Overlooked Trail Obstacles: Backing

Overlooked Trail Obstacles: Backing

Use these tips from trail experts to perfect your backing technique.

A closeup photo of a horse backing through a trail obstacle. PHOTO: AQHA File Photo

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Andrea Caudill

If you’ve been avoiding practicing this required maneuver in favor of the more “fun” obstacles, you’re not alone. 

The back is an important controlled obstacle, says AQHA Professional Horseman Tim Kimura, the legendary “Man of Trail” and course designer, but it is often not practiced enough. 

The required maneuver, part of the “Overlooked Obstacles” series, allows horses to demonstrate good footwork in both directions – forward and backward, and the rule says that exhibitors must back through and around at least three markers or back through an L-, V- or U-shaped, straight or similar-shaped course. Details on the class and its maneuvers can be found in the AQHA Handbook, Rule SHW461-468. 

There are several different variations of the backing obstacle. These obstacles can be elevated no more than 24 inches (60 centimeters) in some divisions. Exhibitors cannot be asked to back over a stationary object like a pole or bar. 

  • L-Back Through – the most traditional back through, with the poles forming a 90-degree corner, usually approximately 3 feet apart.
  • Blind Corner Back Through – poles form a 90-degree corner, except the outside poles are separated so that a gap is formed, requiring the horse to maneuver the corner without the visual barrier of the poles.
  • Outside L-Back Through – The traditional L-Back Through that requires the horse to approach and exit from outside the obstacle.
  • U-Back Through – Four poles are shaped to form a U, and the horse must back through one side, execute a 180-degree backing turn, and then back through the other side.
  • V-Back Through – Poles are shaped to form a V, and the horse must make the sharp. 
  • Chute-to-Chute – Four poles outline a broken backing line, requiring the horse to begin backing through a chute, swinging the hips and body over to maneuver through the changeover and then continue backing through the rest of the chute. 

Training the Back

Introducing a horse to trail starts with getting body control, says AQHA Professional Horseman Terry Cross of Weatherford, Texas. It’s important to be able to move body parts and put them in different places, like being able to shift only the front end or back end around. 

“I think the horse backs better when he’s round over his back and through his shoulders,” Terry says. “I usually spend a lot of time doing slow stuff, and allow them to take their time doing it. Never punish them or scare them in that element so they get to wanting to hurry up and get through it. I think the biggest key is not getting in a hurry to where you’re feeling like you’re pressuring that horse.”

Tim encourages riders he coaches to practice backing circles and figure eights, so that the horse can learn how to maneuver both backward and sideways to master the turns. 

AQHA Professional Horseman John Briggs of Pilot Point, Texas, agrees, starting simply with a willing back. 

“Without even poles or an obstacle around, I’ll just teach them to guide lightly off my hand in a backup,” John says. “I’ll teach them that straight line at first, then I’ll teach them how to kick their hip over, move their rib cage to do a corner. I’ll do all that without a pole. Once that feels like they’re getting the hang of it, getting pretty good at it, I’ll advance them to setting up poles and teach them how to feel for the poles around them.”

Once John gets them comfortable backing in the open, he will begin to introduce pole back-throughs, set wide (approximately 4-4.5 feet) so that the young horse can gain confidence. As the horse becomes more experienced, he gradually narrows it. For his highly experienced horses, he might even make it more difficult than it would appear in competitions, such as making it only 2.5 feet wide, so that a show maneuver seems easy in comparison. 

He also might use a more stationary obstacle, such as a back through made of railroad ties, so that if the horse touches it, it won’t move.

“The horse has to learn how to step back away from that,” he says. “That seems to help my horses on the backup a lot.”

The most common error Terry sees, he says, is riders (and subsequently horses) getting into a rush. Take your time and help the horse to relax in the maneuver.

“The stopping and standing works for me,” he says. “I think sometimes you can actually just stop and pet the horse. I know that sounds introductory, but it’s unbelievable how much it helps the horse that is having trouble. The reward of not worrying about finishing that obstacle. That doesn’t mean I won’t finish it, but I might stop and just rub on him for a minute, let him take a deep breath, I take a deep breath and then we can continue with the obstacle.” 

John coaches both his horses and his riders to have a "two-step rule" while they’re learning the maneuver – take two steps, hesitate 10-15 seconds, and then take two more steps. 

“That helps them start to learn to be a little more patient, and not rush the obstacle,” he says.  

Showing the Back

“You’re looking for manners, calmness, a horse that is good footed, meaning very stable when he makes that turn, controlled obedience, and a horse that likes his job,” Tim says of his vision of the credit-earning horse. 

Getting that credit-earning score takes practice. 

Newcomers often not only rush, but also tend to overuse their hands and legs. 

“They get a little tight, want to use too much leg and hand and then they’re fighting themselves,” John says. “They’re asking for something too big in the horse’s movement, and then they’re having to react to that horse making that big movement. So it’s kind of a downhill situation. But if you can get them to slow their hand or leg down it improves.”

Just like when training a horse, taking your time while learning is key. Practice taking a few steps and pausing to breath and reassess. 

Terry coaches his Level 1 exhibitors through different possible scenarios, so that they feel prepared if the unexpected happens and are able to roll with whatever comes along. 

“Maybe your plan is to go through without stopping, but your horse might get ahead of you and you’ll have to stop,” he says. “When that happens, we just talk about how to deal with it before we get into that obstacle, so if that happens, they feel like they have options. I feel like that gives them a sense of relief when they get in there.” 

The other big issue for riders is glancing from one side to another, which swings his or her weight on the horse’s back, which can cause the horse to sway, become unbalanced or tick a pole. 

When you are in motion during the back, pick one side to look at. If you need to glance the other direction, pause the horse first, change your direction view, and then resume the backup, Johns says.

Tim agrees, adding that eye control is important to help the horse know what you want – looking up might indicate going forward, while looking down can indicate backing.

“When you’re in that back, all your energy has to stay contained,” Tim says. “The horse reacts to you and if you look up, he might think he’s supposed to leave. I guarantee if you’re looking at his head or any portion of his body past the pole, he’s going to step out. So anytime you’re in the box or the back – a confinement obstacle – you need to control what you’re doing, because your horse doesn’t know any better, he’s just following what you tell him to do.”

Patience, time and practice can improve this overlooked trail obstacle, with earning a credit-earning score as the ultimate goal. 

“You’re not going to get it until you practice it enough,” John says. “I think our obstacles nowadays, we’re so excited to go practice our walk-,  trot- and lope-overs, we practice those a lot, and sometimes we don’t practice the slow stuff enough, so we don’t gain that control, and it catches up to us during the year when we have a very difficult back through.”