Knowing how to ask your horse to back up or training them how to do so can be very helpful when it comes to dealing with horses. There are simple tasks that can become a struggle if a horse doesn’t know how to back up or if the rider doesn’t know how to back the horse. I personally have had horses that didn’t know how to back; I learned the hard way when it took me an hour to back the horse off of a straight-load trailer.
How do you get a horse to back up? The best way to teach and ask a horse to back up is through pressure and release. This method can be used on the ground or in the saddle.
How to Ask a Horse to Back Up
The proper way to ask your horse to back up is to sit up, lift your hands up and slightly apply pressure to the reins, and add subtle leg pressure. This will cue your horse to step backward. When a horse backs up, its neck should round and stretch down.
If you want your horse to back to the left, then apply more pressure with your right leg. If you want your horse to back to the right, apply pressure with your left leg. It’s like backing up a car!
Like I mentioned above, knowing how to ask a horse to back up can be helpful in many situations. You can use this skill to get your horse off a horse trailer or another tight spot where your horse may not be able to turn around. Backing up will come in handy when it comes to facing different obstacles as well.
Opening gates, backing through parallel poles, and even performing for judges at a competition can all ride on your ability to back your horse. It also can help you if you’re on a trail that’s too crowded or if you ever need to get your horse out of the way of something.
How to Tell if Your Horse Has Trouble Backing Up
If a horse doesn’t know how to back up or perhaps doesn’t want to back up, you will notice these signs: the horse will fight the pressure of the reins by sticking its neck up in the air. It may also plant its feet in the ground, refusing to respond to the pressure. If the horse does move backward, it will most likely step out to one side or the other rather than backing straight.
When you’re dealing with a horse like this, your first reaction may be to simply apply more rein pressure until the horse backs up. This can make you feel as if you’re literally pulling the horse backward, and I wouldn’t recommend using this method to get the horse to back up.
By doing this, you can make the horse rear or toss its head, as the horse may feel like this is a way of escape from heavy rein pressure. It can also make the horse dull to the cues through the reins, which will result in an unresponsive horse.
Luckily, the issue of a horse not backing up can simply be fixed by going back to the basics and ensuring that your horse knows how to back correctly. If a horse is fighting the rein pressure, you will want to address that problem first, as that is a whole separate issue in itself.
How to Teach Your Horse to Back Up
When I say “go back to the basics,” I am usually referring to going back to groundwork exercises. Groundwork is the foundation of horse training, and its when you work with your horse on the ground rather than in the saddle. If your horse can’t do it when you ask them on the ground, they’re definitely not going to do it under saddle.
STEP 1: Teach Your Horse to Back Out of Your Personal Space
The first avenue I’ll take to teach a horse to back up starts with basic principles on the ground. The first thing you want to communicate with a horse when doing groundwork is to respect your personal space. Not only will this teach them to be aware of your space, but it will also teach them to back up.
Start by standing a few feet in front of your horse, facing them with the lead rope in hand. Your goal is to have your horse be able to stand in front of you without trying to walk off. If the horse steps forward, then they have stepped into your personal space and you need to ask them to back up to where they were.
In order to get your horse to back up to where they were, you’re going to correct them a soon as they step forward. To do this, simply shake the lead rope side-to-side. This puts pressure on the horse and tells it to back up. If the horse doesn’t back up right away, continue to increase the pressure at which you shake the rope until the horse backs up.
It’s important to release the pressure and stop moving the rope as soon as you see the horse take even a tiny step backward. This will communicate to the horse that their response was correct. The more you do this, the quicker and easier the horse will start to respond and back up to even the slightest jiggle of the rope.
I consider this groundwork exercises to be one of the best and easiest groundwork exercises to teach your horse. If you’d like to learn some other groundwork techniques, check out my article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
STEP 2: Teach Your Horse to Back Up By Moving Toward the Pressure
Once you’ve mastered the first step, it’s time to move on to this next step. The first step taught your horse to back to a pressure that “pushes” against the horse; now, you’re going to teach the horse to respond to pressure that “pulls” against the horse, which will result in the horse moving towards the “pull.”
All you’re going to do is stand next to the shoulder of your horse and hold the lead rope at the base of the clip. Apply the pressure by slightly tugging the rope straight back. If the horse doesn’t respond right away, increase the pressure until the horse steps back. As soon as the horse steps back, release the pressure and reward the horse.
Some horses can be very stubborn about this method, so sometimes I’ll take a crop and lightly tap them on the hind-end with it as I apply pressure to the lead rope. This will help to communicate to the horse that more is needed from them.
STEP 3: Teach Your Horse to Back Up In The Saddle
Teaching your horse to back up under saddle will mimic the training concept in step 2. Apply light pressure to the reins as you apply light leg pressure. As soon as the horse takes a step backward, reward your horse.
If the horse is being stubborn about stepping back, I’ll pull one of my hands to my hip and get the horse to tip it’s nose to my knee; this will cause the horse to at least move its hind feet. As I do this side-to-side, the horse will have to move its hind feet side-to-side. This will teach them to move their feet when pressure is applied.
After I’ve worked the horse side-to-side, I’ll apply pressure to both reins, and usually, the horse will take a step back since it has a grasp on the concept now. Having the horse move it’s hind feet if it refuses to back up is actually a great method to use; it teaches the horse that more work is going to be involved if they disobey compared to obeying.
Now that you have taught your horse to back up, it’s time to move to the next training session! Do you have trouble catching your horse in the field? Read this article, Getting Your Horse to Come to You: Complete Guide, to see how I teach my horses to be caught.