Ask the Expert: Teach Your Horse to Back Up

Backing a Horse

Q: My horse is perfect to ride in every way except she won’t back up. When I ask her to, she throws her head and plants her feet. How can I get her to back correctly?

A: The backup is a challenging maneuver for horses because they can’t see directly behind their body. Stepping into a blind spot calls for a great deal of confidence and trust. It also asks your horse to respond to the pressure in her mouth by yielding her body from poll to tail. This requires suppleness, balance and a relaxed and flexible topline. Your horse braces if she feels emotional or physical discomfort, which is a sign that something is missing in her understanding or ability to respond.

Conflicting cues may also cause your horse to resist backing up. For example, taking hold of the reins while squeezing with your legs tells her to go forward and back at the same time, creating confusion. Pulling on the reins to back up is also problematic because it overflexes your horse’s face—an elevated head is a common reaction to relieve the pressure. Pulling also creates a tense and compressed spine, which makes a smooth and responsive backup impossible.

How to Ask for the Back Up

Pre-signal your horse to back by sitting tall and centered while pressing down through your heels. Ask your horse to step back by creating a steady pressure barrier with your hands, and give her time to consider the situation and come up with a solution. Reward her as she works through the process with a slack rein for each rearward shift of weight, eventually maintaining the pressure longer and asking for a full step and beyond. As your horse makes the connection between your new seat and rein cues, her confidence and willingness will increase.

However, if she continues to struggle, give her additional help by adding a leg cue. Slide your legs forward to the cinch and bounce your calves very gently against her sides. This “waving” motion will help her elevate and unlock her shoulders. If that isn’t enough to get her unstuck, ask her to flex her head laterally at the poll an inch or two off the centerline of her body, but no more than that. Then use that rein to gently encourage her to shift her weight over her hips using pulses of increasing/decreasing pressure to rock her back while maintaining soft yet steady contact on the opposite rein.

Once your horse’s backup has been repaired, further refine your cues by teaching her to respond solely to the subtle shift in your seat and weight in your heels, reinforcing your request with a touch from the reins when needed.

DALE RUDIN is a CHA-certified riding instructor and clinician with a mindful and balanced approach to horsemanship and riding.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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