Goal: Horse backs out of your personal space, 2 cues (you need to define this in terms of number of steps he needs to back up so you have a clear picture of what the behavior looks like-a tall horse may need only 2 steps, a miniature horse may need 4 steps)
Here are several ways to teach this behavior. Choose your favorite to start, then retrain it from the beginning so your horse learns to back up several different ways. Think of this as explaining it to him another way. This will help him really understand what you are asking.
Using Pressure to Teach a Back up
The most common ways to teach backing up is to use pressure of your personal space or physical contact. Walking towards a horse (into his space) with your arms raised may cause him to back up, as may pushing firmly on his chest with your hand. You can then capture any backward shifting or movement with a click.
Using pressure on your horse is called negative reinforcement. The pressure is undesired by the horse and so he changes his behavior to avoid it. When he releases it by backing up, positively reinforce him with a c/t.
Reduce the height of your arms or pressure of your hand on his chest and use the light hand as a cue, not actual pressure. Increased number of steps to your goal. Add a verbal cue.
But why use brawn when you can use (and develop) his brain?
Targeting a Back up
Prerequisite: Targeting Level 2
Standing in front and off to the side of your horse, use a stick target and move the tip under his nose and back towards his chest (ideally slightly off to one side near the horse’s shoulder). C/t for any movement of his body back towards the tip of the stick, even if you have not yet stopped moving the stick (in other words he cathces it before you are done moving it).
This stick position allows the horse to lower his head and touch it without having to bend his neck sideways. The downwards movement of his head will move his body into the position he needs to back up (as well as keep him calm). This position also improves the chances that he will back up instead of just turn his head to touch the end of the target. As he moves backward to touch the tip, c/t. Ask for more and more movement by pushing the tip closer towards his body.
Touch the target stick in the same place on the other side and practice some more.
Fade the target stick once you are getting your goal number of steps back until he volunteers to offer them with no stick present as the cue. Practice that several short sessions. Add a hand cue. Then a verbal cue.
Shaping a Back up
I prefer to shape back up because it gets the horse to think about his behavior rather than simply react to pressure. Shaping a back up is actually a good place to start shaping and it teaches back end awareness. This is key in training how to collect himself. You can use this method to train a back up with a horse you do not know or trust while safely standing on the other side of a fence.
Most horses focus on their front end movement and are unaware of the role their back legs in backward movement, except of course, when they kick out at something with a back foot. Ideally, to add power to the back up (or collection), a horse should start backing with the muscles of the back legs, not by moving a front foot that then caterpillars the back so learning to back up is the first stage of learning how to collect.
Stand in front or beside your horse with rewards in a pouch or pocket where he cannot get them. If you can position yourself to watch his back end, that would be ideal, as he first moves his back end before the front when moving back. Otherwise, watch the muscles near his shoulder and chest for any tightening to indicate a shift backwards. C/t. Repeat until he is offering that. He may start rocking back and forth as he tenses and relaxes. That’s okay too. At this point, wait for more backward shifting until one of his legs (any leg!) moves. C/t.
From there, shape a half step. From here on in, always try to click when your horse is in motion. Watching for his foot in the air is a good time to click as it gives you a little room for error on the timing of your click. If you click when he stops, you are clicking for stopping, and it makes it more difficult to get him to continue offering more of the backward behavior (i.e. more steps backward). This is often how people get stuck at one or two steps back and that’s it. You can reward while he still moving back as well, to further reinforce the backward movement.
Here’s an example for a horse that is very obvious in giving movements that predict he is going to move backward. The head lifts, the front shifts, then the haunches. Watch for this in your horse. This video is useful for learning to observe body motion as most horses offer much more subtle movements.
At 0:37 he is becoming aware that he needs to move his back end as well as the front. You can see the deliberate backward movement of his rear left leg.
Once your horse is offering to back up at least 2 steps, and offering them consistently (say for several short training sessions), add a hand signal, then a verbal cue.
Now train the back when you are in varying positions near him: in front, slight off to each side. Take a session or two to train each position. Make sure there is open space behind him to move back and avoid backing him into a corner. This makes it harder for him to succeed as he has a decision to make: back into a corner and have wood stuck against his butt or stand and stay in your space. You can use this to make the task harder once he is proficient at the behavior.
Back Foot Targeting
If you want a real challenge, (and trust the horse not to step on you or kick you) you can use back foot targeting to teach him how to back up. It helps if he has already done some front foot targeting with the mat before you tackle this. This teaches back end awareness as well.
Place a different mat or board behind your horse where he is likely to place his back foot if he shifted his weight back at all. Wait for any touching of the foot. It might start looking like lifting his foot over it, grazing it, touching the tip of it, or actually placing his hoof on it.
If this is too much of a challenge for him at this point, have him stand between four barrels (two side by side on each side of him) so it limits his choice of moving to only forward or back (creates a channel). You need to stand with your back to a fence to limit his movement forward as a choice. Fade the channel and the fence quickly so he doesn’t start to rely on them. The channel also acts as a starting point for later leading or backing into narrow pens and gated areas.
When he can offer at least two steps backwards reliably, you can add a hand cue, then a verbal cue.