Backing an Arc - Part 1

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Article and photos by Leslie Desmond
Graphics by Lisa Popowich


The advantages of learning how to back in an arc correctly are many. The smallest aspects of this maneuver, once understood from the horse’s point of view, will prepare both of you for any advanced maneuver that the two of you are physically capable of doing. More technically advanced maneuvers embody the essence of reciprocal feel and well-timed releases that combine readily in this exquisitely balanced dance. As mentioned earlier, in magnitude of importance, I know of no other maneuver that will prepare a horse and rider team better for a wide range of advanced skills they are likely to need in the future.




In the backup, a horse can be released in a smooth cadence to "GO" backwards. Nature has arranged for him to step back on alternate diagonals to ensure his stability in the maneuver. The natural cadence of footfall in the backup, like the trot, is a two-beat gait. As you study these diagrams and photos, remember that a diagonal takes it name (right or left) from the foreleg associated with that step. (The right diagonal, is comprised of the the right front and left hind; the left diagonal consists of a left front leg and a right hind leg.)

Which ones?  Any that look and feel better when the horse’s forehand is willingly offered, light and available, and easy to place without tightening the reins or spurring and whipping.  Upwards and downwards transitions and turns, for example. A pirouette, a smooth top-speed roll-back, a one-stride stop from a gallop on a loose rein, one- and two-tempe lead changes, the Spanish Walk, side pass, shoulder and haunches in, piaffe, passage, the levade, courbette and the capriole! And, even, just standing very still  . . . without restraint. All these things will be done more beautifully, easily, and confidently when this exercise is mastered.



Lisa Popowich of Aguanga , CA , is backing an arc to the left on her gelding, "Verdad." While she backs the hips to the right and takes the shoulders step-by-slow-and-deliberate-step to the left, she is preparing for many forward maneuvers which require a light and available front end. Many of these are referenced in the accompanying article. Note that she looks left with her chin up, not down, to invite the left foreleg (which is the inside, or reaching leg and shoulder on an arc to the left) and the bridge of the nose, to follow her line of sight, opening rein and a slightly open toe. Concurrently, she offers the feel of "lift" and "liven up" with the off-side shoulder groove (on the right side, or outside of the arc). The horse is gaining experience with each slow step about the usefulness of raising the root of the neck, withers and shoulders before he draws his forelegs back under himself to accept the weight from the other diagonal. In this fashion, he can continue on his journey - backwards - without leaning into a restraining hand, or pushing forward on the bit. When this happens, all four feet are dragged heavily through the dirt and the exercise is actually counterproductive.

Backing in an arc is therefore an important component of a solid foundation in horsemanship through feel and release. It requires some knowledge of feel and release and some successful experience using this approach to get a fair start on these movements.

This is not a common maneuver for a horse.  It is out of the ordinary, which is the main reason that a fluid execution of the individual components of this maneuver are important to be able to do comfortably from the ground before you attempt this from the saddle.

A lot can get lost in the transition from operating a horse safely and comfortably on the ground and asking him to accomplish similar movements and tasks from his back.

Solid equitation skills are of immense value to the horse, and also to you, the rider. A command of equitation and horse handling skills rarely seen today, is what anyone who accomplishes this maneuver through feel and release will possess. They must, or the value of this exercise will not be realized in any quantifiable or potential capacity. These are words, now….just words. But they have big meaning to a horse, I would say, and far reaching implications for those who take the time and invest themselves in learning to understand how to do this. How good it will feel to anyone, a little further down the road, when he or she keenly sees, warmly feels, and deeply knows how these aspects of crystal clear communication can benefit each horse.

This exercise will challenge some, entertain others and puzzle most. Please note my caution that a good foundation in feel and release on the ground is necessary way before this is attempted from the saddle. Trying this too soon, without adequate preparation, is apt to result in frustration, the temptation to push through to some sort of conclusion, with the unsatisfactory results that are liable to discourage from trying it again.



In this image, Verdad reaches wide and to the right with his right hind leg (to the outside of his arc to the left) to re-align himself with the circle they are backing around this barrel. Ideally, his left foreleg would be reaching an equal distance to the left, and his right diagonal would stay more or less on a circular path around the barrel they are using as a point of reference for this exercise. Between this photo and the next one, he took one step back with his right diagonal.

Time and patience will be richly rewarded in ways that I as yet have not found adequate words to describe. I can attest, though, to the fact that the challenges on many levels both personal and professional that this exercise led me to changed the way I view and comprehend horses. As a logical outgrowth of that experience, it also radically altered the way I now train horses, and train other people to train them.

This configuration of requests will test the rider to bring forth clear thoughts and coordination, large patience, good timing, flexibility, and reciprocal feel between herself or himself and the horse. I also like this maneuver because it contains within it a compelling truth: something I sensed as a sort of power over me, almost, and oddly enough, it humbled me in a new way before my horse. I wanted to “get it” badly enough that it kept me fair.



Here, Verdad and Lisa are preparing to take a new step back with the left diagonal. Their combined weight is supported nearly 100 percent now on the right diagonal. In the beginning, it is a slow dance. The reach he is capable of is being considered and planned for, first, in both of their minds. The speed he is capable of will be appropriate to ask for when slow accurate work is effortless for both of them.

Having confessed that, I should share a few lessons that came my way during the long struggle (1992-1994) to understand its complexity, variations, applications and depth. Here they are: Too many rehearsals will ruin it; haste will derail it; insufficient attention paid to the breath, posture, and line of sight causes the horse to straighten out; lack of float between the hands and the mouth will cause a shift in the horse’s weight to the forehand. Use of the reins to mean “go” (backwards) will also sabotage the refinement we are seeking through the use of a consistent and understandable feel.

So let’s get started then, and observe some guidelines for ourselves as the untrained colt’s instructor for this exercise: Backing in an arc using feel and release.  And the rules are: Replace crowding, jerking,  rushing,  kicking,  tapping,  whipping, and talking with clear thought and intent, well-timed releases, uninterrupted focus, and patience. 

This might be a good time to remind readers that hand-fed treats offered for a job well done or plain old affection (“I have missed you! And food=love!) will immediately undo any meaningful lessons the horse has taken on board about yielding, respecting a person’s space, and unloading the forehand easily.

The recommendations beyond that are simple. We are preparing him to understand what we mean by what we do, today, and later on. We are offering him the chance to make sense of what he sees and feels us do.

Each component technique (lowering and raising the root of the neck, offering a weightless hoof and limb for the asking, flexions of the jaw and fluidity at the dock and poll, elevation of the withers, shoulders and the rib cage) … must be considered and understood separately from the application.

The techniques that facilitate a smooth blending of these essential pieces of the puzzle I will describe in detail in the March and April issues of EQUEST MAGAZINE. The February Issue will feature an article about the role of REWARD when training a horse using the Feel and Release Approach that Bill Dorrance described in his book “True Horsemanship Through Feel” (1999).

Backing in an arc requires infinite patience and the willingness to experiment in order to make an understandable presentation to the horse. It also requires time and a coach who can supervise your progress and help you “read” the colt’s reactions as you progress.

Need coaching help? I will be your coach if I have the opportunity to review your work on a DVD or digital tape. Feel free to send them along or contact me at www.lesliedesmond.com, or as a link contained in a post to my online discussion group that is accessible from the lower right hand corner of my home page: Billsbook / Yahoo Groups. Details and a link are right there and I look forward to hearing about your progress with this exercise.



Figure 1: Reaching out and back with the left foreleg and right hind.


Figure 2: Stepping straight back with the right diagonal ensures that the horse and rider maintain straightness and stability as they travel backwards on a proscribed (albeit arbitrary in this case) path.


Figure 3: Reaching out and back with the right foreleg and left hind in an arc to the right.


Figure 4: Stepping straight back with the left diagonal in an arc to the right ensures that the horse and rider maintain straightness and stability as they travel backwards. This is excellent preparation for a pirouette, roll-back, side pass, lead change, Spanish walk and other maneuvers that call for superb balance and a light, available forehand.