have to train your horse to understand what the new pressure means.

So happy trails and, with a bit of thought, you can make your choice about your horse’s bit a thoughtful one.  

 For more about bits, see From Sack To Saddle, pages 250-255 and A Leg Up, page 265 in Zen Mind, Zen Horse—The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses.


Posted in Uncategorized

Pre-Trail ride Flight Check

Think you can head out on horseback without a pre-flight check? Think again! Pre-flight checks were born out of necessity….

In 1935, the Boeing Corporation was testing its latest bomber in front of a group of Washington, DC decision makers and leaders from the military. The plane carried such an enormous payload and could fly such long distances that it was nicknamed “The Flying Fortress”. The plane taxied onto the runway and then, with a deafening drone from its four “Cyclone” turbocharged radial engines, the plane lifted off the tarmac.

Less than three hundred feet off the ground, this magnificent silver-skinned gift of murderous might, rolled over on its side and plunged headlong into the earth, bursting into a fireball. The cause of the disaster? The plane was so sophisticated, had so many more instrumentation controls and gauges. The world had never seen a cockpit so overwhelmed with knobs, levers, switches, and gauges. It had everything from cowl flaps to automatic trim adjusters, from intercooler controls to tail wheel locks. The cause of the crash: the pilot, one of the most experienced test pilots alive, had simply forgotten to unlock the hydraulic controls—the equivalent of leaving the parking brake on. The familiar pre-flight checklist was born on that day.

We have to do the same thing every time we set out on the trail. The trick to safety checks is that they only work if you do them precisely the same way every time. So here, the pre-flight check for the trail.

First, watch. Take a close look at your horse as you walk him to the hitching post. Figure out which side of the corral he’s woken up on. Lazy? Feisty? Ornery? Have him step sideways, yielding hips, and then move the forehand over.
Watch for any sign of lameness, of a telltale stiffness, or downright stubbornness.
Watch. Check.

Second, groom. Look for scratches, cuts, sores. Feel the muscles as you brush. They should feel full and plush. They should roll ahead of your fingertips, like you’re pushing dough down into the corners of a pie tin. Groom. Check.

Hooves. Check. Like the Thomas’ English Muffins. Need to check out every nook and cranny on his feet.

Blanket. Check. Clean, dry, right position. No extra thick pads. Get the blanket centered right over the withers.

Saddle. Check. Good fit. Sweet spot horizontal and in the right position. Sits just right on the shoulder. Cinch up once. Cinch once. Check. Back cinch. Breast collar. Make sure you pull up on saddle blanket so there a little bit of slack in the gullet. Bridle, bit, and reins. Check throatlatch. Check bit—tight enough there’s just one wrinkle in the corner of the mouth. Walk your horse around. Tighten cinch again. Cinch. Check.

Now trot your horse around the round pen. Watch how the saddle rides. Check that your horse is fluid under the saddle. Nothing’s pinching or causing discomfort.

Cinch one last time. Check.

Step into the stirrup and up into the saddle. Breathe your seat deep down in the saddle. Shift your weight around. Check out your horse’s emergency stop, yielding the hindquarters over. Now look up and head out.

Oh, smile! Smile. Check.

Posted in Horsemanship

Patience: Give Yourself a Year

The key to training horses is patience. Not because horses are so slow but because human beings are so fast. As humans, we are so inherently predatory by nature that we want the horse to learn, to respond now–or even sooner! That means that our intention is not focused on the horse’s mindset or how it relates to the learning process but, instead, we are looking ahead for the result. When we look for results, we lose our focus, our timing suffers, and guess what? The horse has a harder time learning. So keep this principle in mind: in horse training (and in life, for that matter), if you want to speed the process up, you have to slow yourself down.

To remind myself to slow down, I have a trick I find useful. I tell myself that whatever task or skill I need to train my horse to acquire, I will give myself a year within which to accomplish that goal. My horse has got a year to work on it and learn it. That notion of taking as long as year seems to reinforce for me that there is no need to hurry. It automatically slows me down. When I give myself that year, the horse always seems to get the task learned in a few minutes or hours at most. In truth, I’m the one who takes a while to get it because the horse already knows whatever I’m trying to teach him but the horse is kind enough to let me think I’m the smarter one. In truth, to get smarter, I just have to get slower.

Additional reading: Chapter 9: “Patience” in Zen Mind, Zen Horse—The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses, 2011: North Adams: Storey Publishing (ISBN 978-1603425650), pages 124-133.

Posted in Horsemanship, Spirituality

A Breakthrough Horse Training Tip: Brushin’ Off Your “Tails” (or How I Learned to Waltz with a Twelve Hundred Pound Partner)

 The incredible thing about working with horses is they provide us with physical metaphors for understanding the rest of life. I had a lesson recently with a student who was having a hard time figuring out how to get her horse to turn on the forehand and the hindquarters consistently. I kept noticing how hard she was trying but how awkward and stiff her gestures seemed. I couldn’t shake how labored a task it was for her to get her horse moving in arcs around her. I kept thinking: this looks like walking a dog that is straining at the end of a lease. It’s just not fun.

Afterwards, as I was puzzling what I could do as her trainer to coach her from “a breakdown to a breakthrough,” it dawned on me: moving with a horse is supposed to be effortless, like two partners steering each other gracefully around the dance floor. So I tried an experiment: I took out an old “boom box”– I know how 80’s of me—and set it up near the round pen and I put in a CD of Johann Strauss and I started working with my horse. I was pleasantly surprised how the music helped my body steer the horse with an almost unconscious pulsatile energy that emanated from the triple meter of the music.            


And I tried it the next time with my student. Worked like a charm. I started her waltzing around the round pen and then I handed her the lead rope and off she went with her horse like two pros on “Dancing with the Stars.” The music helped her body capture the energy between herself and her horse and, suddenly, it was no longer a matter of putting energy here or applying pressure there, but an intuitive movement of guiding the horse wherever she chose to lead it. Voila! Instant mastery.


I realized that there was a larger spiritual metaphor here: we need to walk less and waltz more. We should be dancing not marching through life. Our horses get it and we can pick up that valuable lesson from working with them.


So in the words of Irving Berlin (and sung by Fred Astaire):

I’m puttin’ on my top hat,

Tyin’ up my white tie, 

Brushin’ off my tails.


Posted in Uncategorized

Medical Advice and Riding into the Golden Sunset in the Golden Years

By Allan Hamilton, MD

Unfortunately most physicians are not horseback riders or equine aficionados. If they were then their response to every new diagnosis they made would not be to automatically prohibit the patient from riding. Seems like every ailment they find always ends in advice to stop riding. Got a cold? Stop riding. Hurt your back? Stop riding. Knee bothering you? Stop riding. Got a rash? Stop riding.

Naturally, I should throw in all sorts of cautionary footnotes and medical-legal wording to ward off any suggestion of liability, but let’s be frank: horseback riding remains one of the most dangerous activities a person can undertake. I would add, almost parenthetically, it is also one of the most thrilling and satisfying. Nonetheless, we must all recognize that horseback riding is considerably more dangerous than almost any other athletic activity; this includes motorcycle riding, downhill skiing, car racing and even the more physical of contact sports such as football, rugby, and hockey. Horseback riding also is remarkable in that the average age for individuals suffering major injuries and undergoing surgery for those injuries is higher in the equestrian sports than any of the other activities I just listed. What this means is that, as older individuals, we are more likely to suffer an injury in our equestrian pursuits and those injuries may be more severe and more disabling.

Nonetheless those of us who are reaching more advanced stages of life still cling more dearly to our love of horseback riding than we do our aversion to risk. As we age, several important physical changes occur that impact our ability to ride. The first is an overall slowing down of what we call psychomotor skills. This relates to the fact that our central nervous system reacts more slowly than when we were young. Our reflexes and muscular responses deteriorate measurably as we age, especially those of us older than fifty-five. By and large, these decrements in psychomotor skills have relatively little effect in our daily lives. Where we see these age-related deficiencies emerge are, unfortunately, in those situations which stress the extremes of human physiologic performance; namely, accidents where we are in substantial danger, such as an impending car crash or, more specifically, falling off a horse. As we get older our bodies are less able to respond quickly to a sudden and unexpected mishap such as the horse spooking. Add to this the fact that our joints are less flexible, our bones are more brittle, and our muscle strength is slowly diminishing, and you have a physiological conspiracy that makes riders above the age of fifty-five more prone to serious injury from horseback riding than our younger counterparts.

I want to close with a cautionary note about healthcare providers and those of us who happen to be their patients but also avidly pursue equestrian sports. As soon as an injury occurs, most physicians will err on the side of caution. So, for example, when I suffer a back injury, almost without exception, most physicians recommend that I restrain from any equestrian activity. On the surface that makes sense. However, for those of us who love horses and horse back riding, depriving ourselves of that activity also means removing a source of tremendous enjoyment and fulfillment from our lives.I don’t want to know why I shouldn’t go riding. I want to know if I can go riding. I want to know what specific precautions I must take––if any––so I can keep riding. I want to know what limitations can be lifted in such a way as to get me back in the saddle as soon as possible. Horseback riding is not only good for the body but good for the soul. In the words of Winston Churchill: “there is nothing as good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” Sometimes the prescription for what ails me is a good ride through the countryside. The only doctor I truly trust when it comes to medical advice about riding comes from a physician or healthcare professional who owns his or her own horse.

Remember: life is short so keep riding.

Posted in Uncategorized