Training Exercises: Back Up

Teach the Back Up On the Ground

A horse that respects his handler will back away when his handler moves into his space in an authoritative way. The only time a horse ever backs up in the pasture is when a more dominant horse demands it. Therefore, it is a natural way to gain respect from your horse.

Used frequently, it is a great way to get his respect when he is being unruly. And backing up (instead of walking forward) as you move from one area of the ranch to another is a great way to keep a respectful attitude throughout the training process as well as develop coordination and muscle structure throughout the horse’s body.

Method 1 – Mover Away From Pressure

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horse backing up
For horses that are manageable, this is an easy method. It involves pressing your hand into the more sensitive areas of the horse’s chest (or adding knot pressure on his nose from the halter) to get him to move away.

There is a prescribed escalation of the physical pressure it takes for your horse to move away from your hand. Start with a small press, push deeper, and then even deeper until you get the proper response. The moment he moves away from the press (instead of into it as he is programmed by nature to do), release the pressure, and let him relax. (see: Pressure) This is a Parelli procedure.

Method 2- Lead Snap

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The goal of this method is to use minimal signal at the halter (or even no lead) to back the horse up – step after step. The colt to the left is being trained to respond to just a finger-wag. It starts with a halter-jiggle cue that turns into just a finger.

I start several feet away from him, facing him with a loose lead. Leaning ever-so-slightly forward, I move my lead-hand up where I can get enough energy to jiggle the lead with my wrist back and forth, sending a small ripple of energy down the rope to the halter snap. When the energy hits the snap, it snaps the lead in such a way that it jiggles the halter. Jiggle. Jiggle. Jiggle.

Jiggle the clip of the lead, rhythmically – like ringing a bell. Many horses, feeling the unfamiliar jiggle will automatically move their heads up and take a step back.

Stop. Relax your body and let him relax.

Because your hand is moving back and forth sideways, it lends itself very easily to the ultimate back-up request with just a wag of the finger (as seen with the pinto colt here. He learned this in one lesson).

Start with minimal energy at the clip, getting harder and harder (swinging right-left, right-left, right-left) until he moves back a step. (The pinto colt is sensitive and takes very little jiggle: about a level 3 of 10. The white mare is stubborn and belligerent. She takes 9 of 10.)
horse learning to back up
First just give him the “Queen’s Wave” with your hand. That is enough rope-wag to jiggle the lead clip of the halter.

No response? Ripple the energy using your wrist.

Still no response? Move your whole forearm back and forth two or three times.

If he is STILL not backing away – swing with your whole arm until he moves back.

The motion has increased in intensity from ringing a small bell to ringing a church bell. At the peak of the energy, it is an all-out left-right snap that makes the buckle uncomfortable under his jaw.

Find the minimum jiggle/snap necessary to get the first backward step. Take baby steps. One step is sufficient for the first response. Stop pressure. Relax. (Don’t let him move forward into you. Step into him quickly if he moves a foot forward. Then relax again.)

Stop INSTANTLY when he takes a step back. Straighten your posture to release your body language. If you praise your horse verbally, now is the time.

Repeat the procedure. Ask with minimal energy each time, ratcheting up the intensity until he moves. Stop.

Done correctly, he will start to recognize the request sooner and sooner until he moves back with the slightest jiggle and the word “Back”. Finally just a wave of your wrist or finger. You will be able to stand across the ring, wave at him, and back him up.

Now ask for two steps. Then three. Reduce the force of the snap as he begins to understand the feeling of his halter juggle and the forward body posture you are using. He just needs to know that if you jiggle his halter, he should step back. It starts with the energy snap and winds down to a gentle jiggle and then just a wave when he understands.

horse learning to back upOne drawback to this method is that it encourages a back-up with a high head. It takes quite a bit of practice for the horse to move back with just a wave, and to move back relaxed. Practice until he moves back without throwing his head.

To further encourage a low head, move in closer, grasp the lead just below the buckle, jiggle a little and press back toward his chest while saying, “back”. He will recognize the sound and slight jiggle of the halter. This should bring his head down as he backs up confidently.

Method 3 – Marching Step


Facing the horse, MARCH assertively toward him, swinging your rope or stick toward his chest. Say “Back”. If he is well de-sensitized, he may not move until you tap him DELIBERATELY and rhythmically a few times. As with the first method, raise the intensity of your chest tap and the intensity of your body language as you MARCH toward him until he moves back. If he is sensitive, his head may fly up and his eyes may get wide as he moves backward. One or two steps backward is sufficient at first (remember Baby Steps). Stop and let him relax. Repeat.

A very sensitive horse may get frightened and start to fly backward, head up and eyes wide. He may jerk backward, dragging you with him, or take off sideways. If that happens, follow him and follow him some more. Stay with him until he stops moving.

At the instant that he stops moving, you stop moving.

Relax your posture, look away from his eyes and let him relax completely. Look for his signs of relaxation and understanding: lowered head, soft eye, chewing or licking his lips, cocking his back leg in a relaxed stance. It could take a minute or more. You have startled him and he needs to digest the idea that you will not actually hurt him but will stop if he moves back. Repeat until he stops panicking and begins to reason.

Tap only as hard as necessary to get him to respond by moving a step back. When he steps back, you stop aggressing into his space. Soon, he will understand your look as you say “back” or “back up”, and it will take very little to get him to step backward.

Refine his Back-Up: When he seems less frightened and more manageable up close, start holding the lead rope 12″ below the halter ring. As you aggress him backward saying, “back up”, lightly pop the rope up and down quickly, which slaps the buckle under his chin and then snaps the halter down onto his nose knots. The first couple of times you do this, he may get startled and his head will pop up. Follow up with a tap of his chest (something he already understands) to tell him that you are asking for a “back up”.

Pop only as hard as it takes for him to take a step back. Stop, relax, talk softly and let him think. Repeat this exercise until just a tiny pressure on the halter or a jiggle under the chin will get you the back-up response you want. (Here we have a Paired Cue”. We have paired the chest tap with the halter pop/jiggle to teach the latter by using the chest tap). We are also using “Release Training” by stopping pressure every time we get the proper response.

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Teach the Back Up Under Saddle

coming soon

Thank you Kristull Ranch in Austin, Texas for pictures.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and Horse-Pros.com takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

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