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Dear Dana: Why would you emphasize the back-up?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - September 20th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: I’ve been told working on backing up our horses can make a difference in overall training. Why?
Rose, Florence, Ariz.

DEAR ROSE: The back-up is more important than many people realize. It reflects how balanced your horse is between your reins and legs, and it shows his lightness, willingness, and flexibility. It is important enough that AQHA requires it in most performance classes as well as in Western Pleasure. AQHA is defining it to the point that they are rating is from “poor” to “good”.

The ideal back-up is one that the horse uses his body, his hindquarters, and his shoulders. He lifts up and feels light in your hands. He feels balanced and backs straight with fluid, smooth, flowing movements. He is soft and light in his mouth and doesn’t gap or open his mouth.

Here are some steps to help you further:

Step 1: The Back Up is a Diagnostic
When you are riding your horse and you pull him to a stop, how he stops will tell you where his body weight was when he was moving forward. If he stops heavy, he was probably moving on his front end or out of balance. If you pick up on the reins and ask him to back up, pay attention to how be backs up -is he resistant or heavy in front? Is he “draggy” with his feet? Often, if a horse is on his front end, he will even slide his front feet on the ground out of laziness rather than picking up his feet and using his back and shoulders correctly. Understand that he may not be willfully trying to be naughty or disobedient. This is just the result of how he travels while moving forward. Expanding your level of awareness will help you to fix the small things before they turn into big things.

Also, pay attention to whether or not he naturally wants to back with his hindquarters to one side or the other. The way that he backs crooked is usually his more natural arc or lead. For example, if he continually backs crooked, moving his hips to the right, his right arc or lead is probably his better lead. You can use this knowledge to strengthen his weaker side by correcting the crookedness and even asking him to back the other way!

Step 2: Teach Your Horse to Lift Up in His Shoulders in His Back Up
You can correct the heaviness in this back-up by repeating the back-up over and over until he lightens and softens in his front end. The secret is to give as soon as he gives. Start out by releasing as soon as you feel him lighten up. Then walk forward and ask again. Building on the positive, reward or release him with just a few good steps. Every day you can expect more. Be mindful that a horse can get sore by backing for long periods, so like any athletic event, build gradually to help him become conditioned enough to do what you are asking him to do with excellence. Also, many people will back their horses up by using their legs or spurs and they will not pull with their hands. I feel that this is detrimental to building a good back-up. This started with spur-stop trained horses, and backing a horse off your spur can be valuable to reinforce a horse listening to the spurs. However, if you back your horse off your spur and not your hands, he can learn to back up without using his shoulders. A horse can back but still keep his shoulders down. It might be the difference between a poor or a good back-up. You also won’t be improving the lift and balance in your horse by allowing him to back at less than his potential.

Step 3: Lighten Up Your Horse in the Face in your Back Up
Your horse can back up light in the shoulders but still be heavy in the face. The answer is in your timing and in the release. When I am working on the back-up, my first priority is to feel my horse’s shoulders lighten and soften, and for him to move smooth and fluid. But I don’t stop there. I also want him light in the face. If he is soft and light in the mouth, he will be likely to keep his mouth shut. I ask my horse to back and keep asking until he softens in the face. Then I release, walk forward, and ask again.

He will soon learn what your standard and requirements are. I don’t jerk or bump, but I may pull harder if he pulls on me. If at any time he threatens to rear or gets really agitated, seek the help of a professional who can guide you. Some horses will get mad and threaten to rear and could fall over which could be very dangerous. Use wisdom and don’t go beyond your measure of experience or comfort.

Step 4: Build and Strengthen Your Horse in the Back-up
The back-up is great for strengthening your horse. When you back your horse, you use many muscle groups and body parts that are not used as much in going forward. You will build and improve overall muscle tone and strength in your horse as well as improve his range of motion by backing him. The exterior side of the stride is primarily used in back, while the flexor side of the stride is used in going forward. So backing offers a great way to strengthen these body parts. Your horse also uses the semimembranosus and semitendinosus muscle groups as well as the gastrocnemius and stifle while backing up. I recommend that you start slow and build your horse gradually, but add backing to your daily workout.

Step 5: Improve Control and Acceptance of Your Leg in the Back Up
After you have successfully taught your horse to back up light and effortless through his body while being light in the face, increase the level of difficulty by asking your horse to back and move his hindquarters over one way or the other. As I mentioned earlier, you may find that it is easier for him to move one way or the other. It is a high level of collection to back correctly and turn while backing. This is a fabulous exercise to get your horse broker and take him to a new level. Start by asking him to back straight, then add one leg and ask him to turn. If he gives a few steps, then release. Walk forward and stop and ask again. Get him so flexible and willing that he can back and turn. I will often back squares, then straight lines. I will also back and turn the front end, then back straight, and then switch off moving the hindquarters, then front end. Your horse’s overall collection will improve after this exercise as well as his acceptance of your leg cues.

Step 6: Improve Your Trot-Off Transition
I like my horses to step off into the trot with a definite step. Some horses may go into the trot looking heavy and clumsy. You can correct this by using the back-up. Start by asking your horse to trot off. If you feel him drop to his front end or take several steps into it before he is truly committed in his gait, then stop him firmly, back him up and then send him off into the trot again. Continue this until he steps off with lift and brilliance. This works because you are demanding he use his shoulders in his back up and that is the correct way to trot off, by lifting and using his shoulders and stepping off. You can also vary the exercise by backing and turning on the haunches, then trotting off. I will trot off, stop and trot off over and over until my transition is perfect.

Step 7: Improve Your Lope-Off Transition
This next exercise is very effective in developing a good lope-off departure in your horse. You have layered the foundation for this exercise by backing and moving your horse’s hindquarters over and by moving the front end over in a turn on the haunches. Start by deciding what lead you want to lope off on. For example, if you want to lope off on a right lead, you will back your horse up and turn his hindquarters to the right off of your left leg. Repeat this exercise until he feels accepting and supple off your leg. If he feels sticky or resistant, repeat it until it becomes easier for him. Once he feels willing, then back him, move his hindquarters over to the right off of your left leg, turn his front end over to the right in a quarter or half turn, then lope him off. Ask him firmly as he may be confused at first. The reason this exercise works so well is that it contains the components needed for the lope off. The horse is using his hindquarters, and is also moving over off your lope-off cue leg and then finally, before his departure, he is rebalancing his weight onto his hindquarters allowing the lift needed to make a smooth, effortless lope-off departure. Repeat this over and over and you will perfect your lope-off departure.

Good luck, Rose, with these exercises. They will build a new level of strength and acceptance in your horse!


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