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Horsemanship How-to: Teach a Horse to Back

Here are 10 steps to perfecting this essential skill.

By Cindy Hale | Jul-11

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Every horse should back willingly on cue. Not only does this trait come in handy during a variety of all-purpose riding scenarios, but it also demonstrates a certain amount of obedience and submission to the rider’s aids. Yet many riders aren’t quite sure how to tell their horse to back. Teaching the movement to a green horse can be tricky, too. These 10 steps will help you and your horse shift smoothly into reverse.

  1. Make sure your horse promptly steps forward in response to leg pressure. He must also “give” or yield to pressure from the bit in two ways: by flexing at the poll when you pick up contact with both reins, and by bending laterally (side to side) when you pick up contact using one rein at a time. Without this amount of suppleness, he’ll likely lock his jaw and lean on the bit, resulting in a hopeless tug of war.

  2. Have a clear understanding of your goal. You’re going to create energy within your horse by squeezing with your legs. Usually your horse will respond by stepping forward. But now your hands will act as a barrier. When that energy can’t travel forward, it has to go somewhere. And that somewhere is backward.

  3. Since most horses will back crooked in the beginning, set yourself up for success by placing your horse parallel to the rail on the long side of the arena. This will keep his haunches from swinging out to the side in one direction. Later, you can change direction and have the arena rail on the other side of his body. For safety’s sake, be sure you’re a few feet away from the rail. If you hear your stirrups clanking, you’re too close.

  4. Ask your horse to step forward at a lively walk by squeezing with both legs. This creates that initial energy you need.

  5. Keep your eyes focused up and ahead. Don’t stare down at your horse.

  6. Increase the contact on both reins until your horse halts. Though you’ll stop squeezing with your legs, do not take your legs off your horse’s sides.

  7. Maintain steady contact with both reins. Wait. Your horse will contemplate what you want. In response to the steady rein contact, he should flex at the poll.

  8. Once he flexes at the poll, squeeze with both legs. Wait. Allow your horse time to figure out what you want. He has to analyze that you have asked him to move with your legs, yet you’re also restricting him with your hands. His only option? To take a step or two backward.

  9. As soon as he completes a few steps back, crooked or not, soften the contact on his mouth. Stop squeezing with your legs. Your horse should not remain motionless at the halt. Reward him with positive reinforcement like a pat, praise or a little treat.

  10. Now recreate some energy by squeezing with your legs and traveling straight ahead at a brisk walk, trot or canter before you repeat the exercise. This will keep your horse from getting stuck in reverse.

Perhaps the biggest error riders make is rushing through the various steps. They get frustrated and try to force their horse to back by pulling harshly on the reins. Then the horse resists by flipping his head or rearing. Instead, be patient. Communicate clearly to your horse and he’ll back up willingly.

See all Horsemanship How-tos >>

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Reader Comments

Melissa    Not Telling, MD

12/2/2012 12:47:45 PM

Horses don't learn from pressure, they learn from the release of it. The most important thing a rider can remember is to release the pressure when their horse backs.

PKL    somewhere, WY

7/28/2011 5:55:38 AM

I have a filly that has trouble backing, so I will reread this before practice today.

Becki    Pinellas Park, FL

7/25/2011 1:23:35 PM

"Take and Give" Thats what my trainer always taught us.

amme    Orlando, FL

7/24/2011 1:00:38 PM

great artical :)

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