Controlling a horse’s hips is the key to backing correctly.
In reining–or in any discipline–the backup should be smooth and, above all, straight. To achieve that, trainer Scott McCutcheon of Whitesboro, Texas, makes sure his horses know how to move their hips in response to his cues.
Although it may sound contrary to the ultimate goal, being able to move a horse’s hips right or left actually ensures that the rider can control where the horse puts its back end, keeping that horse moving straight while backing. McCutcheon achieves this by exaggerating those side-to-side movements before practicing an actual backup.
“What you want is a horse that backs up straight, and how I do that is by backing circles,” McCutcheon says. “I’ll back circles to the left and I’ll back circles to the right, and put the horse in the same position as if I was going forward.
“If I was going to back to the left, I would have the horse’s head slightly to the left and I would back him by moving his hips and not moving his shoulders, and having his shoulders follow his hips.”
“I want to make sure his back end leads the way to the left or the right. When a horse will back a 10-foot circle evenly, with the same softness left and right, then he’ll back straight quite easily.”
McCutcheon says developing this foundation makes it easy to correct a horse that starts to get out of line in the show pen.
“If I run down and stop, and my horse stops just a freckle crooked, I can quickly align him with my legs and then back him straight,” he says.
“Or, if I start to back him and he backs a little bit crooked, I can easily use my legs to line his hips back up. If a horse is going to back crooked, nine times out of 10 he’s going to step off center with his hips, not his shoulders, because he’s going backward. So that drill just allows me to line that horse’s hips back up over a straight line.”
The ability to quickly straighten a horse’s body is especially helpful in a reining pattern that includes rollbacks and stops.
“It’s very important in any of the patterns where you stop once, roll back, stop twice, roll back, and you come to your third stop and you have to back up and that horse is thinking rollback,” McCutcheon points out. “You can hold him straight with your legs and then back him up. I want that horse to wait for me to tell him how to back up. If my legs don’t touch him, he’s safe to back straight. If I touch him with one leg or the other, he has to move that way.
“I’ve seen horses that, because we roll back to the wall so much, will start to back toward that wall and it’s hard to push them back over. You could have a really nice stop, but then you just take all that away if your horse doesn’t back straight.”
Free the front end
Occasionally, a horse will have problems backing or may not be as responsive as McCutcheon likes. If that happens, me trainer spends some extra time reminding the horse to not only move its hindquarters, but also keep its front end free. The method works on a horse that is resistant or one mat tucks its head and locks up.
“If a horse is a little bit resistant and doesn’t want to back up, you never want to pull straight back on that horse because those are the kind of horses that will rear up or maybe even flip over,” McCutcheon says. “If he feels a little resistant, I’ll pull him left or pull him right and make his front feet move left or right. I won’t just pull his head, but I’ll actually break his front feet loose from the ground and then I’ll ask him to back again. If he stiffens on me again, I’ll pull his head left or right again, usually the opposite way. HI pulled him right the first time, the next time I’ll pull him left, so he never guesses which way he might go. That encourages him to go backward. Just break that frontend loose and then re-ask him.”
McCutcheon stresses that consistency in training and remembering to reward a horse for effort are critical in teaching or improving the backup.
“You have to understand when mat horse is trying so that you can reward even the littlest bit of effort, because that’s what starts to build a backup,” he says. “A horse doesn’t naturally back up. If you watch horses out in the wild, or the broodmares out in the pen, they don’t back up. They turn around and walk off. So it’s not a natural thing, and I look for the smallest effort and then I reward that and build on that.”
Scott McCutcheon and his wife, Kathy, operate Scott McCutcheon Reining Horses in Whitesboro, Texas. McCutcheon is no stranger to the winner’s circle with multiple NRHA, APHA and AQHA championships and an Equi-stat total earnings record of over $750,000.