Back Talk from Janet

You've watched others do it - travel halfway across the arena in a perfectly straight line without dilly-dallying, nice and smooth, no head-tossing, and backwards. You've tried it yourself, and your horse just doesn't get it. His head comes up, he wanders this way and that with each backward step, some steps are quick, and some steps are slow and short. Then there are times when he won't stop backing. What's a rider to do?

"Groundwork," says Janet Williamson, trainer for Elliott Arabians in Bastrop, Texas, "is where it starts." A firm believer in round pen training, Janet works all her colts using a combination of methods learned during her thirty some years of training and working with trainers.


"Yielding to pressure is the key. To teach the horse to yield to pressure, you must hold the pressure there until you get the response you want, and to be immediate with the release of the pressure when you get that response," she explains. "At first, the goal may be to get just a shift of weight or a tuck of the head, each of which should be rewarded with an immediate release of pressure. But eventually you want to get a few steps straight back, with a low head and soft neck, using very little pressure."

"Groundwork," says Janet, "is where it starts. Yielding to pressure is the key."

Holding the excess lead rope in one hand, face the horse and grasp with your other hand just below the snap, which is fastened to the halter ring. Stepping forward, apply a steady "push" toward the horse's chest, and hold it until the horse, however slight the amount, tucks his nose or shifts back a bit. If he resists or lifts his head, hold the pressure (fig. 1) until he brings his head back down even the slightest bit. Repeat this with less pressure, and when the horse understands this much, and does it consistently, you can ask for more. Do this from both sides of the horse, switching hands (fig. 2). Reward him with soft rubs as you go, to reassure him that he's doing what you want.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Now release only when you get a shift of weight and the tucked head. Then ask for the tucked head, shift of weight, and soft neck. Then go for a step backward with low head and soft neck, rewarding each successful step with a release of pressure (fig. 3). Keep a whip handy to tap the leg below the knee, if needed, to get the foot to move.


Figure 3

Notice the cadence - when doing a definite step back, the diagonals move together. The right front and the left hind move together, and the left front and right hind move together. It looks like the trot, in reverse.

If you prefer, you may say "back up" as you make your request with the rope. It often makes for an easier transition for some horses when you transfer to mounted backing. Backing along a fenceline will help with backing in a straight line to begin with, then move to an open area. Straight backing requires some trust on the horse's part because of the blind spot directly behind him. Remember to ask for each individual step back, and to release with each individual step. This teaches the horse to respond by stepping back with each request, and not to "run" backwards with you.

"The amazing thing about horses," says Janet, "is the fact that you never ride or work with the same horse twice."

Repeat this ground work with the bridle on the horse, putting pressure on the bit. Use both reins in one hand, in a way that each rein has equal pressure. At the first use of the bit to back him up, he may resist, so be sure to reward the slightest "give" with immediate release of pressure. Do this from both sides. Any time that the routine changes, it is a whole new lesson to the horse, so go step by step, be consistent and immediate with the releases, and stroke and rub him. Remember to ultimately request the low head, soft neck, movement in the proper direction (straight or curved), and a quick, definite response. Now that he has mastered this, it is time to mount up.

Backing While Mounted

"The amazing thing about horses," says Janet, "is the fact that you never ride or work with the same horse twice." Something is always altered; you can train or untrain them just as easily. So it is important to be consistent with your training and riding.

Figure 4

Figure 5

With a loose rein, forward hands, and forward thoughts, close your legs on him (squeeze evenly on both sides) to move forward (fig. 4). Stop him, release the reins, and relax a moment. Close your legs on him again, but this time signal for a step back with the reins at the same time (fig. 5). "Backing is really a forward motion," Janet explains. "Your legs are asking for movement, energizing the hindquarters, which are actually the power source. But closing your hands reroutes the direction of the energy and lets him know that you want him to move backward. As soon as he even thinks about moving backward (fig. 6), immediately release the leg and rein pressure, simultaneously, and reward him with a soft rub." Work up to asking for a complete step back before releasing the signals (fig. 7). Immediately release them when you get all that you want in that step. Ask for another step, and another (fig. 8), releasing and rewarding with each step.

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

At this point, he should still be soft in the neck (fig. 9)with his head down, soft on the bit, and quick with his response (fig. 10).

Figure 9

Figure 10

Straightness is also desired. Be sure you are sitting balanced and straight, while he is moving backward (fig. 11), to keep him straight. If you turn to look behind you, you won't go straight. Repeat this several times, rewarding with soft rubs (fig. 12). With your leg pressure, you can work up to regulating the speed and distance of the backward steps. The legs can also be used to guide him straight, or to turn while backing.

Figure 11

Figure 12


Practice backing often, and in different situations, working on the straight, around curves, and at different speeds. Remember to always request each and every step for accuracy. Pretty soon you and your handy horse will be able to back up and down inclines, and around all types of obstacles, with complete confidence and control!