Backing up correctly can become confusing for a horse when unclear or clashing aids are given to him. Also, the fact that moving away from pressure is unnatural for horses as they are programmed to press into pressure to escape from predators. However, with consistent cues and training your horse will be backing up as fast and as far as you want him to.
Depending on your discipline, the way you teach your horse to back up can vary quite a bit. Decide on which cues you want to use to teach and keep them consistent with each horse. Usually all horses are taught to back up off of pressure from both reins and the leg cues are more discipline specific. In this article I am only going to focus on yielding from bit pressure alone and let you add your own leg cues or not according to your sport.
Before you teach your horse to back up under saddle, it is important to prepare him for the lesson by teaching him to back up on the ground first. Your horse should learn to yield to steady pressure on the halter and then from the bridle on the ground.
- To begin, outfit your horse in a halter and stand parallel to his head on one side (he should be able to back up with you asking from either side).
- Place your hand on the lead rope about 6 inches from the snap.
- Apply gentle backward pressure on the halter increasing it every 3 seconds if your horse doesn’t respond.
- If he still ignores your increasing pressure, bump on the lead rope a few times to get him to move.
- Once he takes one step backward, click, then release the pressure, feed, and let him stand for a minute before starting again.
Gradually build up the number of steps your horse can take backwards. Once he is backing nicely in a halter transition to a bridle. When using the bridle, take both reins in one hand and ask him to back in the same way you did with the halter. However, when using the bridle do not bump him in the mouth if he doesn’t back up, instead continue to hold consistent pressure on the reins until he shifts his weight backward then click and release at the same time, then feed.
Under Saddle Cues
When the horse is preforming well on the ground it’s time to teach the back up under saddle.
- Pick up your reins so that you have light contact on your horse’s mouth.
- Slowly start shortening your reins until you have a steady contact but you are not pulling.
- Hold the contact and wait for your horse to move away from the pressure by rocking his weight backward or taking a step back.
- When the horse does either of these click and release the pressure by dropping the reins on his neck, then feed. Be sure to recognize when your horse has moved backward and quickly click and release so he knows what he is being rewarded for.
- Increase the number of steps he can take backward by holding the pressure on the reins a little longer until you can ask for two steps then click and release, then three steps, four steps and so on.
- Build up the amount of steps he can take over a few days or a week. You don’t want to ask for too many steps on the first day.
- Raising the Head and Resisting Against the Bit – Keep holding with the same amount of pressure on the reins until the horse lowers his head a little bit then click and release. Once he stops raising his head, wait until the horse shifts his weight back to click and release the reins.
- Starts Walking Off – Use a one rein stop until all four feet have stopped moving and the horse flexes his neck to the side then release and start again. Go back to working on the ground if this continues to be a problem.
- Stands Still and Won’t Move – Some horses are quite dull and may take extra motivation to get off of your rein pressure. Hold light pressure on both reins, resist the urge to pull back harder as it will only make the horse heavier. You want to always start with a light cue as that is the cue the horse will respond to first, but if you always ask with a strong cue your horse will never be light as he was not taught to respond to a light cue. If the horse doesn’t listen to the light pressure, use a dressage whip to tap him on the chest with increasing pressure until he rocks his weight back then click, release both the reins and whip cue, and feed. Put both of your reins in one hand and use the whip in the other, as it is important that you do not release the reins when using the whip. If you know your horse is on the lazy side practice this cue with the whip on the ground first.