Horse & Rider

Back Shapes


Backing squares and circles requires your horse to use all four of his feet and stay soft in your hands. Within these shapes, I also like to incorporat­e a turnaround, especially if his feet get sticky.

When I’m backing a square, I like to focus on dead-straight lines and sharp 90-degree turns. I back five to 10 steps, isolate his shoulders, and move his front end around the quarter-turn. Then I back some more, and this time I might isolate his hindquarte­rs to make the turn on his forehand. I continue this around the square.

Backing circles is more about body control throughout the maneuver. I regularly move my horse’s shoulders and hips to keep a “circular” shape and test my horse’s body control.

The key is to know your horse. If he’s getting frustrated, let him go forward and then move his hindquarte­rs. This offers him some needed relief, and it’s good to stop, let him catch his breath, and just back a couple straight steps and stop. When you know your horse, you know how far you can push him without sabotaging your entire ride, especially in the warm-up. Also, remember this is only a 10-minute warm-up. Don’t spend too much time, which can lead to resentment. Test the waters and note what needs work.

Move Into the Lope

Once I feel like I understand where my horse’s body is, I can move into my loping warm-up. I start on a loose rein and let him float around the pen, loose and free, going at the speed he picks. If he’s fresh and takes off, I bring him down and gather a little more control. I don’t want him getting too amped up before we start the real work; I want a willing horse that’s in a learning frame of mind, but I want him to cruise around and get comfortabl­e. I test his willingnes­s to follow my eyes and how much rein I need to gather.

Then I start collecting his body by taking up the slack in my reins. I keep my outside leg on to keep him going. Ideally, it feels just as good as it did when he was loping around on his own. I add a little contact with my hands, lighten contact with my feet (but don’t take them completely off, or he’ll hit the brakes), and ask him to transition down to a trot. I feather that down to a walk. I never want the forward motion to stop until I tell him whoa, back a couple steps, and reverse.

I’ll then ask him to lope off on a loose rein to see how my horse takes his lead, if he trots too much, etc. These things tell me what I need to work on in our training session. These tests also let me know where his mind is that day and how his body feels.

Consistenc­y Is Key

Don’t mistake consistenc­y for complacenc­y.

I might go through this entire checklist for every warm-up before every ride, but I don’t slack in my commitment to being engaged, so neither should my horse. I consistent­ly check out my horse before every ride, but I’ll change the order or do things a little differentl­y so it’s less predictabl­e and to keep his mind engaged. I throw in a couple new things when it makes sense. After this 10-minute warm-up, I know a lot more about my horse for that day’s ride and he's ready to work.

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