Get a Better Back-Up

exercise to do it.

From left to right: Still riding forward, John works on getting control of the horse’s hip. He picks up on a single rein to ask Preacher to step over behind. Center: He again uses his rein to move the horse’s hip over, but notice how Preacher’s front leg has naturally begun to move backwards. Right: Picking up the rein a second time, John capitalizes on that energy shift, directing the front leg rearward. At first the horse may simply lean back, or he may actually take a backward step. In either case, John releases the rein pressure.

Have you ever seen someone back up a horse so smoothly you couldn’t even see the cue? It’s a pretty picture: The horse’s neck is soft and he’s light in the bridle as he fluidly shifts into reverse, steady and controlled, back rounded, each step springy and relaxed.

Now, contrast this with a less successful, heavy-handed approach. The rider leans way back in the saddle, kicking or spurring repeatedly, yanking hard on the reins, maybe sawing them to the left and right. The horse’s neck is stiff as a board, his jaw is tight, and his teeth are clenched. Sure, he may move backward, but his steps are likely to be awkward and braced, his back hollow, and his speed and direction erratic.

From left to right: By alternating sides and compressing the hip-shoulder-shoulder sequence, John gets Preacher to streamline the process. The shortcut is simply for him to step backwards when he feels a subtle shift in John’s position. Above right: Ultimately, John wants his horse to back up straight, so once he’s established the sequence, John uses both reins to align the horse’s head and body. Right: In finished form, John can ask Preacher to back up by moving his rein hand back a couple of inches with almost no pressure on the bit.

Having your horse back up calmly and willingly is achievable, but you may need to look at things a little differently, focusing on the picture of that soft, smooth back-up.

If you’re like a lot of riders, you were probably taught that the way to back up a horse is to lock down pressure on both reins and kick at the same time, possibly using your body to urge the horse backward. The theory is that you’re cueing the horse to move (kicking) while impeding his forward motion by pulling on the reins, so his forward energy is diverted into backward energy.

We’re going to look at a different approach that allows us to direct individual parts of the horse’s body to get more fine-tuned results.

As with any training maneuver, teaching your horse to back up (or improving his responsiveness when you ask) requires you to break the process into a series of specific requests. Before long, your horse will “fast forward” his way through the pattern to figure out what you want of him.

Let’s start by laying out the sequence of requests, so you can see where we’re going with this. Then, we’ll double back and look at each step in turn.

Shifting Into Rear Gear
• You need momentum to back up, so start by going forward, squeezing with your legs to get a noticeable speed change.
• Use one rein to unlock the horse’s hip and control the direction of movement, asking for a cross-over step behind.
• Capitalize on the energy transfer to the horse’s front feet, by picking up, then releasing the rein the moment he leans back.
• When your horse actually takes a step backward, release and give him a 10-second break.
• As you practice “hip, shoulder, shoulder,” switch sides every five minutes or so.
• Concentrate on getting your horse to back, but don’t consciously change your body position.

Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder
To teach a horse to back, we’ll use a training exercise called “Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder.” You begin by getting your horse to move forward and then asking him to disengage his hindquarters. (We sometimes refer to this as “connecting the rein to the horse’s hip.”) This causes him to take a step over with his hindquarters, and he’ll automatically pivot on a front foot as he does. He’ll also have a little extra momentum left over-which will sometimes cause him to move his front feet back a step or two. We can capitalize on this. You’ll be asking for two separate movements-the hips over and then the back-up.

Dance Steps
Step one is the “hip component” of the exercise. Start by getting your horse moving forward energetically using the speed-up cue-bump or squeeze your legs gently until your horse gives you a noticeable speed increase. Next, pick up the left rein and pull it toward your left hip. Think about having your horse take a big step, bringing his left hind foot across in front of the right hind foot as his hips swing over. The minute you feel him take this step, release the rein. Repeat this exercise using the left rein for about five minutes or until you’re getting a consistent response to the cue. Then, switch sides, using the right rein and thinking about having him move his hips to the left.

Extra Benefits of Hip, Shoulder, Shoulder
Having a horse who will back up smoothly and easily is our primary goal here. But you’ll also reap a number of benefits from working on “hip, shoulder, shoulder” (or even just the “hip” part of the maneuver). This training can help you:

• Get control of your horse when he shies
• Slow a horse who wants to travel too fast
• Preempt a possible bucking or bolting situation
• Change directions with a horse who’s hard to steer
• Teach your horse to be softer to rein pressure
• Achieve a turn on the forehand, moving on the diagonal, and beginning a side pass
• Set up a horse to take the correct lead

When you practice the hips-over cue, resist the temptation to put too much of your body into it. Some riders work hard with their bodies, shifting their weight, involving their legs, leaning this way and that. Just sit tall in the saddle and let your horse make the movements.

When you’re confident that you can move his hindquarters with either rein, you can proceed to the “shoulder, shoulder” part. With your horse moving forward, pick up your left rein and cue him to move his hips over to the right. As he does, he’ll pivot on his left front foot. As before, release the rein when he swings his hindquarters over. But this time, wait one second, pick up the left rein again, and hold light tension on it.

As you hold the rein, your horse may lean back, or he might take a step back. Release the rein to let him know he’s on the right track, even if he doesn’t take an actual step backward.

It may not work perfectly at the beginning. Initially, your horse might turn his head to the left. If so, raise the rein so that it’s about a third of the way down his neck (try not to release the rein when you do this) to keep his nose pointed forward. If you feel like you’re getting confused, forget the exercise for a few minutes and ride the horse at a brisk walk. Then you can resume working.

Keep practicing this exercise and rewarding your horse for leaning. At some point, he’ll find it easy to step back. When this happens, release the rein and let it stay released for about 10 seconds. This will give the horse a little extra time to think about what happened. Resume your practice for another five minutes or so, and then switch to the other side.

Leaving Out the Hips Part
Once your horse realizes that he’s going to get a release when he moves backward during the “shoulder, shoulder” phase, he may decide to streamline the process. Instead of moving his hips over when you take the slack out of the rein, he may just pause and begin to move backward. When that happens, reward him. Let him work through the process again and remember to concentrate on what you want now-those backward steps!

As you practice, the horse will learn the pattern: hips over, pause; back, back. There’s a rhythm to it. He’ll also discover that when you’re thinking about having him back, you inadvertently sit slightly differently than you do when you just want his hips to move over. Don’t make any conscious changes in your position or body language. The horse will figure it out.

Practice using each rein separately, being very specific about each part of the movement. Try to use increasingly light pressure on the rein to get the same response. When you’ve taught each rein separately and your horse steps back without moving his hips first, you can ask him to back using both reins. By having taught each rein separately, you can be precise about how you want him to back up-a helpful skill on a narrow trail.