Backing your horse.

Welcome to Part Three of the Unharnessed Potential project, an education and awareness campaign to promote the re-training and re-homing of Standardbreds that retire from racing. 

In this article series, Alistair McLean from the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) is documenting the re-training of ‘Ideal Guy’ (a.k.a Andy), a five-year-old Standardbred pacer that is making the journey from track-to-hack. 

Last month, we saw that Andy has learned to respond to the basic aids in-hand, now it’s time to see how these aids will influence the backing process. This is certainly the most dangerous phase of breaking-in the horse, so it is important that his in-hand responses are checked regularly throughout the process.

Over 50 per cent of the time people spend with their horses is in-hand, which highlights the impact that groundwork can have on the ridden work. In-hand responses should be tested little and often, rather than occupy entire sessions. 

The backing process 

The backing method we use at the AEBC has its basis in the Jeffery Method. It has been further developed over the past 40 years by my father, Dr Andrew McLean, and continues to develop today.

The method only requires one person, however, Andrew would occasionally use two people (one handler and one backer), if the horse was difficult to handle. The two-person method is now standard practice for me and the AEBC, as it is easier to control the variables, and it is the method I will be describing.

This backing method is based on the idea of breaking down the backing process into small, incremental stages, whereby the requirements of each stage must be fulfilled before moving onto the next. I will talk more about this as we go through the process.

The training I describe throughout this article should only be attempted in a safe environment, such as a familiar round-yard or small square yard. It goes without saying that before reaching this point the horse should have undergone a thorough training in-hand as explained in last month’s edition.

You should also note that all of this work is bareback – under-saddle training should only begin when all the requirements are met without a saddle. The handler and rider should always position themselves on the same side of the horse. The horse should have the reins over his neck for the rider to use, whilst an equaliser (a connecting strap attached to each side of the bit with a ring in the middle to clip the lead-rope on) can be used by the handler.

At this stage of training the sessions should not exceed 30 minutes. The backing and training of the basic aids under-saddle usually takes between one and two weeks.

Backing your horse step-by-step 

Backing your horse is all about habituating them to the weight and feel of your body on theirs. The following steps show a brief outline to backing your horse:

1. Jumping beside the horse: 

The first thing for your horse to habituate to is the sight and feel of you jumping beside him.

The handler needs to be ready to step the horse back (overshadow) or stop the horse from moving sideways if he gets a fright from the person jumping beside him. The jumps must be small at first, until the horse is calm and relaxed. Some horses show no reaction where others do. If your horse begins moving sideways, the person must continue jumping and not let the horse gain distance from you. This will be easy as you have a handler and should also have a horse with a consolidated stop response. When the horse stops moving sideways, you can stop jumping.

Now that you can jump beside your horse, you can begin putting a little pressure on his body. The way to do this is to jump up towards the horse a little, so that you touch his side with your stomach on the way down. It is essentially just a light bump that the horse habituates to. Like before, the handler should be managing the horse’s leg movements.

Remember to always read the horse and never move to the next stage if the horse is still moving around and looks anxious. If this is the case you need to go back a step. For example, smaller jumps or maybe just standing and scratching the horse’s withers.

2. Lying across the horse’s back: 

A good little trick before lying on the horse’s back is to pull downwards on his wither. The horse’s reaction to feeling the weight of your hand on his wither can give you a little insight as to how they will react to you lying on their back.

Whilst jumping beside your horse, with your left hand on the wither and right hand on the middle of his back, you should start to think about the full jump up onto his back. If you can’t make the jump then a mounting-block can be used. It must be a safe mounting block that your horse can’t get injured by or put his foot through if he steps on it.

The moment you are lying on your horse’s back he will most likely try to move. This is usually because he will feel unbalanced by the additional weight, so you need to stay on until he finds his balance.

If he is scared and tries to run forward, the handler needs to be ready to apply the ‘stop’ aid, which will work if it was trained correctly in-hand. It is okay for the rider to slide off when the horse runs forward, what’s bad is if the handler doesn’t stop him immediately (whether the rider is on or off). This is an important aspect that teaches the horse not to run from pressure on his back. It doesn’t remove the fear from the horse, what removes the fear is going through the process with his legs standing still and the rider remaining calm and stable on his back.

Most horses, however, don’t react at all because we have already done so much gradual habituation along the way. Remember to read your horse, if he is tense you may want go back to a previous step where he was calm and progress in smaller increments.

Now that we are lying on his back, we can start to softly rub him all over his ribcage and shoulders. This gets him used to our touch. I feel that the warmth of our skin is far less foreign to him, compared to the feeling of a saddle and saddle blanket.

The handler can now attempt a few ‘step-backs’, whilst the rider is lying across. Always ‘step-back’ first, as it is much safer than going forwards. Only once you have achieved a few light ‘step-backs’ can you start stepping forwards.

Also, make sure you repeat this process of jumping up onto him as many times as it takes until the horse relaxes and stays standing still.

3. Lying long-ways across the horse: 

By this stage, your horse should be comfortable with you lying on his back. The transition from lying across his back to lying longways on his back is relatively easy, as long as you make it smooth. The most difficult part is lifting your right knee up and over his back. Once you are lying long-ways you can habituate them to the rubbing of your ankles on his rump. This gets him comfortable with us swinging our leg over once it’s time to get on.

Remember, groundwork should be done during this process to ensure the ‘buttons’ work – that is the horse responds to light versions of the pressure aid. It can often seem that the horse is calm, however, when you check the buttons, they can often be very heavy, which means there is some form of discomfort, which can build up if not dealt with throughout the process.

Before sitting up, it can be a good idea for the backer to give the horse some food. This creates a positive association with having the rider on the horse’s back.

4. Sitting up on the horse: 

This part of the process rarely causes any problems, as the previous three steps have been so thorough. Obviously, you should not rise suddenly, but in a nice gradual way instead. Once you are sitting, you can scratch your horse at the base of the wither and softly rub your calves on his side. The handler can begin doing a few ‘step-backs’, and should not attempt a step forward until the ‘step-back’ is light and relaxed.

You should now try the entire mounting process more fluently. Once you can do this with your horse relaxed, you can begin training the under-saddle responses.

Training the initial under-saddle responses

Although we don’t have a saddle on at the moment, we always train the basic under-saddle responses before putting the saddle on (‘stop’ and ‘step-back’, ‘go and ‘turn’).

This is because the girth is quite difficult for a horse to get used to – it is a pressure that never goes away. Unlike the pressure from our aids, which is removed when the horse responds, the girth does not. The horse must habituate to the girth, which is very difficult if he also has to learn and respond to other pressures (like the ‘go’ aid from our legs) in the same location. This is one of the reasons why we train the ‘go’, ‘stop’ and ‘turn’ responses bareback, before using a saddle. The horse’s responses to our aids do not need to be perfect, but trained until they reach an obedient level (when the horse responds immediately to a light version of the aid).


Well before backing your horse you should have spent enough time training the five basic responses in-hand (see last month’s article), so you will find the stop response is already installed and works well when the rider is on the horse’s back. Remember that the stop response also includes being able to step your horse back from a light rein aid.

The handler should be able to lead you around and you should be able to stop the horse yourself from light rein pressure. Make sure you communicate with the handler when you are going to stop the horse. At this point you should not be asking the horse to move forward from your leg aids. The handler should give the ‘go’ aid from the lead-rein pressure of an equaliser.


Direct turns can be taught at this stage by opening the rein in the direction you want to travel. A release of the single rein pressure should be made at the moment they make a movement in the correct direction. You will notice that your horse may be quite crooked and, in Andy’s case, he was, as Standardbreds generally race in one direction. Don’t worry about this at this point, as crookedness can be fixed through indirect turns later on in the training process.


I generally teach ‘go’ once the turns are at a basic attempt level. Giving a little squeeze with your legs just before lead-rein pressure is applied by the handler is the safest way I have found to teach ‘go’.

Eventually, the horse will learn that it can avoid the lead-rein pressure if it just responds to the nudging of our legs. This is called Classical Conditioning.

Once ‘go’ is obedient, you will be able to improve the quality of your turn, as horses typically mistake that the ‘turn’ aid means ‘stop’. A good ‘go’ aid after the ‘turn’ will allow us to remove that confusion, which helps shape the ‘turn’ until there is no loss of rhythm. Once the ‘go’ aid is consolidated, you can test if the horse will offer faster steps and maybe even trot if you’re comfortable.

When we have reached obedience level in ‘go’, ‘stop’ and ‘turn’ (that is, the horse offers an immediate response from a light aid), it is time to begin habituating the horse to the saddle and girth.

Habituation to the saddle and girth 

Saddle and saddlecloth 

This is another habituation process, so, just like we did with the backing process, we should break down the girthing process into small stages.

First is the saddlecloth. Let the horse sniff the saddlecloth and then rub it on his ribcage before putting it on his back.

Some simple groundwork should be done to ensure he responds. The same process should be used with the saddle. Generally, horse’s don’t mind anything on their back at this point, but it is always good to take things slowly anyway.


The girth should be done up very lightly at first. For every increment in girth tightening, groundwork should be done to ensure the horse is responding to light aids and to prevent any sudden reactions.

Occasionally horses can show tightness or bucking to girth pressure, as they don’t feel the restrictive pressure until they start moving. Checking your groundwork often throughout the girthing process will prevent any big reactions and creates a more positive experience for your horse.

Backing your horse with a saddle on

Mounting your horse when it has a saddle on for the first time should not be done by simply putting your fot in the stirrup and flinging a leg over. You should do it the same way as you did when you first backed your horse – where you jump up and lie on his back, gradually beginning to sit up. Consistency is key in horse training, especially when making big changes like using a saddle for the first time. As you repeat the process and the horse becomes more comfortable, you can begin to mount in one fluid movement.

Continuing the under-saddle responses and removing the lead-rein

‘Step-back’ should again be the first reponse tested, now that you are using a saddle. I would advise that you let the handler be the one to step the horse forward first and, if your horse is fine, then you can try the transition yourself.

There is usually no problem with the ‘go’ response if it has been installed before the horse was girthed, unless the horse shows extreme tightness to the girth. If this occurs, the handler needs to correct any undesirable movements and repeat until the horse responds obediently.

When the three basic responses are obedient and you feel safe, the handler can remove the lead-rein. Spend time further refining your aids until when you need a bigger space and are, therefore, ready to move out of the round yard.

Don’t miss next month’s issue where Alistair will continue detailing the under-saddle work and explain some of the training strategies he used to teach Andy to trot instead of pace.

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