A Useful Back Up

How supple is your horse? This backup maneuver will help you find out.

A good exercise to get to know your mount better and also loosen him up is to back through a line of at least three barrels (or similar objects).

You will ask your horse to move backward, giving to your reins and legs, moving his or her haunches around your inside leg- first one direction, then the other. Because the movement is never rushed, you will have time to evaluate your horse and feel any stiffness.

This exercise can improve your horse’s:

    1. Ability to turn on the forehand


    1. Suppleness in the hips and shoulders


    1. Response to the rider’s leg and rein aids


    1. Softness in the bridle


    1. Response to back based on a slight lift of the rein

In the beginning, space the barrels about four to five feet apart. Walk your horse forward through them to build his confidence and encourage bending and flexing in both directions.

Now ask your horse to do it backward. Let’s say the first barrel is on your right. First make sure your horse is flexed in the direction of the maneuver, in this case to the right. With both hands on the reins, slightly elevate you right hand and use your backing aids (voice, slight rein contact, and a closed calf). Keep your left hand at the horse’s neck to keep that side of his body aligned.

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When you get halfway between the two barrels, so that your legs are even with the barrels, stop your horse, straighten him, and change your leg and rein cues. Now continue around the next barrel, this time on the left. Your cues will be exactly opposite of what they were before. Eventually you can change aids without stopping your horse.

Don’t look down and back and forth rapidly over each shoulder as if you were backing a gooseneck trailer between two trucks. That will twist your body, throwing off your leg and seat aids and possibly confusing your horse.

If your horse bumps into a barrel, he is probably leaning on your leg rather than moving away from it. At that point, stop, return to the position where control was lost and reset.

As you ask the horse to bend around each of your legs, notice how supple your horse is in his ribcage. Remember that one side may be stiffer than the other. If that is the case, leave the barrels for some simple two-tracking and similar exercises to loosen that side. Then return to the back-through.

If your horse loses his straightness, go back to where he strayed and begin again. One way to tell if your horse is straight is to watch his tracks. You should see an even distance from the tracks to each barrel all the way through the exercise.

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Your goal is to keep a consistent rhythm throughout the exercise. Of course, in the beginning, the horse may be slower to respond and may stick in the ground, especially is the footing is heavy.

Throughout the exercise, keep you reins close to the horse’s neck to keep him straight. (Most horses will escape, or lose position, through an open rein.) Avoid pulling back on the reins to keep the horse backing. You want a soft mouth and invisible aids, so simply lift the reins and ask the horse to back with all your aids.

To add to the difficulty, or if you plan to show in a trail class, gradually bring your obstacles closer together and use different patterns to fine-tune your horse’s response.

This article from the Journal archives was written in 1996, before Patti Carter-Pratt accepted her current responsibilities as AQHA’s executive director of shows.

Here are the top 24 photos we've picked for the AQHA Calendar Contest. All of these were submitted by AQHA Members.

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