How to Cue Your Horse to Back Up

The Right Way to Do a Rein Back

A man struggling to control a horse.
Image Credit:skynesher/E+/Getty Images

There may be instances where it is handy to back your horse up, or if you show you may have to demonstrate a rein back to the judge. It’s required in trail classes for negotiating obstacles, and it’s often asked for in pleasure or equitation classes.  A rein back is handy for getting out of the way when you’re out on the trail, maneuvering your horse to open gates from the saddle, or grabbing a juicy apple on that abandon apple tree.  It's a good exercise for both horse and rider for learning control. Horses back up naturally on their own, but it's a bit harder when they have to balance a rider on their back. Here is how to cue your horse to back up.

What You Need:

  • Your horse tacked up and ready to ride.
  • Your helmet and safety stirrups or safe boots.
  • A flat riding surface. It’s difficult and could be unsafe for a horse to back up on uneven ground.

Here's How:

  1. Halt and let your horse stand quietly for a moment.
  2. Cue your horse with your seat and legs as if asking your horse to walk.
  3. Gently squeeze back with your hands holding the reins at the same time as you cue with your legs, preventing the forward motion. (You can quietly use a voice command such as “back.”) Don’t let your hands lift, and keep even tension on the reins. A squeeze, soften, squeeze, soften motion on the reins may be more effective than a straight pull back.
  4. The horse should step back with one diagonal pair of legs, and then the other. Only ask for a few steps at first. Once you and your horse get better at rein backs, you can ask for more steps. 
  5. Release the tension on the reins when your horse has obeyed, and let the horse walk forward a few steps.

If Your Horse Won’t Back Up

Of course, your horse will have to be trained to do a rein back, before you give it a try. Ideally, your horse will tuck its nose down, and step back quietly without swinging out to either side.

If your horse resists the cue, work from the ground so he can learn to balance and understand your voice command. Head tossing or rooting may mean the horse doesn’t know how to balance while backing up or you could be pulling on the reins too assertively. If the horse turns or swings out, you must be sure you are cuing with the same leg pressure on both sides and that your hands are even on the reins. It might be best to work with an instructor or coach if you are encounter problems with backing up.

Tips for Better Rein Backs:

  1. Keep your back and hips flexible. Don’t stiffen up.
  2. Look straight ahead; don’t dip your chin down.
  3. Use your legs to keep your horse’s hindquarters straight.
  4. Keep your at your waist, resisting the temptation to lower or lift your hands.
  5. Keep your hips supple, following the movement of your horse’s hips as it steps backward.