Why Your Horse Won’t Back Up

Getting a horse to back up is the first rather technical skill you will learn in riding lessons. Backing up requires a horse to think about what they are doing, and it’s an essential skill for just about every riding discipline. In this article, I will walk you through what to do if your horse won’t back up.

Why won’t my horse back up? There are three main reasons a horse won’t back up: they haven’t been trained to do so, the rider is asking incorrectly, or the horse is uncomfortable with stepping back. The best way to handle this situation is to review your aids and use groundwork to reinforce what you’re asking from your horse.

Overall, there are things you can do to help your horse feel more confident in backing up and responding to the pressure. Keep reading to learn more!

How to Ask a Horse to Back Up: Reviewing Your Aids

I consider asking a horse to back up as the first technical aid you learn in riding lessons. A few things are going on at once that the rider needs to coordinate. The first thing you should do if you are having trouble getting a horse to back up is to evaluate how you’re asking them and if you’re asking them correctly.

To ask a horse to back up, you’ll first shift your weight back. To do this, sit tall in the saddle, stretching your weight into your heels. This lets the horse know what you’re anticipating. Subtly close your legs around your horse and add light pressure with your calves at the girth. Create a light pressure on the reins simply by picking your hands up. While this may be over-exaggerated, imagine raising your hands to where your elbow creates a 90-degree angle. Remember, you’re not pulling on the reins, simply raising them.

Where people go wrong with asking their horses to back up is that they will squeeze the horse with too much leg, close their waist, and pull back on the reins rather than just adding light pressure by raising their hands. Usually, the horse will respond to this by walking forward. If you have this problem, review how you ask your horse to back up.

Using Groundwork to Get Your Horse to Back Up

If your horse won’t back up and you’re confident you are asking them correctly, they may need to be taught how to back up or respond correctly to what you’re asking. A while ago, I regularly exercised and worked with a green horse for its owner. One day, I decided to work on backing up. Assuming that it had been taught to do so, I got in the saddle and asked the horse to back up. No response. I added a bit more pressure.

The horse wiggled around, then walked off. After a few minutes of no result, I hopped off. I asked the horse to back up on the ground; the horse would wiggle around as if confused, then walk off. I realized that the horse didn’t understand what I was asking for! It had never been trained to back up.

The best place to start training your horse to back up is on the ground. Groundwork enables you to interact with your horse in a way they better understand.

Understand Pressure and Release to Back Up a Horse

To train your horse to back up, you will use pressure and release to signal the response you are looking for. Horses learn by the release of pressure, and by releasing pressure, you let the horse know they have done what you want.

“Pressure” can be considered asking your horse to do something, while “Release” is when you stop asking your horse to do something. Pressure can look like pulling back on your rein, squeezing your horse with your leg, pulling on your lead rope, and tugging your horse’s fetlock to ask them to pick up their hoof. Release usually looks like you are dropping contact with your horse and being still for a moment.

To train a horse, you always start by applying the lightest pressure possible and gradually increasing it to medium and hard pressure until the horse responds. This way, you teach your horse to respond to the lightest pressure.

Training Your Horse to Back Up

The first way I like to teach my horses to back up is by standing a few feet in front of them with my face toward them and wiggling my lead rope to get them to step back. Start by gently wiggling the lead rope back and forth with light pressure. If the horse doesn’t respond, increase the pressure.

When first teaching this, I find that the first time you ask them to back up, you will usually have to escalate to hard pressure before they understand. However, as soon as the horse takes one step backward, releasing the pressure and standing still will let them know they responded correctly.

You will also want to teach your horse to back up by pulling backward on the lead rope. Apply the pressure by pulling back on the rope lightly. If the horse doesn’t initially respond, increase the pressure and hold. As soon as the horse takes a step back, release the pressure.

Once your horse can respond to the light pressure on the ground, it’s time to get in the saddle and try again. Use the same principle of pressure and release when asking them to back up under saddle. If you’d like a more in-depth look at how to teach a horse to back up using groundwork, I have an online course that walks you through the process. Click here to learn more.

Give Your Horse Confidence to Back Up

While horses have incredible peripheral vision, they have two blind spots: one directly in front of them and one directly behind them. Not being able to see behind them makes horses a bit weary of backing up. I had a horse that would load onto a trailer but refused to back off a trailer. She was obviously scared and unsure of the step down she would have to take off the back of the trailer. When we first purchased her, we loaded her onto a straight-load trailer, not knowing she had this fear. It took us about an hour to get her off, and we had to remove the middle partition to do so.

After that incident, I aimed to help the horse become comfortable backing up so she could back off the trailer. I started by getting her responsive to aids on the ground. I worked with her on backing by shaking the lead rope, gently pushing her chest, pointing my finger at her, and saying, “Back up.”

I added an obstacle once she could confidently back up on the ground. I stuck a ground pole behind her. I led her over the pole, and then I asked her to back over it. At first she had a lot of hesitation. It came down to me picking up her back legs and placing them on the other side of the pole. After doing that a few times, she finally understood what I wanted and felt comfortable enough to back over the pole on her own.

The cement barn aisle had a small ledge at the end of the aisle. I thought the ledge would be a nice introduction to mimic backing off a trailer. It was only a few inches higher than the ground. She backed easily off of it.

Next, I started working with the horse and loading onto the trailer. Instead of letting her walk all the way into the trailer and get stuck, I only asked her to step onto the trailer with her front legs. Then, I asked her to back off the trailer. It was a much simpler mental task since her back legs were already on the ground!

After all of the preparation, the horse backed off the trailer perfectly. Trying some of my exercises can help your horse gain confidence in backing up and encountering ledges, poles, or uneven ground.

Medically Evaluate a Horse That Won’t Back Up

Horses may not want to back up because they are in pain or have a medical problem. We had a miniature horse that dealt with neurological issues, and it was difficult for him to back up on his own. Backing up would cause him to become unbalanced.

Signs that pain may be why your horse won’t back up include head tossing, tail flicking, pinning the ears, and even rearing. Horses can’t speak, so they can only communicate with us through body language. Reading horse body language is vital to understanding what your horse needs. To learn more about how horses communicate, visit my article How Horses Read Your Body Language.

A stoic horse in pain may be willing to back up but may take shuffled steps backward rather than picking up its feet. If your horse can’t actively back up, the best thing to do is call a veterinarian and have them evaluated.

Backing Up Can Be Good for Horses

Why should your horse be able to back up? It is an essential skill for your safety when dealing with your horse in tight spaces, and it makes the horse more responsive and controllable. Backing up is also a great exercise for building your horse’s back, hindquarters, and oblique muscles.

When you watch a horse back up, notice how it has to lift its back to make room for its legs to move under itself. The horse has to engage its core when doing this. It’s the same concept when a horse transitions between gaits. Backing up will have the same muscle-building and balance-building results as transitions would.

If you want to give your horse a good workout, practice backing them up a slight incline. The incline will really force them to engage their core and lift their back.

Another problem that is easily fixable with groundwork is a horse that is scared of water. To learn how to address this issue with your horse, visit my article Getting a Horse Used to Water: Beginner’s Guide.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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