Backing up: what it means and why it matters
Backing up is an interesting topic, and when and how it should be taught is a controversial subject.
However, horses know how to back up from the day they are born, just as they know how to move forwards.
In nature, while they do not generally back in long sequences, they frequently back a few steps when retreating from a higher ranking horse, so it’s very much part of the equine communication system. Generally, it is a sign of deference. If a horse is startled by something, it will spin on the hindquarters and run. If it is resolving a conflict or giving way to a higher ranking horse, it will back up or step diagonally back and away.
This means it is not just a mechanical action, it is a sequence that has significance to the horse, and the horse that “won’t back up” is very likely to have issues in other areas as well.
Backing up straight sends the horse into the blind spot behind its tail, so if it doesn’t trust our judgement, it may resist backing, or try to turn as it goes back.
However, once we have established our own space and leadership with exercises such as “the Waltz”, teaching a willing, soft back up is usually not too difficult.
Many roads lead to Rome
There are hundreds of different techniques, and as long as the end result is that the horse backs up lightly and quietly, with a good rhythm, I think it’s a matter of personal preference which you use. Whether you want to use a touch cue, a word, a hand signal, a whistle or a wiggle of your toes, the important thing is that the horse should move its own feet on cue, and the movement should not give the appearance of shifting furniture!
If you use a touch cue, I recommend using touch or feel on the nose (either directly with your hand or via the halter) rather than on the shoulder or chest, because it’s much easier to keep the horse straight from the nose, and the horse is much less likely to push back against you. Also bear in mind that the area under the neck and chin is a blind spot, and many horses find things going on in that area unsettling.
One step at at time
The initial training the horse get the horse backing up lightly is on the Thinking Horse DVD, and as with everything, the key to success is to break the exercise down into little pieces. When you start off, reward the horse for just rocking its weight back, even if it doesn’t take a step. Then move onto one step. Once you have established a signal for backing up, you can start refining the process and really getting the horse thinking with you.
Refining and developing the exercise
When you establish the straight back up, you can start playing around with different patterns. Backing around corners and in serpentines are excellent for improving trust and coordination for both horse and human!