Training Exercises: Back Up

The Goal

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.

Teach the Back Up On the Ground

Different techniques work with different horses. There is not just ONE RIGHT WAY to accomplish this exercise. Here I describe two or three ways that have worked for me.

Method 1 – Move Away From Direct Pressure


horse backing up
For horses that are manageable (and particularly for fairly sensitive horses), direct pressure is often an easy method. It involves pressing your hand into the more sensitive areas of the horse’s chest (picture above) to get him to move away backward.

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)

Remember that we learned in the Rear Disengage exercises that a horse will be as light to your request as the lightest cue you give him. If you start pressure very lightly and escalate as he ignores it, he learns to anticipate from the lightest cue. So the goal here is to start with a very light pressure, escalating until he moves, then watch him anticipate the firmer, more uncomfortable pressure and move before it is used. Eventually he moves on the lightest touch, avoiding uncomfortable pressure altogether.

horse backing up to halter knot pressure

You can also try adding the Knock, Knock Method. Reign, the dark Friesian Cross in the video above was taught to back up using this method.

Firm knot pressure on his nose from the halter can be uncomfortable. Start by holding the lead about 6″ from the buckle. Pull down back and toward his chest gently to give him the first cue that you want him to back up. (at the same time your body should be moving into him). If he does not move back, pop down on the lead in a rhythmic tap: down, down, down, down. This will pop the nose-knots down into the sensitive area of his nose. If he does not move with the first set of downward pops, escalate the pressure to Down, Down, Down, Down. Still no response? Raise the stakes again to DOWN!, DOWN!, DOWN!, DOWN!. Move through the escalating sets of signals quickly and let up immediately when he complies.

His head will probably go up with the first, meaningful pops, but his feet may remain stuck to the ground. Knock again, only harder.

When you have escalated to an intensity that causes him to take the first two steps backward, immediately stop any pressure, let him rest, and stroke his face.

Repeat this procedure until you get two steps backward without going to DOWN!

He will begin to anticipate that when you push the halter back easily, he should immediately put his feet in motion or take the consequences of a more serious and uncomfortable knocking on his nose. Anticipating, further discomfort will cause him to move more quickly to avoid the escalation. Soon he will be moving back with barely a suggestion from the backward halter pressure.

When you have two steps nicely done, ask for 4 and so on. Be sure to give him plenty of resting reward when he accomplishes each new movement.

Method 2- Lead Snap – Elements of Parelli Here

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. This 17 month old colt 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 approximately 10 feet away from him, facing him at the end of a loose lead. Leaning ever-so-slightly forward. I hold my lead in my cueing hand 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. back-forth, back-forth, back-forth. Many horses, feeling the unfamiliar jiggle, will automatically move their heads up and then take a step back.

Stop. Relax your body and let him relax.

Because your hand is moving back and forth sideways, it can become evermore subtle and eventually turn into the ultimate back-up request with just a wag of the finger. The video below shows the first stages of the lead-jiggle. This horse is being introduced to this lesson for the first time.

Escalating pressure: Start with minimal energy at the clip, getting harder and harder (swinging right-left, right-left, right-left) until he moves back a step.
horse learning to back up

Step One: Low Level energy (1-2) 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?
Step 2: Medium Level energy (3-5) Ripple the energy down the rope to his halter using your wrist.

Still no response?
Step 3: Medium-high Level energy (6-8) Move your whole forearm back and forth two or three times sending stronger ripples to the halter making a considerably stronger JIGGLE.

If he is STILL not backing away –
Step 4: Highest Level (9-10) Swing left-right, left-right with your ENTIRE arm until he moves back. Definitely no “jiggle” here. A real SNAP! SNAP!

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

Find the minimum jiggle/snap necessary to get the first two backward steps. Take baby steps. Moving both legs back one step each 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 his full step back. Straighten your posture to release your body language. If you like to praise your horse verbally, now is the time. Move forward to meet him and rub his face and cheeks while he relaxes.

The Sensitive horse” will take a lot less pressure before backing up. If you start with too much pressure, he may run backward frantically.

The Dominant horse will require a much higher level of lead snapping before he is affected enough to move away.

(The pinto colt above is sensitive and takes very little jiggle: about a medium level 4 of 10. The white mare here is stubborn and belligerent. She takes 9 of 10.)

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

Done correctly, he will start to recognize the request sooner and sooner, anticipating a more uncomfortable demand is coming and trying to respond before it happens. Soon 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 full steps. Then three. Reduce the force of the snap as he begins to understand the feeling of his halter jiggle 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, when he understands, just a wave or wag of the finger.

If he gets lazy, go back to higher pressure more quickly. Ask once and then jump to a much higher level of intensity to remind him of his obligation to back up with energy. When he remembers his job, you can drop back again.

Don’t worry that this method will encourage a back-up with a high head. When his feet are stuck, he raises his head. When they start to move, you can see his head drop lower. It takes some practice for the horse to move back with just a wave, and to move back relaxed. But it happens as he gets confident and less surprised by escalating intensity. Practice until he moves back two or three steps easily without throwing his head.

Since the lead-jiggle is now understood, you can use it in an up-close backup maneuver. Move in closer, grasp the lead just below the buckle, jiggle a little and slightly press the lead back toward his chest while saying, “back”. He will recognize the sound and feel of the slight jiggle of his halter. He will understand to back up smoothly and confidently regardless of your position.

Method 3- Nose Knots


This method presupposes that your horse is able to be handled and is manageable – just unschooled.

He should be wearing a rope halter with knots on the nose strategically positioned on top of the sensitive area of his face. This is a steady-pressure escalating-pressure exercise.

Start by pressing down GENTLY on the knots on his nose as you hold the side of the halter lightly so you can control his head in case he thrashes unexpectedly and hits you in the face with his head. Some horses raise their head to avoid your pressure instead of moving back. Some thrash a little. Just try to keep your pressure as you follow his head. If raising or shaking his head does not work for him, the next try is usually to back away. Bingo! When he takes a step back, RELEASE immediately and let him rest. Stroke his face.

If you cannot get the right reaction, raise the pressure in steps from light pressure, to medium pressure, to high pressure until you get the right reaction. Then stop instantly and rub his nose and face.

This is usually a pretty easy exercise to teach (Reign got it fast), although Waters (the pinto colt in the 2nd video) tried a lot of evasive maneuvers before he understood what was being asked. That video shows only 3 minutes of a 10 minute session that really tired me out. But the reward of a job finally understood is what I call a “trainer’s high”.

This particular technique will be very handy for Waters because he wants to “hug” me and stand in my space all of the time. He is gentle but very big. I would like to just reach up and easily tell him to move back.

Watch the video below for yet another back-up technique that does not require hands-on to master.


Teach the Back Up Under Saddle

coming soon

Thank you Kristull Ranch in Austin, Texas for the opportunity to take movies and 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 takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

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