You can do a beautiful back-up without ever releasing the reins. Soft ears and poll, engaged diagonal footsteps, straight and balanced.... Well, maybe after a lot of patient practice and with good communication between you and your horse.
I know what you're thinking: WHY wouldn't I want to release the reins if it's all that good?
Before I answer, I want to recap what I already wrote a while ago about the aids in the "Forward" Back-Up. At that time, I was writing the aids for a beginner - horse and/or rider.
1. Shorten the reins so you have contact.
2. Start with a gentle squeeze of your legs.
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.
4. Once the backward motion has started, lighten the contact (don’t throw it all away!) in order to give the horse a release.
If you want to read all the details, click here for the original article.
So you might notice that in #4, I had said to lighten the contact to give the horse a release. I wrote that while I was starting to teach my own horse, Cyrus, the back-up. He was still fairly young and we were in the beginning stages of learning to back.
In The Beginning
He would often make "mistakes" (not really, because he was trying so hard - but they weren't the answers I was looking for). He would lean forward into the bit pressure. Sometimes he walked straight out of the halt with no hint of backing up. He might raise his head high, or drop his head super low. Other times, he'd back, but his legs would be "sticky" and kind of drag backward in a 4-beat sequence.
But as soon as he was even close to backing up, I'd soften the reins to let him know he was on the right track.
Slowly but surely, he got the idea. He went through a better phase - understood that when there was a "go" aid from my seat and legs, and with contact, he should move backwards. His legs became diagonal more often, and he kept his head level most of the time. He got better at stopping and walking forward again just from my seat.
No Pull Required
Now, we've gotten to yet another level of accomplishment. He is actually the one who reminded me that I don't actually have to release the rein when he backs up. Why?
Because I don't need to put any pressure on the reins period. Not even to initiate the movement.
This is what we speak of when we say that a horse in "on the aids". He has gotten so good at the back-up that I can initiate the movement only with my seat and legs. He will continue to back as long as my seat and legs are active.
New, Invisible Aids
Here are the more advanced aids. For the onlooker from the ground, it looks as if I have done nothing. For Cyrus, my movements are so slight that I don't imbalance or interfere with him in any way (well, the best I can).
1. Shorten the reins enough to have them be straight but with (next to) no pressure. Alternatively, if you ride with longer reins - as in western riding - then hold the reins as you normally would with no extra pressure.
2. Slightly tilt your seat until you lighten the tail bone area enough to free the horse's back. Don't actually tilt your upper body - your body position should stay the same.
3. Wrap your legs around the horse and squeeze. No kicking or jabbing with the spur. Just "active" legs versus "passive".
These aids should be enough to signal your horse to back. Because he is more experienced, he will likely not lean into the bit at all - the seat and legs should be enough for him to understand that he's backing.
He was so good the other day that I didn't have to give a release of the reins, mainly because I never had to take up any pressure in the first place. He has become so much better at backing straight that my legs don't have to put any extra pressure at any point to straighten his body - same even pressure through the back-up.
And then, when I re-tilt my seat back to the normal (3-point) position, and keep my legs active, he knows to walk out of the back, and march forward - straight.
I probably don't have to tell you that it is an amazing feeling! And I also should remind you that it has taken us several years to get to this point. Although it takes time, the practice is well worth the effort, especially when you get to the "invisible aids" point.
We aren't perfect every time, of course. I imagine he won't be as light and responsive when there are distractions, or if I take him off property. But each time we make this sort of progress, we raise the bar just a little and look forward to more exciting challenges ahead.
How are you doing with your back-up journey? Have you tried invisible aids? Comment below.
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#1 Rider Problem: Confusing Aids: How to get from using aids in isolation, to being more harmonious with the horse.
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What Do Leg Aids Mean? The leg aids can give many sophisticated messages.
From A Whisper To A Scream: How Loud Should Your Aids Really Be? We repeatedly ask ourselves this question.
What Is Contact? The First Stage: A three-part series about the development of contact.