Horses are smarter than most humans. It’s proven to me time and time again as I watch others trying to accomplish things with their horses. I often wonder why some give the simple request of “back” in such complicated fashion.
Backing is not a logical movement for a horse, especially a working draft. It’s rarely a natural maneuver. Spend some time watching your horses. Do they ever back naturally or while at play? So far in my lifetime of watching horses at play, I have yet to see one back in play. The only natural back I have seen is an alpha mare backing at an alarming rate in order to deliver a strategically placed kick to a lower mare or horse that has ventured too close to her foal or feed. But even then, it was not a back that one would wish to use or see while in harness or working. Proper backing requires suppleness and balance.
There are several reasons for a horse’s lack of a natural movement in reverse. A horse’s legs are strategically built for swift and forward movement. The ability to run efficiently dominates natural abilities for other maneuvers. In addition, the mechanics of a horse as it backs mirrors a trot; the legs move in diagonal pairs, and the horse’s weight shifts from side to side.
Backing is not a natural or logical maneuver for a horse, but it’s a movement owners can help their horses excel at. A horse that backs properly does not squat on its hindquarters. The horse’s body, weight and balance must move side to side and in reverse; not down towards the ground. A horse in a proper back will yield to the pressure by flexing at the pole. This also increases suppleness through the neck and spine, allowing for greater ease with less natural maneuvers, such as the back.
Teaching a horse to back is not complicated once you understand how a horse moves and maneuvers. Remember that horses do not learn from pressure, they learn from the release of pressure.
Start with ground work using a flat nylon halter (not a rope halter) and a lead line. Gently hold the horse’s head from moving forward and press gently on the front of one shoulder and say “back.” Do not say “back up.” Just say the word “back” in an inviting tone. Even young horses often offer to move the opposite foot back. Once this happens, release the shoulder press and release the hold forward, allowing the horse to freely back a step. I reinforce by rewarding the horse with a pat or scratch. Then once more I hold the forward movement from happening and gently press on the opposite shoulder, asking for the back with movement from the opposite hind leg. Short lessons like this a few times a day will teach your horse to back in just a matter of days. Start with just one or two steps and increase to four or five steps back over a few weeks.
Once your draft is backing nicely from the ground introduce the back using a bridle instead of the halter and lead line. Use a gentle hold on the line to prevent forward movement as you ask for the back with pressure on the shoulder. Most horses will transfer this lesson quite quickly. After a few days use a slight backward pressure on the line only and verbally ask for the back.
When initially asking for the back in full harness, apply alternate side-to-side pressure with the lines. This is a firm but gentle hold, not direct pulling back. Release the pressure as the horse offers to move a foot backward, but do not give the pressure away. This allows the horse to shift his weight slightly side to side, which permits ease to back but does not invite them to move forward. Once again, the lesson and knowledge for the horse is usually quickly transferred.
Always say “back” until the time your horse knows the physical request. There will come a time when you will not need to speak the word back, when just your body language and the feel of the lines will be all your draft needs to understand you want him to back.
A few things to remember about this maneuver.
Arthritis may prevent a horse’s ability to back without pain. Growth spurts in young horses may create times when they do not have the strength or confidence to back and, therefore, will resist the maneuver. A healthy, physically mature horse should be able to back without issue. If no other behavioral problems exist with your draft but he seems unable or unwilling to back, ask your vet to evaluate his conformation. Issues with the stifle and the spinal column may prevent a willingness for backing maneuvers.
When using verbal commands say only “back,” not “back up.” You can say “step back,” as the horse hears and reacts to the second word. “Step up” is a phrase most horses, especially drafts, are used to hearing. The word “up” when used in “step up,” as if getting into a trailer or moving up a step to hold a load, is a forward movement. When a horse hears the word “up,” it reacts with a forward movement. Saying “back up” is like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. Whether you realize it or not, you are verbally giving a forward request while physically requesting the reverse.
Drafts, especially young ones, may need time to develop confidence combining back and step down. Take time to teach these maneuvers before you need to use them for work or trailering. For training step up and step down, start with short steps of only a few inches. This reduces pressure on the joints and helps instill confidence. These maneuvers will become less challenging as your horse becomes more supple and conditioned.
If you encounter strong resistance (violently flipping their head or rearing) in a horse when asked to back, consider age and bone development or a leg or back injury. If the condition is absent of a behavioral problem, enlist the assistance of a veterinarian to diagnose any possible pain or joint locking issues.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt