A horse that backs up well is showing you respect. The better you can get your horse to back up, the more respectful and responsive he'll be in everything else that you ask him to do. A good backup is the foundation of the stop, as well as collection.
A respectful horse backs up with energy any time you ask him to. A disrespectful horse ignores you and walks toward you with pushy, dominant behavior. If you don't back up your horse, he'll get pushier and more disrespectful.
Here, I'll explain how to teach your horse to back up on cue. He'll learn to respond with respect and energy when you tap the air in front of him.
You'll need: A rope halter, a 14-foot lead rope, a Handy Stick with string, and an enclosed work area with good footing. (To order a Handy Stick, click here.)
Before You Begin
Lead your horse to the work area. Remove the string from the Handy Stick, and tie it around the base of his neck. Then place a piece of duct tape on the lead rope the length of a Handy Stick from the snap.
The duct tape on the lead rope will be a reference point; it'll remind you where to keep your hand on the lead rope during this exercise. The distance from the snap to the duct tape is exactly four feet. This is a good safe distance to start with when you're first teaching your horse to back up.
Step 1. Get your horse's focus. Hold one hand on the duct tape. With your other hand, hold the Handy Stick as though you're shaking someone's hand. Stand directly in front of your horse, and make sure he has two eyes on you.
A horse can't give you his attention or respect if he isn't looking at you with two eyes. If your horse takes his attention away from you, bump the halter and lead rope until he puts two eyes back on you. Remember, two eyes are always better than two heels.
Step 2. Tap the air. Tap the air in front of your horse's nose gently with rhythm. Count out loud, "One, two, three, four." If your horse doesn't respond, tap the rope lightly: one, two, three, four. If your horse doesn't move back from that pressure, whack the rope a lot more firmly: One, Two, Three, Four.
If your horse still ignores you, hold the Handy Stick horizontally, and whack the clip: ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR. If he still doesn't respond, whack his nose: ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!
Your horse's sensitivity level and how respectful he is will greatly affect how much pressure you'll have to apply. Go through the stages of pressure until you get the desired response. Do it as easy as possible, but as firmly as necessary.
Step 3. Retreat. As soon as your horse takes two steps back, retreat and rub his face with the stick between his eyes.
At first, your horse will likely drag his feet backwards. You're just looking for a starting point to teach him that when you apply pressure in front of his nose, he needs to back away from it.
Then rub your horse between the eyes with the Handy Stick, so he doesn't get worried about your tools; the goal is to have respect without fear. Be careful not to ask for too many steps in the beginning. Two steps, reward; two steps, reward.
Step 4. Ask for consistency. When your horse can take two steps back consistently, ask for four consistent steps.
In the beginning, your horse might throw his head up in the air. When a horse has sticky feet, his head goes up. When a horse's feet have energy, his head comes down. Don't worry about his head; worry about making his feet move. When your horse's feet move, his head will come down by itself.
Step 5. Ask for energy. When your horse understands the concept, continue increasing the pressure until he backs up with more energy. Only release the pressure when his feet are light, and there's energy in them.
Horses don't learn from pressure; they learn from the release of pressure. Whatever your horse is doing the second you release the pressure is what you're rewarding. So, release the pressure when your horse's feet have energy and hustle to them.
By the end of one week of consistent practice, your horse may be backing 15 to 20 steps. Every day, look for a little more energy in his feet and a few more steps backward.
Clinton Anderson grew up in Queensland, Australia, learning to ride as a teenager and training with many of his country's top horsemen. In 1997, he relocated to the United States to perfect his Downunder Horsemanship program. Under Anderson's guidance, horses learn to respect and respond to their handlers, developing willing partnerships. To learn more about Downunder Horsemanship, Clinton Anderson Walkabout Tours, and more, visit downunderhorsemanship.com.