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.