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Now that got your attention didn’t it?  Not the usual type of topic we talk about!!  But no… it’s not what you think!  We are actually talking about backing up!

Many of you who have been to my workshops or had me out to see your horses know how I feel about backing them up and what an important exercise I think it is not only for posture but for the body as well.  but why is it so important?

Backing up is a great postural exercise because it encourages thoracolumbar rotation, conditions the core muscles and engages the lumbosacral junction. It also engages the thoracic sling and shortens the abdominal muscles.  As it is a low stress and low velocity exercise it is suitable for all horses at all points in their careers.

Backing up or rein back when it’s done under saddle is a symmetrical diagonal gait without a swing phase.

Backing your horse up (and by backing up I mean once it’s relaxed and comfortable with the exercise and can go 10-20 steps without raising it’s head and hollowing it’s back) can lead to:

  •  Strengthening of the core muscles
  • Recruitment of the thoracic sling
  •  Improved proprioception
  •  Better muscle function
  • Stronger quadriceps and gluteals
  • Better forelimb swing phase
  • Improved posture
  • Better balance
  • Establishing new muscle patterns
  • Promotes ligament and muscle flexibility of the lumbo sacral region
  • Better flexion of the thoracolumbar spine

But how does it help?  Let’s talk what is involved in backing up as an exercise.  When the horse backs up certain muscles contract, some elongate and then others are involved in stabilisation.  Denoix in his book “Biomechanics and Physical Training of the Horse splits it up into the Forehand and Hindquarters.


Unlike most gaits of the horse, in backing up protraction (extension) of the forelimb takes place during weight bearing to push the horse backwards and retraction (drawing back) takes place in the non weight bearing phase.  The rest of the limb is maintained by isometric (stationary) contraction of the extensor carpi radialis muscle in the leg.  The muscles most heavily involved in protraction of the forelimb are descending pectorals, brachiocephalicus, omotransversarius, trapezius (thoracic part) and serratus ventralis thoracis.  This backwards movement places more stress on the muscles than when forwards but as it’s a slow, controlled exercise it is very good for them.  In retraction the rhomboids and serratus ventralis cervicus pull the scapula forwards whilst the lattisimus dorsi and ascending pectorals pull the humerus backwards.


Protraction starts with flexion of the hip which is initiated by iliopsoas, tensor fascia latae and rectus femoris and extension of the stifle and hock.  The psoas also initiates lumbo sacral flexion in this movement causing lenthening of the medial gluteal.  In the retraction phase flexion of the join causes backward extension.  Contraction of the medial gluteal causes the backwards movement whilst the quadriceps extend the stifle.

In this figure the red indicates the muscles involved in protraction and the blue indicates those involved in retraction.


When done correctly with head lowered and impulsion this exercise not only stretches the lumbo sacral junction and recruits the muscles as described above but also increases thoracic vertebrae rotation, and recruitment of the abdominal muscles and thoracic sling.

And just as an added bonus!!  During backward movement, the horse has to actively contract the extensor muscles of the carpus in order to be able to place the limb backwards and straighten it. By strengthening these muscles you will achieve a better swing of the forelimbs in the forward movement and also improve stability of the carpus and lower limb joints.

Sometimes it’s just about modifying the muscle patterns.

So when might you want to use backing up as an exercise?  Well I’m going to say all the time, just as much as you would use lateral work or transitions etc!  But other reasons why you might want to pay more attention to backing up are:

  • Kissing Spines
  • Joint Issues
  • General Back or lumbar pain
  • Sacroiliac issues
  • Poor posture
  • Lack of topline
  • Horse not wanting to canter
  • Issues jumping
  • Stumbling
  • Issues under saddle
  • Stifle issues

Backing up encourages the horse to become more aware of the different parts of their body and proprioceptively what they’re doing.  This results in development of coordination, posture and balance.  This is one of the most visibly difficult movements for the horse as they cannot see behind them as well.

A lot of people ask their horse to back up one to three strides under saddle but might not have ever done it on the ground.  Until your horse can back up one the ground in a relaxed fashion with the head lowered and no hesitation it is unlikely to be backing up effectively under saddle.  Master this one first.  It is also more effective as an in hand exercise as the weight of the rider makes it more difficult to engage the lumbo sacral region and the abdominals.

In the below picture you can see the recruitment of the abdominals and the engagement of the hind end and lumbar in the picture of the horse with it’s head down versus the hollowing of the epaxial back muscles and neck with it’s head up (although not great shots!).


From a muscular perspective it helps to strengthen the forelimb and develops the strength of the iliopsoas and the flexibility of the lumbosacral area in the hind limb.  Once you’ve got the backing up down pat then you can start backing your horse up a hill (preferable a smooth incline) and over poles :).  If you’re not sure if your horse is doing it correctly then look for the back actually moving as the horse backs up and the hind end coming under them.

For this to be a really effective exercise though it should be done 10-30 steps a session three times a day. So happy backing everyone!!

Author Jessica Blackwell

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Kathy says:

    Thank you for this. The person I have massage my horses and ponies, usually gives me “backing up” homework for them saying how good it is for them, but never goes into this much detail. I appreciate the time you put into this.

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