If your goal is to control your horse's every step - a great goal to have before tackling tough trails - make sure you can go forward, reverse, and to the side. Most riders have the go-forward cue down pat. The next step is mastering the reverse.
The backward cue is also important to know before you teach your horse to sidepass.
(For more on sidepassing with top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight, see "Step into Sidepassing. "http://trailridermag.com/article/step-sidepassing).
If you can back your horse in a straight line and without constantly pulling on his mouth, you'll be able to better work around trail obstacles.
Here's how to check and refine your horse's reverse skills and make sure that you're properly cueing for the backward motion.
The Backing Cue
When you ask your horse to back, he should drop his heads round his back, and back with his hocks engaged while moving freely and with impulsion. This ideal backing form will only be achieved if you practice backing as part of your riding routine. Here's how to practice the move.
Step 1: Resist the reins. You shouldn't need to pull your horse back with heavy hands. Doing so will force his head up and out of the ideal head-down frame. Instead, "close the door" to your horse's forward movement by picking up - not back - with only light pressure on the reins. Simply picking up on the reins will alert your horse that a new cue is coming and block his forward motion.
Here's a simple self-test to make sure you aren't pulling with too much rein pressure: If you pull back with your hands, your horse will stiffen his neck and shoulders, and brace against the pull. Instead of easily moving backward, he'll become heavy on the forehand and drag his feet as he backs.
Step 2: Engage your seat. Ask your horse to move his feet with your seat and legs by shifting your weight back then applying gentle, pulsating leg pressure. Continue the pressure until your horse backs willingly, then stop the leg aids.
The way you move your legs may depend on how your horse was originally trained. Some horses are taught to respond to alternating leg pressure, while others know to move backward in response to both of your legs pressing softly at the same time. If you aren't sure how your horse was trained as a youngster, experiment with both techniques and see which leg cues offer the best response.
You may also see riders cue their horses to back by shifting their weight from side to side in the saddle while pulling back on the reins. This method is tough on horses backs and mouths, and isn't a preferred training method.
Keep in mind that horses will learn almost any cue you give them as long as you give it consistently and release the pressure when they respond. It's best if your cues make sense to your horse and don't interfere with his movement.
Step 3: Praise your horse. Stop and praise your horse when he's doing a good job. That is, backing with his head down and without your pulling and constantly cueing. Ask him for one or two steps, then stop, praise, and repeat. It's all in the timing - when you feel his prompt backing response, give him a break and a rub on the neck.
Your horse will respond more quickly to your precise cue with frequent practice. Keep your backing lessons short and sweet, but part of each day's riding routine.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She's also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).