Backing Up a Hill

Written by Martin Black

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.46

If your horse doesn’t back up very well, you might find this exercise helpful. If you think your horse backs up well, try backing him up a fairly steep bank and see if he improves or stalls out.  If he improves, what you are doing is probably working. If he stalls out, maybe it’s because you are doing something that’s getting in his way.  Here are some things that may help you and your horse.

First off, it would be better if your horse could back a little on flat ground before you ask him to back up a hill, although the procedure is the same to start a horse backing on flat ground as it would be to back up a hill. The slope needs to have good enough footing that he can get ahold of the ground and push with his hind feet without having the ground give way too much. It is OK if he slips some as long as he can move backwards. The angle or grade is not as critical as long as he has reasonable traction; a steeper slope will challenge him more. It would be helpful if the top of the hill or slope has a flat spot so when he is on top, it is a comfortable place for him to rest.

Try riding him forward down the slope, about 6 feet or so, then work him back until he reaches the flat top, then let him relax. The longer he works the longer you should let him rest. If you have any doubt, let him rest longer; too much rest won’t hurt this process as much as not enough. A good rule is to let him rest at least as long as he worked.

The first thing to do when preparing to back a horse is to take your weight off the back of the saddle so the horse can raise his loin easier.  Just shift your weight to your thighs from your seat bones. I know some people say to lean back to back your horse, but I haven’t found one horse that agrees with that theory, and if you put him in a challenging situation like needing to reach back and up, I believe you will find the same thing.

So after your weight is out of the way, start drawing both reins back evenly and slowly. Watch the elevation of the head closely. When the head first starts to raise, hold that amount of pressure, don’t increase it, then use one leg, one rein or both on the same side to get the hind-quarters to take one step to the side.

We don’t want the front feet to step sideways, only the hind feet. You may need to adjust the position of your rein or leg so you get what is needed and not just a bunch of scrambling around.

When the horse gives you one step sideways with the hindquarters one way, then ask for the hindquarters to step immediately back to the other way, right, left, right, left. At the same time you are asking for the hindquarters to move over, maintain the pressure with the outside rein just enough that he doesn’t go forward. If the front end can’t go forward and it can’t go left or right and the hindquarters stay in motion going left and right, he will eventually look for other options and reach back with the hind foot.

Here is where it is very important that the rider can feel the horse’s hind foot reach back because if the horse tries and doesn’t get relief for doing the right thing, he will start trying other options that are usually the wrong things and it might take awhile to get back to the right answer. So if you need to have someone watch and call out when the foot sets back, it could be an educational experience for everyone.

Again, whether you start on flat ground, just step the front feet over the slope and leave the hind feet on the flat ground or go down a few steps. Be sure not to measure out too large of a dose that your horse can’t find his way out. As he gets more confident with one or two steps, you can ask for three or four.

When you get to the point that the horse steps down four or five steps and backs straight back up the hill with light rein pressure and light alternating leg pressure, see how he feels on flat ground.

When the front feet leave the ground first, it can feel as though you are on a chain being pushed, all the links start piling up in every direction, same as the horse’s head, neck, shoulders, ribs and hips. When the hind feet leave the ground first, it feels as though you are on a chain being pulled, all the links are straight. It feels like something is pulling the back of your saddle and the saddle horn is going to come back and hit you in the stomach.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.46