Q: I like to ride in trail classes, but I have trouble with the back-throughs. What’s the best way to practice?
A: There are a few key things to know when practicing a backing obstacle. First, your horse must be able to back up straight. You need good control of his forehand and hindquarters, and those two parts need to work independently of each other. Practice moving your horse’s hindquarters a step or two to the right or left without moving his forehand. He also needs to be able to move his forehand a step or two to the right or left without moving his hind end. Learn your horse’s buttons and how to control the distance he moves his feet; he shouldn’t take giant steps left or right. Small, controlled steps will be needed when working tight back-through obstacles.
Next, start with easy requests in a back-through obstacle and build your horse’s confidence before moving on to more difficult challenges. For example, set two poles parallel to each other at 4 feet apart. Ride your horse forward between the poles, but stop before exiting. Then practice backing him straight out.
Finally, teach your horse to back around a 90-degree corner. To do this, back straight and then stop when his hind feet are in the center of the 90-degree turn. Move his hind feet two or three steps left or right and stop. Then, guide his forehand in the opposite direction of the hind feet to line his body up straight so that he’s in position to back straight out of the obstacle. Your goal when backing through a trail obstacle will be efficiency of your horse’s steps: Stepping side to side and using unnecessary steps will take away from a desired back-through performance.
When practicing at home, always move slowly, and make your horse stop and stand between steps. Horses learn quickly and have a tendency to want to back up on their own without your guidance, increasing the risk of making mistakes. At a show, your goal will be to flow through the obstacle efficiently with as few stops as possible.
Once your horse can back straight and make a 90-degree turn left and right, you can tackle any back-through you come across at a show. Increase the difficulty by adding corners, moving the poles closer together, raising the poles, using solid barriers, backing around cones, or placing plants or other distractions next to the back-through.
CATHY HANSON is an American Quarter Horse Association Professional Horseman and was named the 2007 Most Valuable Professional. She is the co-author of the book Natural Western Riding.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.