Grounded in the Saddle

Part 6. Backing Up

When your horse will give you vertical flexion, you can start working on backing him.

Sitting quietly, pick up light contact on the reins and ask him to soften and drop his head (vertical flexion). When he responds, hold the contact with the reins; sit down and back on your seat bones and squeeze with your legs. You are looking for one backward step in response. When he takes a step back, sit up, release the leg pressure, and when he has come to a stop and softened, release the reins. His first response to these aids may be to try to go forward. That's why you keep contact with the bit, to keep that door closed to him. As with all the other exercises, the first correct response is the hardest to get. If you are having trouble with him attempting to move forward instead of back, put his face into a fence to help him look for a different answer. Be patient, and remember to reward the slightest try.

Once you can get that first backward step from him reliably, ask for more. Hold pressure and continue to ask him to back with your seat and legs. Use your voice, too: repeat ‘back’ with each step. Build from one step to two, two to four, etc.

When you are getting two or three steps in a row, start a give-and-take with your aids. When he gives you a step back, give him slack on the reins. You will be pulsing with all of your cues: picking up contact on the reins, pushing with your seat and squeezing with your legs until he steps back, then release your cues briefly, and then ask again right away. It is a give-and-take. He has to find release, or he will have no reason to continue to back up. Never keep backing him until he refuses. Stop well before he gets to that point so that the exercise remains positive. Remember to praise him, rub him, and give him rest breaks.