Backing Up A Horse

Introduction

Backing up is not a natural gait for a horse. Horses are designed to go forward, but they can be taught to back up. However, there is a big difference between having a horse learn to step backward correctly and having him just move backward. Unlike other movements which are concerned with the forward flow of energy, the horse must now learn to channel energy backward from his hindquarters. He must learn to step back from his hindquarters rather than push back with his shoulders.

The purpose of this presentation is to offer the finer points of backing up the horse so that he can do it correctly, fluidly, with energy and for any distance that you desire him to, both on straight lines and curved lines.

Background

Although there are some horse trainers that claim that backing up a horse for more than six strides is punishing him, the Old Masters adopted a different approach. They would school a horse in what was called Foule au Reculer (meaning in English a collected rein-back) which they believed was an excellent way to perfect collection and enhance the balance of the horse. In this exercise the horse is taught to step backwards, in lightness and with a relaxed jaw, and with ultra-light rein contact.

The horse would be schooled in this exercise until over time he could, by just responding to the leg aids, walk on a circle, change direction, and make serpentines, all while continuing in the same cadence and with the same lightness. This exercise had the advantage of increasing the engagement, making the back function and be more round, and when again moving forward did so with more perfect balance.

The Old Masters worked on this exercise until the horse could perform it with the reins staying extra light, with a relaxed jaw and a quiet mouth softly chewing the bit. They recognized that if the exercise was requested through  traction of the reins alone instead of making the back round and functioning then the horse would end up contracting all of his back and the value of the exercise would be lost.

Profile of A Horse For Backing Up

When backing up a horse under saddle the poll should be at about the height of the withers. You want some frame on the horse with his nose about 2  inches in front of the vertical. You want his back to be ‘open’, i.e. rounded, and his loins committed with no more than a 20 degree ‘tuck under’ of the hips so that he has his legs under him in order to instantly move forward with energy at the end of the back up maneuver.

Mechanics of the Back Up

The back up is a two-beat diagonal gait in the trot position, but without the period of suspension involved as in the true trot. It is incorrect if the horse is backing up in a four beat walking gait and it signifies that the horse is not correctly ‘shaped up’ with his body to execute the movement. Ideally, during the backup the horse’s hind limbs, joints, and pelvis flex, his jaw relaxes, his tongue becomes more mobile, his back rounds, his withers lift, his neck lengthens – all conditions that are essential for gymnasticizing him. 

Things to Watch Out For and Correct in the Back Up

  1. Three reasons horses ‘drag’ their front feet when backing up:
    1. Over engagement of the hind legs. The horse should pick up his hind foot when it is underneath the point of the hip. If the hind legs of the horse are too much under him to the point that too much weight is behind his hocks he will be in danger of tipping over backward. Excessive engagement can also put more weight on the forehand. To prevent himself from tipping over backward the horse will start to drag his front feet along the ground in order to hold himself upright.
    2. High front end ‘action’ (suspension). In this case, when a horse steps back his front feet start to become over engaged and he is likely to run into the danger of overstepping with his front feet and stepping on his back feet before they have a chance to leave the ground. Not picking up his hind foot at the correct time can also cause a horse to ‘hurry’ to get it out of the way of his front foot. To prevent this, when preparing the horse during groundwork, if the horse gets ‘too sticky’ with his feet OR too deeply engaged with his hind feet you can use a 6-7 foot buggy whip and tap the horse under his belly with the whip to get him to step back with a longer ‘reaching’ step.
    3. High Headedness. If the horse’s head gets too high then his back will ‘close’ (get hollow) and he will either ‘lock up’ and not back at all or drag his front and hind legs along the ground and not lift them in a fluid two-beat diagonal gait.
  2. If a horse steps with his hind legs high and abruptly (really lifting them up) then you can bet that he has been schooled in soft, deep ground rather than ground with a firmer footing. The correct ground will allow the horse’s foot to go into the dirt to only a depth of a 1/2 hoof. As an aside, backing a horse up a slight grade can have some value IF the grade is not too steep. The horse will learn to over engage his hind legs if the grade is too steep. A one to three degree slope would be sufficient for this.
  3. If you do too much too soon without a solid foundation of groundwork (meaning that the horse has not yet developed sufficient strength, suppleness and balance), the horse will have the tendency to step backwards with his hind legs splayed out to either side of his hips instead of stepping back straight resulting in no power to thrust forward with energy because his power has been dissipated. Also, if you start to school a horse to back up when he is very young before his back muscles have been developed, he may be in danger of becoming sway back.
  4. If these things happen then you will need to ‘reprogram’ the horse from the ground to get him to move with fluidness and energy.

 Techniques to Use When Teaching the Backup to a Horse

  1. Always teach the horse to back up from the walk, not the halt because you will then be starting with the shoulders elevated. If you are at a halt, push the horse forward a step before asking him to back up. Whether teaching the backup from the ground or from the saddle, it is advisable, if possible, to do the initial work in a small pen or along a fence. Ideally, using a square pen would be more useful than a round pen because backing through four corners has just as much value (straightening and bending) as riding forward through four corners.
  2.  Always start the backup from whichever side of the horse is more forward and back up one side at a time. For instance, if the left front foot of the horse is moving forward (the foot will be ready to touch on the ground and the shoulder will be in a forward position), then that is the foot that you will ask the horse to move backward first. SO, using the horse’ left foot as an example, when it is starting to swing forward you would momentarily close the fingers of your left hand on the left rein – any delay in the release will result in him becoming heavier in your hand rather than lighter. When the horse takes a step backward (or even slightly leans to the rear) soften your fingers (‘take the energy out of them’, so to speak) and then do the same with the other rein as the opposite front foot leaves the ground – alternating that way in rhythm with each step of the horse. Be satisfied with one or two steps initially and build on that success every day by adding one or two steps each day. Ensure that you move the horse forward after each movement backward so that he does not ‘drop his back’ and he keeps his energy up.
  3. A good exercise to use is going from forward to reverse and reverse to forward at the walk with no hesitation in between which gives us a way, in slow motion, to work on the primary operating parts of a horse’s impulsion and to sharpen his response time without the fatigue of other exercises. This exercise, in German, is called the Schaukel (meaning ‘swing’ in English). To do this exercise you would pick a precise number of steps that you wanted the horse to go backward. For example, let’s pick seven. When the horse has completed the sixth step backward you would ask him to now go forward because he will take the seventh step by himself. Now you would pick a precise number of steps for him to go forward. Let’s say five. When the horse has completed the fourth step you would ask him to once again step backward because he will take the fifth step forward by himself. Repeat this four or five times and then go on to other exercises.
  4. Keep the horse’s head centered in the middle of his sternum when backing him in order to have him step back straight. If the horse moves his head even slightly to either side of center his hindquarters will deviate to the opposite side and he will become crooked. But, for example, if the horse wants to continually escape with his hindquarters to the right, it would be beneficial to make sure that you teach the backup with a wall on his right side. OR when he escapes with his hindquarters, you could try and fix it by moving the shoulders in front of the hindquarters, versus trying to shove the hindquarters behind the shoulders with your legs.
  5. The importance of your position on the horse is paramount to the horse’s success and can not be ignored. Your position should be upright and relaxed. You should look at something in front of you that elevates your gaze so that your head is up and your shoulders are back and down which will ‘open up’ your chest and get weight off the horse’s shoulders. However, sometimes with a young horse or one that struggles with the backup or engages excessively, you may need to tip your upper body forward (or really arch your back) in order to get some weight off the hindquarters.
  6. Backing up a horse in a circle, in a square, or through a corner are wonderful gymnastic exercises as they work on the horse’s shoulders as well as its hindquarters; require the horse to ‘break’ in the rig cage, and give the rider an idea just how much the horse is listening to the legs. They can also give the rider the opportunity to make use of all five rein effects to one degree or another.

Useful Information to Remember When Teaching a Horse to Back Up

  1. If the horse’s feet get stuck, you can use a rocking motion from side to side with your upper body to have him start to move his feet in order to rebalance himself. When he does this it lets you unload one shoulder at a time and move a foot backward.
  2. Under NO circumstances do you want to start pulling/see-sawing the bit or kicking your horse. If you choose to pull back on the rein to start a backup, the horse will move backward to release the pressure of your aid. But this pulling back on the rein effectively asks the horse to push back using his shoulders instead of using his hindquarters. Additionally, pulling causes mental tension and muscle tightness throughout his neck and ultimately through his entire spine. This results in the horse hollowing his back so that his pelvis and hind leg joints cannot flex and as a result leads to the development of the wrong muscle groups.
  3. Loss of impulsion and ducking behind the vertical are the two greatest dangers associated with horses that don’t back up correctly.
  4. Try not to let the horse’s head move more than its shoulder.
  5. If you have to use your legs when the horse gets crooked, then you may need to stop and get straight. Trying to straighten him as you back up sometimes makes it worse as they will have a tendency to ‘brace’. As a cautionary note, when using your legs or using your legs too far back along the horse’s flank it can cause him to engage ‘too deep’ behind and as a consequence he can struggle to step back. Additionally, when they get ‘too deep’ they tend to drop the contact and creep behind the vertical.
  6. But, if you are going to use your legs, then the sequence should be: hands (primarily fingers), then legs/get a step/release/repeat – all done in harmony and timing with the movement of the horse’s feet.
  7. If you feel the horse’s reluctance to take a step backward is more mental than physical then just agitate or pester one side until you get even the smallest response.
  8. Some horses need to back up in a lower position at first to unload their hindquarters, BUT if you stay there too long you’ll find that they start to creep behind the bridle. For horses that drop the base of the neck you should ask for the back up with your hands held high and lifting.
  9. Sometimes, it may make more sense to go back to the ground to teach the backup on some horses.
  10. Ideally, the horse should move forward out of the back up with very little intervention of your leg. This means that when you open your fingers the desire to step forward is there.
  11. A great way to teach the horse the 2nd rein effect (the neck rein) is to use the backup to help teach it whenever it is appropriate.