I am going to start a series of video blog posts detailing exercises you can do with your horse through the winter months without a whole lot of space to work with. I always get a little down in the winter because I feel like I can’t get out to work with the horses as much. It’s either too cold, or too dark, or the footing is bad because I don’t have a large indoor to ride in… I can make excuse after excuse, but I also know there are a lot of things I can accomplish within a small space in a small amount of time (without getting too cold).
I am going to pair these exercises up with obstacles so that we can have something to work toward progressively. All the exercises will start on the ground without obstacles and then will move to the ground with obstacles, then under saddle without obstacles and finally under saddle with obstacles.
I recently hosted a trail obstacle clinic and challenge that went pretty well, but I felt we were short on time when it came to covering obstacles in the clinic. By doing this series I will be able to give more information that may have been missed at my clinic. I’ll also be able to practice going over the key points of each obstacle for the next clinic/challenge that I hope to hold in the Spring.
The first obstacle I’m going to cover is backing through barrels. This obstacle was worth the most points in my obstacle challenge because it is a maneuver that requires great control over all of your horse’s body parts. The obstacle does not necessarily require barrels, you can use buckets or cones if you don’t have barrels. They just need to be set up in a triangle shape with enough room between them to get your horse through. The end goal is for your horse to be able to back between the first two barrels, around the middle barrel, and back between the barrels you began through without touching or knocking over a barrel. Your horse should continue moving backwards the entire time, but he will have to be able to move his hind quarters and his front quarters independently in order to make the circle around the middle barrel.
I like to start all of my work on the ground by sending my horse around me and asking them to move their front quarters and hindquarters. Once my horse has established his circle I will pick up on my lead and ask for lateral softness in the face while stepping toward his hindquarters so that he gives me his face and crosses his inside hind in front of his outside hind as he steps his hind end out and continues around me. Once I feel his hindquarters are stepping soft and he is giving with his face I will ask him to bring his front end through and change directions. I will repeat now to soften his other side.
To begin preparing for this obstacle on the ground your horse must be able to back off of a feel. Timing is really important in developing a good back up. You must always be sure to release the pressure you apply when your horse is backing up, not when he is stopped. If you release the pressure when he is at a standstill you have just taught your horse to stand still when pressure is applied. You should be able to back your horse up using just the space created between you and your horse. If you step into his space, he should take a step back. You shouldn’t have to pull back on your horse because you’ll need to use the lead to send him in a direction while moving backwards, not just to send him back. I like to make sure my horse can back up off of a feel and I also like to back them in a circle. I will turn their head away from me so that if I am on their left, their body is bent in an arc to the right and we will back a clockwise circle. Again, I will get my horse to do the exercises in both directions, though I will have to change my position in order to back a counterclockwise circle.
Once I feel my horse is backing up good I will introduce the obstacles. I won’t immediately begin by backing my horse through them. I will first start by getting him comfortable with them by sending him through them forward. Once I feel he is comfortable and is not rushing to get through the obstacles I will stop him in between two barrels and give him a rest. It’s important to allow your horse some time to stand still on or in an obstacle so that he learns not to rush through to complete it. If he starts rushing or anticipating, you are no longer in control and chances are he will knock over or bump a barrel as he tries to complete the obstacle without you. By giving him a chance to rest, or making him stand, he will learn to wait on you and the cues you give him.
Once I feel he is okay with the barrels and isn’t in a rush I will start by sending him through the first two barrels and stopping him before he is out. His hindquarters will be between the first two barrels. This will help him in the beginning by keeping him straight as he backs through the first set of barrels. I want to set him up for success, not failure, so I will make our first exercises easy. When he is stopped with his hindquarter between two barrels I will simply ask him to back up straight until his front quarters have cleared the barrels that his hindquarters started in. Stop and give him a rest. At this point you need to start thinking about positioning your horse’s body to go around the middle barrel. If your horse is good at backing the circle you can turn his head slightly so that he is in a good position to bring his hind quarters around and you can back him right around. If your horse is good at pivoting you could also think about positioning his hindquarters slightly passed the third barrel and then pushing his front end around so that he is changing directions according to which way his hind end is pointed. (Hopefully the demonstration in the video will make these explanations more clear) Once he has rounded the middle barrel he should be set up to go between the barrels that he started. You want to line him up so that he can just back straight up so he doesn’t have to worry about bumping barrels as he is moving.
Once my horse is confident with backing through the barrels on the ground, I am ready to ride. I will repeat all of the exercises that I did on the ground in the saddle. I will start by moving his hindquarters and front quarters on a small circle. I will start by establishing my circle. Once my circle is established, I will slide my inside hand down the inside rein and bring it to my pocket to ask my horse for lateral flexion. I will use my inside leg behind the cinch to send his hip to the outside. I am feeling for my horse’s inside hind leg to step across his outside hind. Once he feels soft in his face, neck, and hindquarter, I will ask his shoulders to step through by picking up my outside rein and applying my outside leg at the cinch. The outside rein should STOP his hind end and my outside leg is encouraging his front end to come through. He should still be slightly bent in the direction he is turning. I want his inside front leg to step out and slightly back to allow his outside front leg to cross in front of it. I am only looking for one or two steps with the front end at this point, not a full turnaround. Knowing where you want your horse’s feet is very important when you’re riding so that you can connect the rein to the feet. When I pick up my rein, I want it to mean something to my horse.
Next I might practice backing circles. If I am going to back a clockwise circle, I will bend my horse’s body to the right. My outside rein will be slightly shorter to accommodate the outside bend in my horse’s body. I will be using both my reins to back the circle, being sure to use the slightest pressure possible and making sure I am releasing when my horse is backing, not when his feet stop moving. If I have to start out with lots of pressure, I am sure to get lighter as I go. I might have to use my outside leg behind the cinch to keep my horse on a circle, not just backing up straight with his body bent to the right. I might also have to use my inside leg in front of the cinch to keep his front end coming around with his hind end. I will make sure to back circles in both directions.
Finally I am ready to back my horse through and around the barrels. . I will go slow, just like I did on the ground, and I might start by walking him through and around the barrels first. I want him to be comfortable with them, and not afraid. I don’t want him to bump them, but if he does, I don’t want him to be afraid of the noise of them falling over or startled if he bumps into them unexpectedly. I will take it slow at first and be sure to give him lots of time to think about where I am asking him to put his feet. Many horses won’t want to back between the first two barrels because they think they will bump into that middle barrel and horses really don’t want to bump into things. It is really important that your horse trusts you not to steer him wrong.
Below is the video I made to go along with this post. I had some fun making it and by no means is my horse perfect. I am going to do this series to improve myself and my horse, and maybe you can follow along with me and try out some of the exercises. I make sure to braid my horse's tail when I work on backing exercises so that they don't accidentally step on it and rip out pieces. I hope you enjoy!