Horse Showing

Back Like a Champ

January 14, 2009

Ask your horse to back up lightly and willingly with the halter.

Margaret Bellville and GPF Legal Version perform the backing portion of their showmanship pattern at the Bayer Select AQHA World Championship Show.

Margaret Bellville and GPF Legal Version perform the backing portion of their showmanship pattern at the 2008 Bayer Select AQHA World Championship Show.

Backing your horse is a common maneuver in showmanship classes, so it’s important to do it correctly and seemingly effortlessly.

AQHA’s Fundamentals of Horsemanship books offer this advice.


  • To cause your horse to back up with very light action on his halter
  • To obtain positive responses and flexion

How will this help me?

If I can get my horse to back up in response to a very light action on his halter, I will diminish his “opposition reflex.” The natural reflex of all horses is instinctively to oppose pressure instead of yielding to it. Having a horse that yields to the slightest demand will allow me to gain respect and safety, increase control and obtain a light, vertical flexion that will prepare my horse for collection and improve his stops.

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How do I do it?

Hold the knot just above the lead rope; snap and push the horse backward. If the horse resists, close your fingers one by one. If the horse yields and backs up, open your hand.

Your horse must back up with no resistance or defensive behavior. Keep lightness and even flexion in the neck and poll, while maintaining steadiness in the head. Reward the slightest effort in the direction. The three most important things in backing are lightness, straightness and speed. Do not ask for an effort in all three at the same time. The way to make progress should always be “isolate, separate and recombine.” This is an important concept.

The most important thing must be lightness. The others will be tackled in future steps. To encourage this lightness, sometimes you must release when your horse produces a soft relaxed flexion throughout the neck without actually moving his feet.

If your horse has decided to keep all four hooves fixed to ground, tap rhythmically on his chest with your hand. In this case, you will combine two types of pressure: constant pressure (on the halter) and rhythmic pressure (on his chest). Rhythmic pressure may help when constant (even strong) pressure produces no result.

Do not forget to acknowledge the slightest effort. Aim for gradual progress with an emphasis on relaxed flexion as part of the movement.

Horsemanship concepts:

  • Pressure motivates, releases and teaches.
  • Be gentle as possible, firm as necessary.
  • Expect a lot, accept a little and reward often.
  • Do not continue to the point that it stops working.
  • Lightness is measured in ounces, not pounds.

To succeed:

  • My hand must close slowly and open quickly.
  • I must recognize my horse’s efforts and take each day at a time.

Errors to avoid:

  • Do not be satisfied with simply backward movement if the horse is resistant with his head and neck.
  • Do not start with too much pressure, which will merely provoke resistance.
  • Do not ask for too much and continue to apply pressure without releasing immediately.

Take the next step! Get AQHA’s Fundamentals of Horsemanship educational materials and learn more ways to improve your performance at horse shows.

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