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.
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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