Great Spring Time Activity: Practicing The Backup

The month of March in my area is frequently cold and/or rainy. Neither of which makes for good riding conditions.

I may get in a handful of rides with my horses at home. Mostly though, March is a month filled with groundwork, not time in the saddle.

But eventually, I will hopefully get about the business of reacclimating my horses to riding following their Winter break.

This reconditions process consists of lots of walking with crossing poles and practicing small movements. Things like turn on the forehand, turn on the hindquarters, side passing or backing.

Backing up is a simple (but not necessarily easy) exercise. I find it works nicely into the Spring riding season, especially if your horse is out of condition and not up for much cardio work (trotting and cantering) yet.

A smooth, soft back can be elusive but not impossible. Backing is often done poorly with the rider causing the horse to throw its head in the air and hollow its back. All while moving crookedly in an irregular rhythm. I unfortunately speak from experience here.

As I was formulating plans for my first Spring rides, I came across THIS short video from Callie with Horse Class about backing.

“The backup can be one of the most useful exercises in riding.

Done correctly, it improves far more than just the ability for you and your horse to move backwards.

The backup develops the strength of the horse, particularly in their hind end muscles as they lower and transfer more weight to their hind legs to correctly make the movement. As they do this, their topline lengthens, their neck stretches forward, and they step back with a diagonal movement.

For the rider, the backup is also a very useful exercise for learning to feel these weight shifts from the horse and adjusting in response to them.

None of these benefits are achieved by pulling back on the reins.

The backup needs to be initiated by a change in the rider’s center, a slight shift in their weight, and then the creation of movement. The reins should only be communicating don’t go forward.

No movement happens in isolation, and as soon as we begin pulling on the reins to try and get a backup, the horse will have to tense and shorten their neck, therefore hollowing their back and dragging their legs backwards.

The process of riding a good backup begins with just a weight shift . . .”

From a Horse Class email

This video clip will help you resist the urge to haul on your horse’s face. Instead, it encourages you to concentrate on sensitizing your horse to your seat aids and your intention (thinking about what you want your horse TO do).

I’ve been cautioned not to drill movements. I usually practice backing my horse just a handful of times during a ride for a minute or so at a time. I’ve also learned to vary the time and place within the ride to ask for the backup.

I once got into the habit of asking my horse, Shiloh, to back at the end of every ride, right after I’d look at my watch to note how long we’d been riding. Being the smarty-pants horse that he is, I noticed that Shiloh started to back up during the ride whenever I looked at my watch! I had not realized I’d paired looking at my watch with asking him to back quite so successfully!

So instead, I incorporate backing within the ride itself. Not just right at the end. It is fun for me to mix it up with halt-walk-gaiting-backing. That way you aren’t just going around in circles working on one thing at a time. I find incorporating the backup helps Shiloh to be a more attentive and athletic horse. It challenges his mind while helping him to think about balancing his body as we switch gears.

But wait. Permit me to back up here for one moment. 🙂 I should mention that if you and/or your horse struggle with the backup under saddle, please practice from on the ground for awhile instead. Rider-teacher-author, Jec A Ballou, talks a lot about incorporating the backup in groundwork. If you want some ideas and don’t have any of her books already, check out a few of her You Tube Videos on backing up as well as on her website:

In closing, I will leave you with one last thought- that teaching your horse to back up off of your seat can have some practical applications. Especially if you ever encounter obstacles on the trail or participate in trail classes/obstacle competitions. Opening and closing gates comes to mind. But here’s something that is even more fun.

This is one of my favorite photos of my now-sadly-deceased pony, Pumpkin Spice, and me. We entered a two-day obstacle competition hosted by the now-sadly-defunct ACTHA organization.

The photo shows us performing the “don’t feed the bears” obstacle where we walked up to a backpack on the ground. The pack was attached to a long rope that had been swung over a tree branch. The obstacle was named for the camping practice of keeping food off the ground so as not to attract predators.

Instructions were to approach the tree on horseback, grab the rope and levitate the back pack off the ground by asking your horse to back up while you maintained tension on the rope. You then completed the obstacle by returning the back pack to the ground as you moved your horse forward once again.

You can imagine the interesting challenges this might present to horse and rider. For example, backing up one-handed. Backing up in such a way that the backpack was raised smoothly so you don’t end up tangling the rope or terrifying your horse as the backpack raises up right in front of them.

What a hoot!

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