Backing up is an important skill for a horse to know, whether you’re on the ground or in the saddle. The ability to back is integral part of many everyday tasks, rodeo events and show disciplines. On the trail, you may find yourself in a tight situation where your horse can’t turnaround or in a dangerous situation where turning your back is just not a good idea.
In this article, we discuss the steps you need to take to teach your horse to back on command whether you are on the ground or in the saddle. Read on to learn more on how to teach a horse to back up.
What You'll Learn Today
On The Ground
You’ll find it much easier to teach your horse to back when you’re in the saddle if you’ve already taught him to back when you’re on the ground.
There are many videos and other forms of instruction that will tell you that you need to stand four feet away from your horse holding a long lead rope, shake the lead rope at the horse, and if if that doesn’t work, wave a training whip in his face to get him to back.
All this drama is not necessary, and it’s insulting to the horse’s intelligence.
If you want your horse to back, stand at the left side of his head facing back and pull back (toward his chest) on his lead rope or reins and say “back”.
If your horse is well mannered and has any brains at all (and he most likely does) he will get the idea and will start stepping back.
If he doesn’t, continue to pull back on the lead rope or reins with your right hand and use your left hand to press firmly against his chest. This will probably do the trick.
If it doesn’t, alternate to a task he has already mastered then, return to backing. Be patient, it may take a few sessions.
Practice backing on the ground for a few minutes every day until your horse will do it smoothly and easily every time.
Be sure to say “back” (or some other chosen command word) the same way every time you want your horse to back.
This is the skill that will transfer when you are in the saddle. As your horse becomes better and better at backing, fade the physical cues and rely more on the verbal cue.
You may want to engage the help of an assistant the first time or two that you work on teaching your horse to back with a rider.
It’s always a good idea to have one person on the ground and one person in the saddle to begin teaching new riding skills.
It helps the horse connect familiar groundwork commands to new commands from a rider. It also ensures the safety of the rider when trying out new things.
If you have an assistant, go through your usual groundwork routines with your assistant in the saddle and you doing your groundwork.
Start out with no reining and just go through your usual routines, then have your assistant pick up the reins and do the corresponding reining to your groundwork commands.
When practicing backing, do it just as you have been practicing in your regular groundwork the first time. Then transition to just giving your verbal command while your assistant uses the reins to give a backing cue.
This cue should not be heavy-handed. To signal to back, hold the reins a little bit lower than when moving forward and pull back gently while giving the verbal cue, shifting your own weight back in the saddle and kicking or squeezing gently with your calves.
When your horse has backed a few steps, stop by simultaneously releasing pressure on the reins, shifting your seat forward and ceasing leg cues. Say “whoa” or whatever you usually use as a verbal cue to stop.
A Smart Horse Has A Good Vocabulary
Always remember to use consistent, quiet verbal cues. Use the same words the same way every time so that your horse will have a solid, familiar vocabulary.
If you have a horse who responds well to verbal cues, it makes it much easier to transfer ground knowledge to riding knowledge, and you will have control over your horse even when he is loose.
Combining body language with verbal cues is also a good idea. When you’re careful and consistent with your body language around your horse, he will soon learn to read you quite accurately. When this happens, you can fade verbal cues in most situations and your horse will know what you want.
The ideal in human/horse communication is for no one but you and your horse to know what you are asking him to do.
Simultaneously, you should be able to read your horse and understand how your requests affect him and what information he may be conveying to you. The ability to read your horse makes you as safer and better rider.
How Do You Reward A Horse For Backing?
When teaching backing or any new skill, reward every success, no matter how small, with a firm pat on the neck and words of encouragement.
You can further reward success in a new task by immediately practicing an old task that your horse has mastered and does well. This is called easy/hard learning and is a very effective way of reinforcing success.
Frequently Asked Questions
The words you use with your horse should be clear, consistent and only one or two syllables. Choose the words you plan to use to communicate with your horse and then always use those same words and sounds to mean the same things each and every time you use them.
Always deliver your voice commands with confidence. Don’t shout or screech and don’t wheedle. For example, when you are on the ground and want your horse to back, say “BACK” firmly and press on his chest and/or pull back on his lead rope. Never say “baaaack” or “back?” Make it clear, firm and confident.
When you are teaching voice commands a physical signal can be helpful. After your horse has learned the meaning of the voice command, a physical signal may not be necessary.
This can get a bit cumbersome. While some riders will tell their horse to trot or lope, it’s more common to move from a walk to a trot with a slight squeeze of the knees and click of the tongue. To move from a trot to a canter or lope, light heel contact accompanied by slightly lifted reins, a click of the tongue and leaning a bit forward in the saddle may be a bit more subtle than saying “Lope!”
This is possible, and as you and your horse get to know each other, your horse will become more and more responsive to your slight seat movements. Sometimes it may seem that you only need to think of doing something and your horse responds. Even so, training with verbal and physical cues is a good idea. It gives you more communication possibilities in unexpected situations.
If you would like to learn some more training tips, here’s our piece on teaching your horse to ground tie.