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Dressage Technique: moving forward for a impulsion-driven backward movement

Dressage Technique: moving forward for a impulsion-driven backward movement

If it allows you to test your horse's maneuverability, backing up is also a beneficial tool for their physical conditioning.

Reflecting the horse's response to aids, backing up is a key element of dressage that is sometimes overlooked. The exercise requires the rider's skill in achieving impeccable balance between rein and leg aids. While it tests your partner's maneuverability, backing up also contributes to their physical conditioning.


Backing up is introduced in dressage competitions starting from Amateur 3 Grand Prix level and in the SHF (French Horse and Pony Society) circuit for five-year-old horses. Accessible to all horses regardless of their quality of gaits, and to riders whose aids are both regulated and independent, it nevertheless requires method and careful consideration.


Definition by the French Equestrian Federation (FFE):


"Backing up is both a suppleness exercise and a presentation movement involving a diagonal movement backwards. Each diagonal alternately lifts and returns to the ground, with the front and hind legs landing on the same track." The International Equestrian Federation's (FEI) rules stipulate that backing up is a two-beat movement without a moment of suspension. The right diagonal (right front leg + left hind leg) and then the left diagonal (left front leg + right hind leg) lift and rest at the same pace. Front and hind legs are aligned on a similar axis. The desire to move forward is essential throughout the backing up.


The Perfect Backing Up:


The halt is square. The horse waits, anticipating the rider's instructions. It backs up diagonally, with its steps being consistent in both amplitude and impulsion. Its forward movement is immediate while maintaining engagement of the hindquarters. Neither its posture nor contact are altered during the exercise. It remains soft in the hand, its face vertical and neck the highest point.


Fundamentals of Backing Up according to the FFE:


Diagonal steps

Consistency, relaxation, suppleness, contact

Smooth transitions: halt-backing up, backing up-going forward

Acceptance of the rider's aids

Collection, support, and balance

Straightness, precision, number of steps or placements

Square halt, immobility


"The horse must be 'on the bit', maintain its impulsion, and stay straight. After backing up, the horse must either halt squarely or move forward promptly in the required gait, walk, trot, or canter."


The Virtues of Backing Up:


A good backing up test the effectiveness of the half-halt (see Dressage Technique #?) and the horse's ability to collect. According to Sophie Baker's explanation on the website, both the half-halt and backing up combine propulsive and restraining aids, aiming to enhance engagement, connection, and power. Properly executed, backing up encourages the horse to shift its weight onto its haunches. The croup lowers, improving the flexibility of its hindquarters. It's said to "sit down," flexing its loins and engaging its hind legs further.


The paradox of backing up is that the desire to move forward must be maintained even during the backward movement. However, confusion between "going backward" and "slowing down" can easily arise. The horse must be active in the backward movement, avoiding dragging its feet.


The FFE says:


"Backing up demonstrates the responsiveness to aids and tests the horse's collection in the halt-backing up transitions."


Only a horse finely tuned to precise and timely aids will successfully execute backing up. To simplify, backing up simultaneously tests the "brake" and "accelerator" functions. The initiation of the exercise involves a combination of hand and leg actions. The rider's calves softly close against the horse's sides as they step back. Under no circumstances should the rider lean back. On the contrary, they relieve the horse's back by lightening their own weight while maintaining an upright spine. The fingers are closed on the reins, without pulling, preventing a departure into a walk. The idea is to close the door before. The contact should remain supple. With each step back, the rider releases the reins and legs. Exerting too much pressure with the hand risks causing a closed posture and significantly affecting impulsion. Once the movement is initiated, the rider reiterates the request step by step rather than gripping the reins and digging heels into the horse's sides. Repeating the action with each stride counteracts the horse's tendency to become too responsive to the aids. To move forward again, the legs return to their habitual position at the girth, and the door for forward movement gently reopens without breaking the contact completely. At first, departures should be gradual, becoming progressively more immediate with training. Extending the benefits of backing up by beginning in a collected gait - with short strides and engaged hindquarters - will help maintain an ascending balance.


Learning by groundwork:


Groundwork can serve as the first step in teaching backing up. A young horse in the early stages of training should learn to move backward, especially to respect your space. The benefits of a young, responsive horse that adapts to your pace, doesn't overtake you, waits for your signal, are crucial for its further education. A malleable and mobile horse is easier to handle, position, and is more attentive to your body language. By positioning yourself cautiously in front of its shoulder, press on its chest to initiate the backward movement. If it's comfortable with a whip, use the handle to guide it in that direction. Take a step toward it as an example. Associate your voice with actions. The command "back" will quickly become familiar. Don't forget to reward it with each backward movement. Take the time to establish this trigger with the beginner horse, and you'll have an extra tool in your toolbox once you're in the saddle. A person on foot can assist you by using the same technique and invoking the memory of the initial exercise. Add the aids for backing up, and after several patient repetitions, your partner will understand your isolated signal.


Backing up, a transition among others:


Backing up should not become systematic. The priority is to counteract anticipation. The horse's mindset must remain forward-oriented at all costs. For this reason, it's essential to demand immobility for at least a couple of seconds before considering the backward movement. Halt and backing up must remain distinctly separate. Diversified transitions work toward this goal. From the trot, ask for different transitions, such as a simple halt, a halt followed by a one-step back, a halt followed by a four-step back, and so on. The horse stays alert, forward, attentive to each request, and prepared for all possibilities. This variability will, with time, lead to a more immediate response.


The German "Schaukel":


In the previous version of the Grand Prix test, backing up appeared as an accordion movement. The literal translation of the term "Schaukel" in English is "swing," illustrating a movement interrupted from front to back. This involves successively repeating two counted steps of backing up. The sequence is as follows: trot; halt; back four steps; forward four steps; back six steps; trot. In reality, the only stationary halt is the very first one, as afterward the horse transitions from walk to backing up without freezing.


The FFE says:


When backing up "in a series," the transitions must be smooth, and the rhythm of backing up and walking must be clear and correct.



Common difficulties encountered:


1. Not halt squarely: A square halt is a prerequisite for successful backing up. Before initiating the movement, the horse must be collected, maintaining perfect straightness and an upward balance. If a hind leg drags, the risks of irregularity or lateral movement increase.


2. Crossing backing up: Generally, horses attempt to evade straightness, which demands more engagement from the hindquarters. There are many options to avoid a straight line, complicating the rider's task further. The horse might twist its body or let one hind leg trail to the side. Sometimes, this issue arises due to the rider acting asymmetrically. If the horse leans its shoulders to the left, pulling to the right won't help straighten it. Often, the chest tends to move away from the side opposite the bend. On the contrary, guiding with the left rein will correct this issue. Instead of applying excessive aids to correct the horse's alignment, the use of a whip can compensate for the lack of alignment. If the horse backs up while moving both hind legs apart, focus on the inside hind leg; the wall will guide the outside hind leg.


3. Dragging hooves: Instead of lifting its hooves with each step, the horse drags them. This lack of willingness often results from a too rigid hand. To avoid forcing the backing up, the request should be iterative. Having someone on foot assist is highly recommended. Do not force the horse to back up; renew your aids and seek the assistance of someone on foot. A multitude of transitions within the gait and between gaits will improve overall responsiveness.


4. Hasty backing up: Accelerating backward movement allows the horse to avoid shifting its weight onto its hindquarters. It avoids the effort of collection. To correct this tendency, limit the backing up to one step before halting the horse again. Only add a second step if complete control of speed is achieved.


5. Lateral backing up: Losing diagonalization is a common and significant fault. Instead of backing up diagonally right and then diagonally left, the horse backs up laterally to the right (right front leg + right hind leg) and then to the left (left front leg + left hind leg). The goal is to sufficiently break down the movement by altering activity and amplitude to regain the correct rhythm.


6. Disobedience to the rein: The horse resists against the rein, leans down and forward, or tosses its head. Conversely, it releases contact, burying its nose in its chest, with the poll below the vertical. Simply repeating the backing up won't improve the rein connection. It's through the entire gymnastic exercise that the horse improves its connection and responsiveness.


Backing up should be used sparingly. While it's useful to explore its depth, overusing it risks affecting the forward mentality. If your horse anticipates or becomes anxious, switch exercises and return to it later. It's a challenging maneuver that requires patience and perseverance. Under no circumstances should it be used as a punishment.






Find Camille Judet Cheret's Dressage Techniques in Grand Prix Magazine every month.