Going Backwards to Progress Forwards ~ The All Important Rein Back
By Nikki Alvin-Smith
Is your horse truly submissive and obedient? Is your horse truly forward and does the action of the rein go through his whole body equally on both sides. If the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, then the rein back will be easy to achieve and show artistry and engagement. It is an extremely beneficial exercise for the horse when correctly executed as it engages his core, strengthens his top-line and develops strength in the gaskin and suppleness through the hips. It also increases flexion of all joints in the hind end. All these benefits are of immeasurable importance as you develop your horse to piaffe, passage, pirouettes and expressive flying changes. The rein back is also used in training other English disciplines and also in Western training.
The rein back is not a four beat walk but a diagonal gait like the trot. So how do you achieve a rein back? When training the rein back you should always remember to use parallel aids i.e. identical on both sides of the horse. In training if the horse evades and steps sideways behind then correction with stronger leg aids on one side and/or adjustment through the weight of the seat and/or pressure increased on one rein, may be necessary to correct the issue. However, in the initial training of the rein back, if the horse steps sideways just send him forward a few strides and start over from a square halt. Hopefully you have properly mastered the square halt in relaxation. It is the easiest score of ten you can gain in a dressage test and it comes up at least twice so do the math. It is worth doing well and can increase your test scores to edge out the competition.
Some trainers advocate applying aids on one side of the horse and then the other. I do not agree with this as it encourages the horse to step sideways and avoid the action of the rein through his body. It also encourages the rider to shift their weight left and right which would be an error.
The rein back is often trained on the ground as a form of admonishment for negative behavior. For example; for the horse that won’t stand still for mounting and backs up, you might insist that he back up farther than he desires. Then lead him forward again to the mounting block. As going backwards is actually quite difficult for the horse he will soon learn to stand still for mounting. For the purposes of this article we address teaching the horse the movement under saddle. It is too easy for the horse to avoid the backward movement and go sideways when trained from the ground and if you have the bit in the horse’s mouth and back him up using backward bit pressure this is incorrect and may create issues later.
The exception to this would be if you have difficulty training the movement from the saddle because the horse rears when asked. For this horse train him on the ground next to an arena wall. Use the point of the shoulder to ask him to move backward with a light pressure from the rein and a click of the tongue. As soon as he steps back relax the aids and reward him with a pat. Horses are individuals and in my experience each horse has a variant ability to rein back based not just on their conformation but also their temperament. Once the horse can complete the movement on the ground you can introduce it in the saddle without him becoming nervous or difficult.
It is important that you have established a good halt to begin the movement. Always think of the halt not as a pull on the reins but rather a drive forward into a steady restraining hand. You should always approach the transition into and out of the halt from a slight shoulder in position. From a perfectly square and balanced halt you will close your hands firmly on the reins but not pull back. Your wrists should not curl inwards but you will slightly stiffen or hold the wrist joints. Your horse should remain relaxed and attentive. Lighten the pressure from the back of the saddle by adjusting the weight of your seat slightly forward so most of your weight is on your thighs and crotch. Your back muscles will flex as you very slightly tilt your torso in front of the vertical. You don’t want to lean forward too much because if you do you will come out of balance with your horse as he steps back and then comes forward.
Your legs will come slightly backward on both sides. Then apply light downward pressure from your legs evenly as if you were asking your horse to step forward. Do not hold the leg but gently apply it in a slow rhythm. Do not kick. You should lengthen your leg as you give the aid. As your horse lifts his hind leg and takes one step backward you drop your weight back toward the cantle, relax your wrist and fingers and adopt soft joints and can release the leg pressure in rhythm with his backward step. Your legs must still be on his side but the aid is lightened while maintaining slight pressure on the side of the horse. There must be no pressure on the bit as the horse steps backward. As your horse completes the step back, drop the reins and make a fuss of him and send him forward in the walk. Do not be abrupt in the forward aid. You can start with just one backward step and gradually increase the steps. You will give the aids, release, give and release for each diagonal movement backward.
With experience you will soon learn to time your forward aid in advance of the last footfall backward. A trainer on the ground can be invaluable in helping you determine the moment of maximum height in the last backward step as the moment to apply the forward aids to make a smooth switch between back and forward movement. The rein back is a tough movement for the horse to complete because it requires such flexion from the hind joints so be kind and do not over-school this exercise. Frequent forward walk breaks are required to maintain relaxation and forward thinking.
In early training it is common for the horse to resist, to evade or go sideways. If this happens calmly walk him forward. Halt and ask again. If he is creeping backwards and not picking up his legs in an active manner then you must increase the use of the leg aids.
There are a few ways to correct the rein back from the saddle if it is crooked. Let’s say your horse is throwing his haunches to the left. You can take more pressure on the right rein by lightening the pressure on the left rein to control the right shoulder and increase the pressure of your left leg. You can also drop more weight into the seat bone on the right side. Your horse will wish to come back to you under the increased weight as he does in lateral movement. If the evasion is too severe for this to work or the horse just becomes tense and awkward then it is a good idea to do a turn on the forehand to the left side and repeat the request for a rein back again.
The perfect rein back will show the horse dropping his haunch slightly downward and appearing uphill toward the bridle. The head of the horse should not come behind the vertical in the rein back if it is to be of most benefit and the neck should remain in the same position and height.
As a reprimand in training the rein back can be used to garner his attention, to suggest to the horse he take less contact of the bit if he is leaning or running through the reins or blowing off the leg. Be careful not to overuse the rein back in this manner however, as to do so may cause the horse to become more resistant as it may make his joints sore.
The rein back is extremely beneficial in teaching the horse to strike off in true and counter canter correctly. It improves his overall engagement and is a prerequisite for the advanced work. As your horse gains strength in his joints and muscles he will be able to work from the rein back into a forward trot and canter. The rein back into the forward trot is a precursor for training the piaffe and passage.
I do not advocate teaching the movement on a horse too early in training. A horse that is too young or untrained, stiff or tense or an older horse with arthritis issues will not be able to answer the demands of the exercise correctly and it will not be of benefit. Indeed he may discover it a fine evasion if he is a hot, athletic sort. While in daily life you have hopefully taught your horse to step back from thumb pressure on the point of his shoulder to back up in a stable, trailer or when being turned out etc. it is of little advantage to start the rein back exercise under saddle too early and may well be detrimental.
As with all horse training, remember to be patient. Once your horse ‘gets it’ he will gladly oblige.
About the author: Nikki Alvin-Smith is an international Grand Prix dressage trainer/clinician who has competed in Europe at the Grand Prix level earning scores of over 72%. Together with her husband Paul, who is also a Grand Prix rider, they operate a private horse breeding/training farm in Stamford, NY.