back up
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

How do you get a horse to back up lightly, energetically and rhythmically?

Do it "forward"!

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the truth. You MUST make the back-up into a forward movement. That is the only way the horse can move his legs efficiently and diagonally.

The back-up is a very important part of the correct training of the horse. It is the beginning of teaching the horse to tilt his hind end and carry more weight on his haunches. It is the preparatory step for a good walk-canter departure and for many of the upper-level movements. But first, you must teach the horse to step backward without creating tension and sticky steps.

How NOT to back up

You will often see people pulling on their horse's mouth and kicking. The horse might open his mouth, tighten and raise the neck, and step back stiff-legged like his legs are stuck in quicksand.

The first thing to keep in mind is to NEVER pull backward on the reins (not for any other movements either, but especially not for the back-up).

4 steps to a good back-up

1. Shorten the reins so you have contact. How much contact depends on the level of understanding of your horse. If this is a new movement, you might need more contact. If the horse is far enough along, you could get away with a "whisper" of a contact! This is what we are all aiming for. But in the interest of being clear with our aids, we might need to use more pressure at first so there is no guess work for the horse.

However, please note that contact does not mean a pull-back. Although you make the reins short enough to put some pressure on the horse's mouth, the reins are not actively moving backward toward your body.



2. Start with a gentle squeeze of your legs. Do not kick unless you absolutely have to. You might need to kick only if the horse gives no response. Otherwise, a squeeze should activate the hind legs enough to almost take a step forward.

3. As the horse takes that forward step, he leans into the pressure of the contact and realizes that he cannot step ahead. The legs then begin the backward movement. At the same time, lighten your seat slightly to the front of the saddle. The weight shift should be so small that it is not visible - only the horse and you know that you shifted your seat. This frees up the back under the saddle so that the horse can lift his hind legs and tilt the haunches.

4. Once the backward motion has started, lighten the contact (don't throw it all away!) in order to give the horse a release. Stay light in the seat while the horse takes the steps. You stop the backward motion by sitting back into a normal seat. Your seat, followed by light leg aids, then drive your horse forward into the same light contact. The difference is that this time, you walk forward.

Always walk forward out of a back-up. You want to regularly instill a "forward attitude" into the horse, especially after a back-up.

Possible corrections

Beginning horses often resist taking the backward steps as the shift of weight back is unusual for horses to do on their own. Just be patient through the initial stages and insist that the horse moves his legs backward before you stop your aids.

Wait through the confusion of the horse even if he throws his head sideways or up. The legs might drag backwards or you might get one step, then another, then a stop. It doesn't matter; just keep at it until you think he has understood.

It might take several sessions before the horse lightens and begins to understand what you are understanding for. Keep the energy level up, look for diagonal pairs of legs moving together, and work toward keeping a soft neck and poll through the movement. Find the balance between trying again and knowing when it is time to stop. 

He will get better with time.

How do you teach your horse to back up? If you tried any of this, let us know how it went in the comment section.

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If you liked the above article, you might also enjoy:

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.

From a Whisper to a Scream: How Loud Should Our Aids Really Be? Should we be “loud” in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?

Don’t Mistake the Halt For a Stop!   Don’t do it! Don’t mistake the halt for a stop. They are two entirely different maneuvers.

6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.

19 Comments

  1. Great post! Many people interpret the back up as yanking the horse backwards. But I was taught to squeeze or gently tap the horse with my heels to tell the horse that they need to move but to have a pressure on the reins so the horse knows to move backwards. 🙂

    1. Hi I have a Appaloosa mare that she won’t stop backing up and I’m in need of some advice on how to get her to walk forward and not backwards

      1. has she been western trained? My appy is the same, he was taught by my western instructors to back up when he did something wrong so now when he gets confused or thinks hes in trouble he just starts going backwards :/ and it got so bad the even with a little bit of contact he would back up, usually i just lighten my contact or drop it all together and he usually relaxes then we go from the start. Not sure if it would be as simple as that with your mare

  2. What a great article! When I train the rein-back, I first make sure I can get the horse to back up from the ground with just the word ‘back’. Usually light pressure on his chest will start the shift to the hind legs, and that gets a reward. Then I ask for a little more, bit by bit, always with praise.
    When sitting on the horse, I take a very light contact, but a contact just the same. I then ask
    the horse to go forward and don’t allow him to do so. As you say, when he steps more into the bit and he can’t go forward, he does the next best thing….backs up! Oh! and when you start these from the saddle, make sure you use the word ‘back’ until his reinback and step forward is confirmed.

  3. Good post! I agree with Mary about teaching your horse the movement first from the ground along with the voice cue. Doing ground work in-hand with the bridle can simulate the non-yielding rein pressure that the rider will use. Then, ask your horse to go forward into a non-yielding rein which blocks the horse from going forward. Blocking is simply not yielding the reins when the horse tries to step forward. So the difference between asking the horse to walk forwards and asking him to back up is what the rider does with the reins. When going forward, the rider yields and follows the movement through the reins.

    If the horse has a hard time understanding, it can be helpful to have someone giving him the cues from the ground at the same time the rider gives the cues from the saddle.

  4. My favorite way to teach people the Concept of backing is to ask them to go thru the steps when they back up their vehicle. Then, I say: You put the truck in reverse (needed contact and proper seat position) then… touch the gas pedal. You DON’T pull on the steering wheel or shift. You use your legs (gas pedal).

  5. My coach (J. Ashton Moore of San Juan Bautista, CA) taught me to teach reinback in a similar manner, but with completely loose reins. Initially, the horse will walk forward when you shift your weight forward, bring your legs back a little and squeeze. However, the rider merely does a quick upward lift once or more on the reins (not backward or downward) while saying Whoa then dropping rein contact quickly. When the halt is reestablished, the rider repeats the weight shift and squeeze until even a single step back on loose rein is achieved. Then much praise and repeat over time until instilled.Doing this on loose rein with only quick upward corrections as needed, that do not work on the bars of the mouth, still leaves an escape route for the horse – stepping backwards, as the path to the desired behavior. Using no rein whatsoever attunes the horse to the seat and leg changes and usually results in correct diagonal pair backward steps rather than dragging ones. To go forward, simply shift weight into vertical position & legs straight down, then squeeze. If the horse’s back already is, or becomes again, a sensory organ, the subtle forward and back weight shifts and leg position changes will telegraph the rider’s request to them. Now my heavy Percheron cross can perform the old Grand Prix “swing” with ease and has moved on to being capable of stepping back in mid stride from the trot upon a weight and leg shift. This exercise has made him extremely light and balanced, as well as operating in a constant state of readiness to my requests.

  6. Love your site! I have taught my gelding that when l shift my weight back in my seat and move my lower legs forward, slightly after the girth. I do not have to use leg unless we need to back around something. Weight shifting is what l mostly use for the movement. I really do not use any rein unless guiding. I ride in a sidepull which l love, and Ziggy loves too!

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