Horses have an inbuilt action pattern for moving in synchronization with each other. One way to play with this wonderful ability is to devise an exercise where the ‘walk on’ signal balances rhythmically with the ‘back up’ signal.
First, we ensure that our ‘walk on’ and ‘back up’ signals, used individually, give us fluid movement together staying shoulder-to-shoulder. Then we link these two tasks together to form a sequence of dance-like steps.
While walking forward, we pause momentarily before shifting our energy to step backward. The pause gives the horse time to re-organize his body to step back with us. The message to shift gears must travel a lot further in a horse than in our smaller body. Also, the horse has four legs to organize, so it is important to build in a pause long enough for the horse to accomplish the change.
It can look and feel rough at first, but by spending a short time with this exercise often, the shift from forward to reverse gear can become fluid and polished. The two video clips below show the stages of training that Boots and I went through.
- Horse and handler are clicker savvy.
- Horse responds willingly to ‘walk on’ signals and walks in a relaxed manner with the handler beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 1 at end of this post.)
- Horse responds easily to ‘back-up’ signals and walks backward willingly with the handler staying in position beside his neck/shoulder. (See ‘Related Resources’ 2 at end of this post.)
- Horse and handler understand the ‘Zero Intent’ dynamic. (See ‘Related Resources’ 3 at end of this post.)
ENVIRONMENT & MATERIALS:
- A work area where the horse is relaxed and confident.
- Ideally, the horse can see his buddies, but they can’t interfere.
- The horse is not hungry; he’s had ample time to graze or eat hay right before the training session.
- Halter and lead (kept draped as much as possible, as we want to use body language for communication, not rope pressure). If the horse already backs up easily with the handler in the shoulder-to-shoulder position, you can teach this task at liberty.
- A selection of barriers which we walk toward and ask for a ‘halt’.
- A safe fence or similar to work alongside.
- Supports and rails to build a dead-end lane.
To smoothly change from walking forward ten steps to backing up ten steps in a straight line, staying together in the shoulder-to-shoulder position.
Balancera Clip 1 of 2: #173 HorseGym with Boots
Balancera Clip 2 of 2. #174 HorseGym with Boots
- The slice numbers on the clips don’t correspond to the slice numbers below.
- Boots’ demonstration on the video is the sum of many short sessions over a long time. When teaching something new, we stay with each slice of the task over as many short sessions as necessary until it feels ho-hum (easy and smooth). Then we move on to the next slice.
- Ensure that you can ‘walk on’ together fluidly toward a destination, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder (as for this whole exercise).
- Ensure that you can ‘halt’ together fluidly, staying in position shoulder-to-shoulder.
- Set up a lane and walk the horse through it in both directions. The horse walks inside the lane, handler walks on the outside.
- When 3 is ho-hum, walk the horse into the lane and ask for a halt about halfway along; click&treat. Do this in both directions.
- Repeat 4 above, asking the horse to wait a second longer before the click&treat, until he can comfortably wait 4 or 5 seconds while you relax with Zero Intent.
- Block off one end of the lane with a barrier placed about half a horse’s length inside the lane. Walk the horse into the lane and halt at the barrier; click&treat.
- Hold the rope in the hand nearest the horse. Lift your rope hand straight up and jiggle the rope lightly to put a distinctive touch signal on the halter. If your horse already understands a voice ‘back’ signal, use this as well. Watch for any movement backwards, even a body shift back; click&treat. If your horse already responds reliably to a back-up gesture and/or voice signal, you can probably teach this at liberty.
- Walk the horse into the lane again, to halt at the barrier; click&treat. Repeat 7 above, gradually building up to several steps back.
- Block off the lane a little further along so the horse is halting with his whole body inside the lane. Repeat backing out, aiming for a fluid, confident back-up of 5-6 steps. Make sure the handler remains shoulder-to-shoulder with the horse during the backing steps.
- Now we want to switch the halter jiggle signal to a hand signal. As you lift the rope-hand straight up to jiggle the rope, also lift your outside hand to the horse’s eye level and make a backward gesture with it. And use your voice signal. Click&treat for any stepping back.
- When 10 is good, repeat, using the outside hand and voice signal BEFORE you lift your rope-hand to put jiggle energy into the halter. The moment the horse begins to step back, stop jiggling the rope but ask for another step or two with the outside hand and voice signals.
- When the horse moves back readily with your outside hand gesture and voice signal, fade out the rope-jiggle. You have taught what it means, and it is there as a reminding-signal in times of need.
- Now we want to combine walk forward, pause, back-up with one click&treat after the whole task. This is the Balancera. Walk into the lane, halt at the barrier, signal for the back-up; click&treat for any back-up that is offered. Because we are introducing new complexity, we relax our criteria for number of steps back.
- Gradually, over many very short sessions that always end on a good note, ask for more steps back after the halt before you click&treat. 5-6 steps are good during the learning process.
- Practice with a lane of ground rails. Most horses will tend to veer right or left when they back up, due to the natural asymmetry of their bodies. One hind leg pushes off harder, so their hind end veers away from the stronger leg. By frequent backing through a lane of ground rails or between barrels, we help the horse organize his body to stay straighter. I often practice this slice as part of our regular gymnastic work.
- Practice with one barrier on the far side of the horse but still halting at a barrier. This gives you another opportunity to note which way his hind end tends to veer.
- Work on all the above on both sides of the horse. Each slice has two parts – handler in the left eye and handler in the right eye.
- When you feel the time is right, repeat 15 and 16 without a barrier at the end of the lane or along the fence.
- Play with halting facing a fence followed by a back-up without the prop of a lane or rails.
- When you feel the time is right, ask for a halt away from any barriers, followed by a back-up. Celebrate hugely when you get this. Done with finesse, the horse becomes light and keeps his full attention on your body language so he can maintain the synchronization. I always click&treat after this task.
- Gradually build up to 10 steps forward and 10 steps back but vary the number of steps each time you do it. He will be listening for your click to know when he can stop backing.
- Whenever it feels ‘broken’, go back to whatever slice the horse feels confident with and work forward from there.
- Ask for two ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.
- Ask for three ‘forward & back’ repeats before the click&treat.
- Adopt doing the Balancera between two ground rails as a regular part of your gymnastic warm-up and cool-down routines.
- Play with this in new venues.
- Play with it around new distractions.
- Play at liberty.
- Play with it to and from paddocks or while out on a walk.
- Play with it on slopes, both backing down and backing up the slope.
- Play with it long-reining using your voice and hand signal from behind the horse rather than beside him.
- If you ride, play with it ridden. You can use the straight upward jiggle of your rope or rein to remind the horse about what you want, along with your voice signal and your body weight shift signal. If you use a cordeo (neck rope) while riding, you have probably already taught a touch signal with that for the back-up. If you begin by riding into a corner, it will easily make sense to the horse that you want him to back up.