Backing your horse is one of the best exercises there is for building strength and balance. The main thing to remember when teaching this is that you are not pulling your horse backwards with the reins. The goal is to make backing up become your horse’s own idea.
Backing Your Horse | Step One
The fundamental basic version of backing is taught two handed. Sit down on your pockets and smoothly draw back the reins. When you feel a foot BEGIN to step backwards, release the rein pressure. The key is to release as the foot is starting to come off the ground. This ensures the horse that the way off the pressure is to move a foot back.
Always ask first with a light suggestion. If a foot does not step back, or the horse does not at least shift his weight back, smoothly increase to 10 lbs of rein pressure to help him understand what to do. You’re not pulling the foot back. You are pulling because the foot did not come back on its own. Let the horse be responsible for moving his own foot backwards. Hang in there with your pressure until the horse makes a change. Remember that a release of pressure tells a horse ‘yes’.
At this point, ignore anything weird they may do with their head and focus on the feet. Once they realize that moving the foot gets the release, their head will become normal.
Backing Your Horse | Step Two
When you ask your horse to back, make sure the only time there is pressure on the reins is when he is NOT backing. Any time the feet are moving back, simply keep sitting deep and float your reins in timing with the horse’s movements. This will prevent your horse from getting heavy.
If the feet stop moving back, come in with 10 lbs of pressure. Then immediately go back to floating reins as soon as the feet begin to move.
If the front end falls to one side they will back crooked. To help balance that out, have the horse do the opposite and find the middle. For example, add some right leg and push the shoulders to the left.
If the hip steps left add more right rein and vice versa.
Hind End Control
Backing also comes much easier if you first have some lateral hind end control. As the hind end is moving laterally, use your reins to direct the foot backwards. Then release. Rinse and repeat.
Rubber Band Backing
Another technique to work on is to ride your horse up into your hand to build pressure, sit down deep, build more pressure, and then release. The horse should back up. Think of this exercise as the horse operating like a rubber band.
Advance The Back
Advance the back by increasing the life in your body and reins and asking him to back faster. When he speeds up, even if it’s only a slight change, reward that by releasing all pressure. Continue to build from there.
As long as the feet are moving lightly and hustling, you will have a light contact and floating life in the reins. When the feet stop moving, fluidly come back in with 10 lbs of pressure. If your timing is good, the horse will learn that he is in control of the pressure and how he can make it go away.
If the feet stop and you stay light, you are making it feel good to NOT back up. Don’t be hesitant to pull on your horse with good timing. Every horse needs to be able to handle a pull. It greatly increases their mental soundness.
Access my free mental soundness checklist here: Mental Soundness Checklist
Don’t worry about adding form until you have light control of the feet. Never trade poll flexion for lively action and fluid movement.
Backing Through A Turn
Backing through a turn is one of the best ways to get some lateral control of your horse’s shoulders. Keep the horse in a reverse motion and move your hands slightly to one side to move the shoulders. Back and turn, back and turn.
As the horse is rocking back, open your rein and leg on one side and allow the shoulders to come through. This exercise teaches your horse to have dual lateral movement in the front end. Most horses are severely lacking this skill, so it’s a beneficial and challenging thing to work on.
Once a horse gets good at this, it’s like adding power steering to your ride. Wherever you put your hands, that’s where the front end of the horse goes. If the hands go directly to the left, the front feet step left as they come off the ground.
Video demo of backing through a turn: Carson James YouTube
It is very important to maintain reverse motion when first starting backing through a turn, otherwise the front feet will not come off the ground and move directly out to the side. Keeping the horse backing will prevent him from dropping his weight onto his front end and swinging his butt out. That would be the opposite of what you want.
Once you get a true connection between the reins and front feet, the horse will naturally reach laterally without having to back up first.
Backing circles is a more advanced move and a little different than backing through a turn. Imagine how you would want your horse to look when walking a forward circle. When backing circles, he maintains that same bend and posture, but he’s going backwards. For example, nose to the right, hips to the right, shoulders to the left as he maintains the arc.
Videos teaching how to back circles here: BuckarooCrew.com
Don’t Settle For Good Enough
Don’t settle for a horse that backs up without life and energy. With a willingness to get heavy when needed, and some good timing of your pressure and release, you can progress your horse’s backing in only a few short sessions. Never hang with constant pressure on the reins to keep him backing. Keep your reins floating. Make taking a step back feel good, and backing up will become as easy as walking forward.
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