Colorado trainer Lavert Avent explains how a series of backing drills can improve any horse’s performance.
Lavert avent spends a lot of time in his training pen going backward—literally, not figuratively.
The head trainer for T-Cross Ranches in Pueblo, Colorado, uses a variety of back-up drills to train his reined cow horses and ranch versatility mounts. He finds that backing is key to gaining better collection, suppleness through the horse’s frame, improved footwork and deeper stops.
Avent begins by picking up the reins and asking the horse to tuck its chin and lower its head. Then he maintains the pressure until the horse takes a step backward, progressing by rewarding correct responses with the release of pressure. He continues to ask for more each time until the horse takes several steps in a collected frame. Typically, he uses his feet to lift the horse’s back while it is backing up, either bumping with his spurs or squeezing with his calves—whichever gets the best response.
“They can’t have their nose stuck up in the air because then they hollow out in the back,” he says. “They’ve got to be relaxed and not scared about it. So I get them soft in their face first.
“Then they’ve got to elevate that front end. The way I do that is to pick them up with my hands and use my feet. It doesn’t matter what kind of bit you have in their mouth—ring snaffle, whatever—you can get them to elevate by picking your hands straight up. They’ve got to still bend at the poll. And the reason you want that front end elevated is it drives the back end down and keeps them round.”
Eventually, Avent wants his horses to walk backward willingly and with cadence.
“As soon as I feel like they’re trying to get faster, I release them and give them a reward,” he says. “There’s a lot of timing in training horses. If you release too late, they don’t know what they did right. If you’re too early, they didn’t do it right. The instant you feel them really try to back up, throw it back to them. And the next time you pick them up and ask for that speed, they’re gonna hit that speed that much quicker because they know they get to quit if they do.”
Avent also backs his horses in circles, tipping their nose one direction and allowing their hindquarters to swing the other direction as they back.
“I bend their head to the inside and then go to backing them by pulling their head with the direct rein and the indirect rein,”he says.“Most horses are going to fall away with their hips, away from their nose. So I just go to backing in a circle. That mainly teaches them to begin to plant that outside back hock and to step with their inside front leg. So, if I’m backing to the right [and the hindquarters are moving left], the right back leg keeps stepping behind the left back leg. The right front leg will step back and the left front will come across.”
This drill teaches the horse the basics of a rollback, a crucial maneuver in reining, cutting, reined cow horse, trail and even pleasure in ranch versatility competition.
“I do a lot of rollbacks—keeping that shoulder picked up, making the horse stop straight, and then just pulling him back through himself,” Avent says. “The rollback ties in with the fence work, the cutting. It’s all the same movement. Nowadays, the reiners want their horses rolling right back through the tracks they just made. And if they don’t get back on their hocks and pivot on that outside back leg, they can’t roll back.”
Another backing drill Avent uses is tipping the horse’s nose one direction, then backing in a straight line. The key is to turn the horse’s head (say, to the right), use both the direct and indirect rein to start backing, and then reach back with your left leg to keep the horse from swinging out its hindquarters.
“I hold my outside foot into them and keep them backing straight,” he says, “and then I back them in a circle, then back them straight some more. It just depends on how they feel. I want control of every part of their body, from their tail to their nose.”
Avent works through his backing drills every time he rides, even with his seasoned horses.
“When I first get on my show horses, I may untrack [warm up and trot] them a little bit, then I’ll start bending them around,” he says. “I back them until I feel they’re at their [level of] training. Then I try to get them a little better every time. Sometimes you don’t, sometimes you do.
“You don’t want to get a horse to dreading it—over-drilling them. But you do want the muscle memory. He should feel soft and free in his backing, soft in the face—feel like he’s coming to me. The importance of it is to get control of the horse. He needs to do whatever you ask him.”
Avent says the end result is a horse that keeps its hindquarters engaged and shoulders elevated without much pressure from the bit.
“If you’ll get that front end elevated, he’ll stop on his rear end because that’s the only place his rear end can go, is down,” he says. “He’s got to have his front end elevated in the turns, rollbacks, coming through on a cow—it’s a key to a lot of things.
“I want a horse to be thinking, ‘back.’ Even when he runs across the pen and stops, you want the first thing that he wants to do is back.”
For more information on Lavert Avent, visit tcrossranch.com.