Ask the Trainer: Horse backing while attempting to mount

Hi, I just bought another quarter horse. When I went to check her out 2 different people a man and a lady got on her to ride she did back up a step are so. So when I got her home I tried to mount her and she just keep backing up. I tried for about an hour to go get on her and she keep backing up. I tried to do this in my field. She let me put the saddle on her easy and the bridle.m I tried this 2 different days. I don't have a round pen, should I try do it in the stall next just to get on and off of her a few times? Thanks for your help I might have to get rid of her.
Thanks Paul

Dear Paul,

I'm sorry to hear of the problem you are experiencing with your new horse.  Because I cannot be there to watch what is happening with her, I cannot offer a step by step "how to" answer.  So instead I'm going to present a few major concepts in how you mentally and physically approach and interact with your horse.

There could be many issues going on with your new horse. My first guess is that the backing up is not the issue, but rather a a symptom and defense mechanism to prevent you from riding.  A horse may not want to be ridden due to physical pain from an injury, ill fitting tack, and most commonly fear and insecurity regarding being ridden.  

In your case, since the horse is new to you and you are unfamiliar with her history, it may take a little more investigative effort, time and energy to discover the real issue causing her backing.  If all that you do is attempt to "fix" the unwanted backing without understanding what is causing it, the horse will just find another way to try and prevent you from riding.

Many times when a horse tries to tell us humans that he is having a problem, we tend to ignore them because their behavior isn't dangerous enough for us to respect or address them.  People will say, "oh he just does that." But many small unwanted responses offered by the horse are usually their way of telling the human they are having a problem; if ignored by the human, the small acting out evolves into increasingly more dangerous behavior.  This is when you hear someone say, "all of a sudden he did _________________," but in reality the warning signs started perhaps six months, six weeks or six days before the actual unwanted act.

People tend to forget that horses don't randomly do anything, so if your horse is doing something, there is a reason, even if you are still unclear on why or what the real underlying issue is.

Remember that horses operate on "fear based survival" as they are the prey animal.  So every time they feel fearful or worried, and their pleas for help are ignored by a human, they are reconfirmed that the person is not there to "help" the horse through his issue.  After his pleas for help are either ignored or misinterpreted by the human, the horse will resort to "taking over" in the decision making process when his stress level gets high enough.  The time to build trust and respect with your horse is not at the pinnacle moment he is having an emotional, mental and physical melt down.

The most common problem I find between humans and horse is the lack of clear communication.  The person sees the horse's slow or resistant behavior and may misinterpret it as his being  "bad" rather than recognizing it as a sign that the horse is worried or concerned.  The horse sees the human's delayed, slow or unclear response as a lack of leadership and therefor lacks trust or respect towards the human.  So when the stress level of a situation gets high enough for the horse, the horse "takes over" in how he handles the situation, rather than allowing the human to make the decisions.  This is usually when accidents happen.

So before you reach these extremes you'll need to establish clear, quality communication with your horse.  One of the first concepts to clarify is that most people get distracted by and tend to focus on the unwanted physical movement of the horse, rather than addressing their horse's brain which will in turn affect the physical actions the horse makes.

Put this concept into people terms for a moment. If you were scared of diving, and I tried to push you off the diving board, you would probably lean pretty heavy against my physical pressure against you. The harder I pushed you, the more resistant and stressed you would become.  But if instead I tried to talk to you about your fear and what was causing, we might be able to decrease your level of fear to get you to point where you could willingly dive off of the board with me just asking you to, as oppose to physically forcing you to do so.  The same approach should be applied in how we intersect with our horses.  

Another concept to think about once your horse is mentally participative is his physical "yielding to pressure." Whether you are using the lead rope, rein, or stirrup, etc. your horse should be able to offer a stress free response to what you are asking.  First the human must have a clear intention in their mind as to what exactly it is that they would like from their horse and how they will communicate that.  By being clear ahead of time in what you want and you are asking your horse, it will help you begin to assess your ability to effectively communicate with your horse and notice if there are any "holes".  People are always surprised at how many "broke" horses have major misunderstanding and and blank spots in their education and experience, therefor creating  trust issues towards people, even after perhaps being ridden "successfully" for years.

A simple way to begin assessing your horse's respect towards you is the act of using physical pressure and asking for a specific response, (such as drawing your horse forward with the lead rope.)  This will give you the opportunity to assess your horse's mental and physical response towards the physical pressure you've created with the rope.  If there is a "heaviness" or lethargic response, if he is slow or disrespectful towards the simple act of leading him, his resistance towards you will only magnify the more you ask of him.

Another concept to think about is that anything you would ask for from your horse while you are sitting in the saddle, you would first want to ask for when you are standing on the ground.  Remember, your horse feels a fly land on him, he definitely feels you; it is a matter of if you are effective in how you communicate with your horse.  

Basic tools you should be able to ask of your horse is things such as his ability to look left or right in response to a light energy you use with either the lead rope or rein without having to move the rest of his body.  He'll need to be able to be lightly "drawn" forward, slowed, stopped or asked to shift his weight backwards without "leaning" on your hand.  I always tell people to use a sliding scale from one to ten to assess to the "lightness" of your horse when you ask something of him. If he offers an "eight" pressure in resistance as you ask him to back from the ground, imagine how much heavier he will be when you put a bit in his mouth and are sitting in the saddle asking the same thing.

Why does it matter if your horse can lightly look, slow his energy or address you? I like to use the analogy of driving a car.  How comfortable would you be to drive your car without a steering wheel? Or one that was "loose" causing you to have to constantly over correct the vehicle? And yet that is how many people ride, with hardly any steering and way too much gas.

When this happens the easy and quick "fix" is to turn to severe equipment that will give the rider the illusion that he now has more physical control of his horse. This is a incorrect thought.  The bit does not stop the horse, his brain does. So if you do not address why or what his brain initially is resisting, such as the direction and pressure of your hand on the lead rope asking him to yield, you will be confirming that he can also ignore your reins, seat and energy when you ride.

Timing is another factor.  When you ask your horse to do something, if he does not give you the desired response, you'll have to address him immediately. If you don't, then you'll be reinforcing the idea that your horse can do what he wants.  On the other hand if you ask something of your horse and he responds correctly, leave him alone for a moment, to process that he responded correctly.

I hope these ideas can perhaps open your mind to a slightly larger perspective on things that may be occurring between you and your new horse.  Even though your priority is to "get on and go for a ride" your horse may need you to step back and review some of her basic understanding in order to create a trusting relationship.  When I start colts I teach them how to line up to the mounting block.  By the time I get on them for the first time, they will be tacked up but loose in the round pen, and I will climb up on the mounting block.  I'll ask them to come over and line the self up without me touching them.  When they are ready for you to get on, they'll present themselves at the block and stand quietly.  Those that are not ready will fuss and move and swing their body around.  This tells me I need to perhaps further prepare them for their first ride, since both the horse and I will be participating in it, rather than having my horse tolerate me getting on him.

Good luck,

Samantha Harvey

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