Rein-back is an exercise that is often problematic for riders, yet it’s a very useful one to teach your horse, especially if you encounter gates to open whilst hacking out!
Before attempting to teach your horse to rein-back, it’s important that you understand what you are aiming to achieve, especially if you intend to ride the exercise in a dressage test; it’s a tricky exercise that can be a real mark-loser when not ridden well.
So, in this article, we’re going to cover the benefits of rein-back, the qualities of a correct rein-back, how to teach the rein-back, and how to ride and aid the rein-back.
Aside from the obvious reason of needing to perform the rein-back during a competition, this movement offers many other benefits.
Firstly, the rein-back encourages the horse to take more weight onto his hindquarters, therefore promoting collection and lightening the forehand, making it an ideal exercise for horses that tend to lean on the contact.
Secondly, the rein-back is ideal for rebalancing a horse that gets too onward bound, as well as helping to promote attentiveness and obedience to the aids.
Thirdly, the rein-back helps to develop the horse’s longitudinal (over the back) suppleness, as well as suppleness of the hind leg joints.
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Longitudinal Suppleness
- How to Improve ‘Suppleness of the Joints’ for Dressage
And lastly, the rein-back helps to identify if the horse is truly working through his back and between the leg, seat, and rein aids correctly, because if he is not, then a correct, calm, and straight rein-back will not be possible.
The qualities of a correct rein-back
There’s more to the rein-back than simply reversing the horse backward. In order for this training exercise to be beneficial (and for it to be awarded top marks in a competition) it must possess the following qualities.
- When asked to rein-back the horse should go straight into the rearward movement and should not step forward first.
- The horse’s legs should step clearly backward in diagonal pairs.
- The rein-back should have a two-beat rhythm and no moment of suspension.
- Each diagonal pair of legs should be raised and returned to the ground alternately and not dragged through the surface.
- Each diagonal pair step should cover a fair distance and be of equal length.
- The horse should be seen to actively bend and flex the hind leg joints.
- The rein-back should be straight and the horse should move rearward on one track.
- During a competition, the rein-back should be performed for the correct number of steps (or distance) as specified by the test sheet.
- The horse should remain ‘on the bit’ with the poll as the highest point; he shouldn’t drop his head down or curl up behind the bit.
- The horse should stay relaxed and calm during the rein-back.
- There should be no resistance to the contact, and the horse shouldn’t rush backward or lose the rhythm.
- When asked to, the horse should move forward willingly.
Is the horse “walking” backward?
The rein-back is often described as the horse “walking” backward, however, if you want to get technical, that description is not correct.
As mentioned, the rein-back requires the horse’s legs to step backward in diagonal pairs and in a two-beat rhythm.
The walk has a four-beat rhythm and the sequence of footfalls is; outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore – which are not diagonal pairs. So, as you can see, the rein-back is nothing like the walk.
During the trot, however, the horse’s legs do move in a two-beat rhythm; diagonal pairs with a moment of suspension between them. So, if anything, the rein-back is most like the trot. However, because the rein-back does not have a moment of suspension, it could be described as a pace of its own.
How to teach your horse to rein-back
Before embarking on teaching the rein-back, it’s first important to realize that this movement requires a lot of trust from the horse.
Due to the horse being a flight animal, nature has conditioned him to go forwards rather than backward, simply because he is faster and more capable in ‘drive mode’ than in ‘reverse mode.’
So, when it comes to starting this movement, be prepared to have lots of patience and take your time. Although some horses do learn this exercise quite quickly, others may not find it so easy.
To teach the rein-back successfully, you need to have three prerequisites in place first.
Prerequisite 1 – The ability to ride a straight and square halt
If the halt is crooked then the rein-back is going to be crooked too! Therefore, it’s very important that before riding the rein-back you can execute a straight and square halt.
If the horse is trailing a hind leg at the start, he won’t be able to keep his balance or step back clearly in diagonal pairs. In essence, you’ll be encouraging the horse to rein-back incorrectly.
Prerequisite 2 – Maintain mental and physical relaxation
A horse that is not relaxed, both mentally and physically, will be more likely to rush backward, to drag his feet through the surface as opposed to clearly lifting them, and also show a resistance to the contact.
The rein-back is only an effective exercise if it is ridden calmly and correctly. Therefore, if the horse becomes tense or stressed during training, it’s best to abandon the exercise to prevent the horse from frightening himself and/or getting injured.
Prerequisite 3 – Acceptance of a correct, elastic contact
In order to rein-back correctly, you must have established a genuine contact with the horse.
If the contact has been established by the rider holding the horse’s head in place with the reins, then the horse is more likely to hollow through his back, throw his head up, or curl behind the bit when asked to rein-back.
Instead, the contact should have been created by the horse stretching into the bit and creating a connection with the end of the rein.
Step 1 – Teaching rein-back from the ground
One of the best places to start teaching your horse how to rein-back is from the ground.
Here are the steps.
- Take your horse into the arena wearing either his usual single-bit bridle or a headcollar and lead rope.
- Walk your horse around the outside track with you positioned on the inside of the area and ask your horse to halt square, parallel to the fence or arena boundary. (The fence line will help you to keep the horse straight during the rein-back.)
- Turn to face your horse’s shoulders and place one hand on his chest. Push him back firmly, whilst taking a positive step towards his hindquarters, and using a voice command, such as “back up.”
- After the horse has taken two or three steps backward, praise him so that he knows he got it right, and then walk him forwards again.
Repeat this exercise a few times on both reins, making sure to keep the horse calm, relaxed, and backing up in a straight line.
With practice, your horse will step backward just from your voice command, and this makes it ‘a piece of cake’ to teach him the exercise from the saddle.
Step 2 – Teaching rein-back under saddle
When your horse understands the verbal command to step back and is proficient with the exercise from the ground, you can then begin to teach him under saddle.
In the early days of his lessons, it’s also useful to have a helper on the ground. Your assistant stands at the horse’s shoulder, places a hand on his chest, and pushes him back, while you apply the aids (see below) from the saddle and use your voice. This often helps the ‘penny to drop’ for the horse.
Once the horse understands the aids for the rein-back, you can then remove the help of your assistant, and slowly phase out the use of your voice.
Riding the rein-back and the aids
Contrary to the name “rein-back,” this movement should be ridden more from the seat and the legs than from the reins.
Here are the aids and the steps.
Ride a straight and square halt alongside the fence. This will help to keep the horse straight during the rein-back.
Make sure the horse is relaxed, immobile, and accepting an elastic contact.
Move your legs slightly behind the girth and lighten both of your seat bones.
This effectively ‘opens the back door’ for your horse.
To ask the horse to start stepping backward, simultaneously ‘close the front door’ by squeezing your legs firmly and keeping your contact firm but elastic.
NOTE: The reins should not be used to drag the horse backward. The only job of the reins is to prevent the horse from moving forward.
As the horse begins to step back, soften your contact and relax your leg to prevent the horse from rushing backward. This removal of pressure also serves as a reward for the horse and to tell him that he has answered your question correctly.
During the movement, allow the horse to take his time and think about where he is placing his legs. Hurrying the horse will only lead to mistakes and tension.
In theory, your horse should keep stepping backward until you “close the back door.” To do this, sit deeper again onto both of your seat bones and move your legs back into their original position. You can then apply the aids to ask your horse to move forwards.
Moving forwards out of the rein-back is extremely important as you don’t want your horse to associate the exercise with backward thought.
In a dressage test, the judge will want to see your horse stepping forward smartly out of an obedient, correct rein-back for a really high mark!
Rein-back is a difficult movement that requires a lot of trust from the horse, so be patient and take the time to ensure that your preparatory work is securely in place before attempting to teach your horse rein-back from the saddle.
Although stepping backward seems like an easy thing to do, it’s actually quite a strenuous exercise for the horse as it requires him to take more weight onto his hindquarters, so don’t ask for too many steps to begin with.
At all stages of the training, keep your focus on the horse’s relaxation and straightness. If you can maintain both of those qualities, then, more than likely, you should be able to execute a good rein-back.
And for a final tip, don’t be tempted to repeat the exercise too many times; the last thing you want is for your horse to anticipate the rein-back and step backward every time you ride a halt!