Backing is Forward Motion In Reverse
Yoga for Your Horse: Exercise 2


What are the keys to backing your horse correctly? All the same things that are important in moving forward correctly: lifting the back, rocking the weight to the hindquarters, swinging the spine, reaching forward and down with the neck.

"Backing is just forward motion in reverse," was a quote I brought home from one of the few riding clinics I attended as a teenager. I don't recall who told me this, but the phrase has rattled around in my head for 30 years or so. It's only in the past decade that I think I really get it.

Picture all the horses you've seen - regardless of riding style - backing with heads up, backs hollow and steps somehow indistinct, without a solid rhythm. These horses need to be taught to engage their bodies going backward just like they should be doing when moving forward.

Backing in balance requires impulsion. That means the impetus to back can't come from the reins. It should be initiated like any other correct transition, by asking the horse to lift the base of his neck and his back and come into connection with the rider. Then it's pretty easy for the rider to use his seat to ask for backward motion. It just takes some practice and the intentional use of abs and psoas muscles.

I find it much easier to teach a horse to back under saddle if I take the time to help him learn to back correctly on the ground. And I start with the same exercise I use to create supple, elastic and strong backs, an exercise based on yoga poses known as “cat” and “cow.” (See Yoga for Horses: Exercise 1)

Once your horse has learned the “cat” portion of the introductory yoga, just add backward movement. While you’re asking the horse to lift away from pressure at the girth area, put a small amount of backward pressure on the halter or noseband. Be sure your horse’s spine is straight – his chin is lined up with the middle of his chest. If you take your time and focus on the horse’s balance, you’ll feel a moment of lightness when the back has lifted and the weight rocked back just right. Then it’s easy to gently influence the horse to step back.

Don’t rush your horse when you’re doing this exercise. Give him time to find his own way, to decide when his balance is such that it’s easy for him to engage his “engine” and move his feet in diagonal pairs backward with big, even steps. His spine will undulate back and forth a bit as the horse backs in this engaged way.

Next, practice the movement with a rider on the horse so he learns he can back under saddle without inverting and sticking his head in the air, where most riders will feel like they need to pull or see-saw on the reins to get the horse moving back. This is a great technique for teaching novice (and even not-so-novice) riders that they don’t need to pull to get a horse to back.

If you want more of a challenge, and more of a balance exercise, try the ground exercise I call “The Pendulum.” This can be done both on the ground (the best place to start) and mounted. It provides a really good feel for what “impulsion” really is and makes it clear that from lightness and balance movement in any direction is possible with the slightest guidance.



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