Chapter Twelve – BACKING UP THE HORSE
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 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 using 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, and with energy for any distance required both on straight lines and curved lines.
Although there are some horse trainers that claim that backing up a horse for more than six strides is a form of punishment, the riding masters from past centuries 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, enhance the balance of the horse, promote lightness, and develop the engagement of the hindquarters.
The horse would be schooled in this exercise until, over time, he could, by just responding to the seat and 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 of the horse’s hind legs, making the back round, and when again moving forward did so with more perfect balance.
These riding 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 horse’s 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 THE HORSE FOR BACKING UP
When backing up a horse under saddle the poll should be about the height of the withers. You want some frame on the horse with his nose about two inches in front for the vertical. You want his back to be ‘open’, i.e., rounded, and his loins committed with no more than a twenty-degree tuck under of the hips so that he has his hind legs under him in order to instantly move forward with energy at the end of the backup Maneuver.
MECHANICS OF THE BACK UP
The backup is a two-beat diagonal gait in the trot position, but without the period of suspension involved in a 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 back up the horse’s hind legs, joints, and pelvis flex, his jaw relaxes, his tongue becomes more mobile, his back rounds, his withers lift, his neck lengthens. All these conditions are essential for gymnasticizing him.
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR AND CORRECT IN THE BACK UP
A. There are three reasons horses drag their front feet when backing up:
- First is the 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 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 too much 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.
- Second is high front end action (suspension). In this case, when a horse backs up 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 out of the way of his front foot. To prevent this, when preparing the horse during the groundwork of his training if he gets too sticky with his feet or too deeply engaged with his hind feet you can use a six- or seven-foot buggy whip and tap him under his belly with the whip to get him to step back with a longer reaching step.
- Third is 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 go back at all or drag his front and hind legs along the ground and not lift them in a fluid two-beat diagonal gait.
B. If a horse steps with his hind legs high and abruptly (really lifting them up), you can bet that he has been schooled in soft deep ground rather than on ground with a firmer footing. The correct ground will allow the horse’s foot to go into the dirt to only a depth of half a hoof.
C. As an aside, backing a horse up a slight grade can have some value, but only if the grade is not too steep. A one to three degree slope would be sufficient for this.
D. 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, he will have a tendency to step with his hind feet 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 swaybacked.
E. 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 THE HORSE
A. Although there are many ways used to teach a horse to back up, I will provide you one that I find to be most successful and understandable to the horse. Always teach the horse to back up from the walk, not the halt, so that you will then be starting with the shoulders elevated. If you are at a halt, push the horse forward a step or two before asking him to back up. Whether teaching the backup from the ground or the saddle it is advisable, if possible, to do the initial work in a small pen or alongside a fence. Ideally, using a pen that is square shaped would be more useful than a round pen because backing through four corners has more value as you are straightening and bending throughout the whole exercise.
B. Always start the backup from whichever side of the horse is more forward and back up that foot first. For instance, if the left front foot of the horse is moving forward (the foot will be about ready to touch 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. You would immediately close the fingers of your left hand on the left rein. It is very important that you do not pull the rein backward. 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. Any delay in the release will result in him becoming heavier in your hand rather than lighter. Keep your quadriceps (thigh) muscles on the horse but keep your legs off the horse. 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.
C. 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 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. As an alternative, when he escapes with his hindquarters, you could move his shoulders in front of the hindquarters versus trying to shove the hindquarters behind the shoulders with your legs.
D. The importance of your position on the horse is paramount to the horse’s success and cannot 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 a little or arch your lower back slightly in order to get some weight off the hindquarters.
EXERCISES TO USE TO ENHANCE THE PROCESS
A. Backing up a horse in a circle, in a square pattern, or through a corner of an arena are wonderful gymnastic exercises as they work on the horse’s shoulders as well as its hindquarters; require the horse to bend in its rib cage and give the rider an idea just how much the horse is listening to the legs. These exercises can also give the rider the opportunity to make use of all five rein effects to one degree or another.
B. A very good exercise to use is going from forward to reverse and reverse to forward at the walk with no hesitation in between. This exercise, in German, is called the schaukel (meaning swing in English). This will give you 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. To do this exercise, you would pick a precise number of steps that you wanted the horse to move backward. For example, let’s pick the number seven. When the horse has completed the sixth step backward you would ask him to now move forward. He will take the seventh step by himself. Now you would pick a precise number of steps for him to move forward. Let’s pick the number five. When the horse has completed the fourth step you would again ask him to once again step backward seven steps. The horse will take the fifth step forward by himself. Repeat this exercise four or five times and then go on to other exercises.
USEFUL INFORMATION TO REMEMBER WHEN TEACHING THE BACK UP
A. 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.
B. 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 relieve the pressure of your aid. But this pulling back on the rein effectively asks the horse to push back using his shoulders instead of his hindquarters. Additionally, pulling back 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 leads to the development of the wrong muscle groups.
C. Loss of impulsion and ducking behind the vertical are the two greatest dangers associated with horses that don’t back correctly.
D. Try not to let the horse’s head move more than its shoulders.
E. If you have to use your legs when the horse gets crooked, then you may need to stop and get the horse straight before starting again. Trying to straighten him as you are backing up sometimes makes it worse as the horse 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 flanks can cause him to engage too deep behind and as a consequence he can struggle to step back. Additionally, when the horse gets too deep, he tends to drop the contact and creep behind the vertical with his head.
F. But when you are going to use your legs, then the sequence should be: hands (primarily fingers), then legs-get step-release-repeat. All done in harmony and timing with the movement of the horse’s feet.
G. If you feel that the horse’s reluctance to take a step backward is more mental than physical then just agitate or pester one side of the horse until you get even the smallest response.
H. Some horses need to back up in a lower position at first to unload their hindquarters. But if you stay there too long you will 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 upward.
I. Sometimes it may make sense to go back to the ground to teach the back up on some horses.
J. 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 on the reins the desire of the horse to step forward is there.