Have you ever tried pushing a chain? You might be able to control the first link pretty well but, chances are, the rest of the links get a little jumbled. You might be able to move the entire length by pushing eventually, but the links will be a clustered mess, dragging along.
Now, think about pulling a chain. If you grab the fist link, you can drag the rest of the chain along pretty nicely. You can pull the chain straight back, in a circle or even do serpentines.
Notice any parallels between that chain and your horse? If your horse backs by first engaging his front feet, you’re pushing the chain. His head might be up high or tucked down into his chest, his front end might moving backward but his back feet might be moving to the left or the right, trying to break free. By moving his front feet first, his hind feet are resisting. Think about that jumbled, clustered mess of a chain and what happens when you try to push it.
On the other hand, if he begins the movement with a hind foot reaching out, he’ll pull himself backward. Again, think about pulling a chain—the links stay neatly in the same line. Make this your goal when backing your horse. His spine should stay straight from the tip of his tail to the poll, and his hindquarters should be engaged so he’s pulling the rest of his body, the chain, along.
To train your horse to initiate movement with a hind foot, you first need good control of his hindquarters. To gain this control, simply apply enough pressure on your inside rein to get your horse’s acknowledgment. Next, put your inside leg on his barrel to ask him to step over. When he gives you just one step, try it the other direction. The goal here is to move the hind end left and right, one step at a time.
If your horse tries to move forward during this exercise, shut the door. Be firm enough in the reins to block forward movement and put him back in his original tracks. Once you feel like the hindquarters have suppled, try taking step back by removing the leg pressure. If the reins are not offering enough feel and the horse hasn’t stepped back, add just a little more rein pressure to encourage him to shift his weight back. Once he does take a step, reward him immediately be releasing the pressure. Sit still for as long as it took him to take the step back.
Bonus tip: Take the weight out of your seat when cueing your horse to back up. If you rise up, putting more weight on your stirrups and thighs, you take the weight off his loins, which makes it easier for him to position his hindquarters.
This is a great exercise not only for teaching young colts to take their first backward steps, but also for older seasoned horses that need a little polishing.