Groundwork Basics – Part 1: Backing a Horse Up

There are many different concepts out there on why somebody might back a horse up when on the ground or in the saddle. Some do it as normal groundwork, some do it only for punishment and some never or hardly do it as they feel they don’t need to or can’t. This article will be concentrating on why it’s so important to back your horse up both on the ground and in the saddle as many times as you want, and then some. We also believe that backing is not a punishment for doing something and in fact is just as normal as going forward or sideways or any movement. In other words, it’s just another movement we ask the horse to do. How to do that, and why, is the purpose of this article.

First off, and possibly slightly off topic, it’s really important to remember that there shouldn’t be a single action you ask of the horse that is punishment. The first problem of that is that punishment is always too late. It means your timing was poor and you didn’t catch the horse before they did something. The second is that the horse rarely understands why it’s being “punished”, especially backing. All horses can back up, some of them very fast too, to move in that direction is normal and you’d not punish a horse by moving it forward or sideways any more than you should by backing it.

The reason we back a horse up is simple, we just need to be able to move their feet. There are so many situations where you may need them in a specific spot or to go to specific spot. When you’re at a gate, waiting for something, have people or even children around, going into or out of a stall and of course trailers. Each of these situations are easy to imagine and in turn it should be easy to link that to “moving their feet”. This is the essence of backing as again we are just simply moving their feet around. If you can get them to move back then getting them to move in all other directions becomes that much easier.

Here is a horse throwing his head when asked to back:

[responsive]Horse Throwing Head when asked to back[responsive]

In a lot of cases, horses move better in the forward direction than they do backwards. If a horse is nervous or jittery then backing them up will show that behavior more noticeably than if they are going forward. The other part of that is that they really only consider backing up if they are staying out of trouble or escaping something. It’s incredibly rare to ever see a horse just randomly walking backwards, so we consider that genetic part of them as well when we consider why they might mentally have issues backing up. They kind of need to trust you to do it, or fear you, but we’re not looking them to be afraid and instead just respectful. Which again, requires trust.

Here is a short example of that horse that at first had trouble backing but ended up coming along well enough to call the day a success.

Without trust this particular horse had no mental ability to backup. Physically yes, no problem stepping back as proven further on, but mentally he just couldn’t get there. With enough time and patiently built trust, he was able to move out without issue. It certainly didn’t mean that the next day he was as good as we left off, but with enough practice he did get there.

The point being here is that if you can get a horse to move to a place that he can’t even see with his own eyes while you’re on the ground, then getting the job done in the saddle will be that much easier. Let alone when you have to move him to a spot he can see. This trust will pay off dividends when it comes to riding as you’ll be far less likely to get him troubled enough to buck or rear to have you off his back.

Backing a horse is an integral part to groundwork and in turn riding. If you can’t back a horse from the ground and the horse is throwing his head around or just plain not moving his feet, it’s highly likely that you’ll have trouble in the saddle. That trouble can lead to safety issues like falling off or stepping somewhere that is dangerous to either you, your horse and of course people on the ground. Practice not only makes perfect for this, it makes both you and your horse safer and more relaxing to be around.