The Importance of a Sympathetic Backing Process
In 2015, The British Equestrian Trade Association estimated there were 944,000 horses within the United Kingdom, of which the majority of these horses will be ridden at some point within their lives. As a result, every year thousands of horses within the UK undergo their journey to a fulfill a ridden career. Some people will opt to undertake the backing process themselves, whereas others will choose to send their youngsters away to receive a professional service. Regardless of who undertakes this process, the importance of these initial stages of the horse’s ridden career should not be underestimated. It is these initial experiences which will set the foundations for rest of the animal’s life.
To some people backing a horse is simply the ability to sit on the horse, but it is so much more than this. A lack of understanding of instinctive behaviours, accurate pressure release, correct handling and use of appropriate equipment, often results in a horse that is incorrectly deemed to have behavioural issues. Research undertaken by Ödberg and Bouissou in 1999 suggested psychological and physiological problems caused by humans during the initial stages of training can account for a proportion of horses who exhibit behavioural problems in later life.
There is currently a significant lack of scientific research around this subject. Many professionals favour a specific method when backing horses and tend to stick to it, but may not have an accurate understanding of the actual effect this is having upon the specific horse’s learning experiences. If we are able to fully understand the psychological and physiological pressures we place on the horse during the backing process, we would have the ability to reduce the amount of horses exhibiting performance inhibiting behavioural traits. It is for this reason I chose this topic as a basis for my undergraduate dissertation. I am currently investigating the amount of peak pressure and distribution different pieces of equipment place on the horse when undergoing the backing process. Horses have an impaired learning ability when subjected to pain and pressure; therefore if we are able to limit this it may allow the horse increased learning ability.
Additionally, people frequently fail to understand the importance of groundwork prior to attempting to back the horse. In my second year at Writtle College I chose to partake in the Young Horse Production module - one of my favourite modules throughout my degree. It was during this module that I learnt how vital groundwork is to not only the development, but also the growth of young horses. A study by Ludewig et al in 2013 showed horses who were trained regularly in groundwork had a lower heart rate during ridden exercise, compared to horses that weren’t. It is well known that horses who are exhibiting stressed or fearful behaviour have an impaired learning ability. The ability to limit how stressed the young horse becomes within the backing process will therefore be beneficial, ensuring an effective environment for the horse to learn. Furthermore, groundwork offers the opportunity to ensure the horse understands basic commands, which will be vital before getting on board!
The ability to understand how the horse grows and matures both physiologically and psychologically is essential in ensuring a sympathetic and effective backing process. Consequently, giving our horses the strongest chance of being able to achieve their full potential, making for happy owners and more importantly happy and healthy horses!