From Birth to Backing by Richard Maxwell with Johanna Sharples
c 1998 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT. 148 pages.
From Birth to Backing provides a glimpse into the training philosophies of Richard “Max” Maxwell, a UK based horse trainer whose methods are strongly influenced by Californian ‘horse whisperer’ Monty Roberts. The text is logically arranged into age-appropriate chapters, with an overarching theme woven throughout that each step is essential and must be taken in sequence. Therefore, Maxwell’s methods are useful to consider even if you are working with an older animal whose performance requires taking a step (or two or three) back.
Maxwell takes readers through his step by step process, which begins with an overview of imprinting a foal, to introducing basic handling, to developing respect and trust in humans, to ultimately accepting the introduction of equipment and a rider. While his methods are grounded in the philosophy of Roberts’ “join up”, there are no gimmicks here—no special halters, patented flags on a stick, etc. All the methods and techniques which Maxwell describes could be executed by any educated and conscientious horse owner, using equipment they already own.
Maxwell is clear to emphasize throughout the book that to be the trainer of a young horse requires confidence and consistency; he recommends seeking outside help if the natural behaviors of a youngster trying to figure out the correct answer will be intimidating to the handler. However, reading this book is still helpful for those not able to undertake the whole process themselves, for understanding the importance of both a clear methodology and calm, consistent handling could assist the owner of a young horse in selecting an appropriate trainer to establish the basics.
What readers may appreciate the most about this book is that the layout is quite intuitive. Not only is each chapter focused on the particular skills most appropriate for a certain age range, but within each chapter, shorter segments help to break down the content into easy to comprehend chunks. The text is filled with ample illustrations which help to reinforce the main themes.
While most of the concepts put forth in this book are familiar, one which I found rather unique was that Maxwell does not believe in using a lead horse when starting to hack out the youngster, as he feels that the horse should look exclusively to the rider for their confidence and safety. Maxwell says, “Very often, riding out with an older horse is an emotional crutch for the rider rather than the youngster. In my experience it doesn’t actually work that well either—I’ve never found that having an older horse there will stop a young horse bolting or misbehaving if he wants to” (Maxwell, 1998, p. 113). Instead, he proposes taking your youngster out on solo hacks, and exposing them to as many potentially frightening stimuli as possible, preferably while the horse is still learning their balance under a rider—that way, their resistance will likely be minimal and their confidence in the rider increased from the very beginning.
Overall From Birth to Backing is a fairly easy read, and its concepts clearly articulated and illustrated. One of the amazing things about publishing is how quickly a text can start to feel stale, and at almost twenty years old, this book’s photos could use an update. However, this should not take away at all from the essential message of the book: establish a trusting relationship with your horse from the very beginning, and from there nearly anything is possible.
I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment. Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.
For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):
“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps). She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”
The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring. But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy. At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.
It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament. Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident. She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.
I spent time this spring just getting to know her better. In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible. Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills. Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived. But even so, certain things were new. The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it. She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away. We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.
One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead. She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway. After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand. But clearly we needed a better system.
So I began introducing her to the cross ties. I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming. She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect. Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there. Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie. And just like that…we crosstied.
While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties. But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot. I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.
As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat. Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.
In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad. I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides. “No drama”. From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.
I set a few further goals for her for the summer. When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that. I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides. And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.
I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more. On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient. Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task. Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe. She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own. And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm. Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!
It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare. Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway? Should I be using some contraption? I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings. She has yet to wear a saddle. Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here]. Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?
But then I remind myself to take a step back. Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing. The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours. Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer. In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit. But there is no hurry, no rush. If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.
Horses do not progress on our schedule. My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go. There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what. So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.
She is pretty darn persuasive.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian