Q&A on Backing, Trail Riding and Aggressive Horses

Training expert, Clinton Anderson, of Downunder Horsemanship fame, answers readers' questions on backing, trail riding and aggression in the pasture.
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Training expert, Clinton Anderson, of Downunder Horsemanship fame, answers readers' questions on backing, trail riding and aggression in the pasture.

Question: I'm having problems perfecting my gelding's backing. Any help is greatly appreciated.

Clinton Anderson on the trail. Photo by Darrell Dodds

Clinton Anderson: The more you back the horse on the ground, the better he will be under saddle. Lots of groundwork paves the way for success in the saddle.

Most people teach their horse to back up by picking up on the horse's reins and applying pressure to the horse's face. Usually, that is the only cue they use to ask the horse to back up; and the more they pull, the more the horse resists and lifts his head and neck. You enter a tug-of-war that is very difficult for a rider to win. Sure, you might get the horse to back up; but it will be a very sluggish, lazy back-up with the horse dragging his front feet rather than picking his back and shoulders up and backing up soft and collected.

As a general rule, the harder you pull the horse when you back him up, the slower he gets. The softer you pick up, the lighter he will get and the faster he will back up. What you don't want to do is try to make him back up by pulling on the reins. I like to teach my horse to back up by getting his feet to move, then redirecting his feet backwards.

Question: I have an 8-year-old Paint mare who is very well trained and well behaved on the trails as long as it is a small group, from one to three riders. More than that and she jigs, bucks, throws her head and just can't relax--doesn't matter if she is in the front, middle or the back. Please help!

Clinton Anderson: I recommend you go trail riding by yourself for awhile. Do lots of training on the trail--lots of circles, bending and serpentines. Circle around trees, keeping your mare busy. Change direction often. Get her using the thinking side of her brain. Then, take one other horse and do the same thing. When she is going well with one other horse, add another horse. If she does well, keep adding one more horse at a time to the group.

When she does get antsy, pull on one rein to get her to change direction. The more changes of direction, the more she will have to use the thinking side of her brain.

Question: I have a 5-year-old gelding. This is our second year under saddle and out on trails. When starting out, he likes to carry his head high or raise it when I ask for a trot. What can I do to lower his head? Also, recently we came to a fenceline that had a couple of horses standing there. My gelding did not want to listen when I asked him to move on. When he finally did decide to listen he wanted to take off at a gallop. What type of work can I do to get him to listen to me better?

Clinton Anderson: On the first point, you need to get him soft and supple laterally. The more lateral flexion you do, the easier it is to get vertical flexion. Before you can get your horse's head and neck to come down and soften at the poll, you must be able to bend and soften him laterally to the side. Lateral flexion exercises work so well because you are taking away his ability to balance against you and push against the reins.

To get your horse to listen to you better, you have to do more training--and consistently. Stop, turn, weave in between trees, bend, circle--anything to get him thinking about what you are asking of him rather than what he wants to react to instinctively.

Question: My friend has a 17-hand American Saddlebred show horse that is a holy terror to other horses in the pasture. She'd like to board him with my pregnant American Quarter Horse mare and Paint yearling filly, but I'm afraid for their safety. Is there anything I can do to lessen this gelding's aggression towards other horses?

Clinton Anderson: The more space you can give the horses, the better. Your horses will be safer if they have plenty of room to get away from the gelding. Before you put any horses with him in the pasture, try to get them used to each other over the fence. You also might try the Tri-tronics electric shock collar with which you can make it unpleasant for him when he tries to become aggressive with other horses. Some training with that just might do the trick.

From www.EquiSearch.com