Have you ever found yourself out on the trail, or even in the arena and, for any number of reasons, your horse reversing in a calm, quiet fashion would be a really useful achievement in that particular moment. You ask him to go back, but rather than the smooth, no fuss reverse you were imagining, it rather feels like you left the handbrake on and he begrudgingly edges 'back', head raised in protest, hooves seemingly glued to the ground beneath them. By the end of the exercise, your horse, rather than having gone straight backwards as requested, is far closer to a 90° angle from where you began...
Rein back is a really useful movement for your horse to know and one that can really begin at any time in his education. From being first handled in the stable, to later in the dressage arena. It is also a nifty little tool to have when there are gates to be opened along the trail. However, having that smooth movement, which you can truly direct your horse where you require him to go, like a lot of things, takes practice.
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This practice begins with becoming really clear on what happens when your horse performs a rein back that is correct and balanced. We know that he must reverse, or go backwards, however how he gets there is vitally important to the overall success of the movement.
When a horse moves in rein back, his legs move in diagonal pairs. His right front leg and his left back leg move backwards together. This is one step. Then his left front leg and right back leg move backwards together, step two. As he moves back, he should remain straight and his hind quarters will begin to move a little more underneath him with each passing step.
His back should remain relaxed, as will his head and neck. When he has moved back as far as you desire, he should then promptly move forward again when you ask him to, without hesitation
While he is moving back, the rider should remain upright, however using their core to lighten their seat bones a little. The rider will move their lower legs back slightly and, using the leg to ask the horse to lift his leg, then resisting any forward movement with the hands. The rider can use their legs either together or one by one, depending on the situation.
This all sounds easy enough, however unless the groundwork has been correctly laid, just following the above directions will not achieve a seamless, relaxed rein back. In fact, many bad or faulty rein back performed by riders are the direct result of a lack of groundwork and patience when it comes to explaining to the horse what they expect from them.
As I mentioned at the beginning, horses can be introduced to rein back early in their lives. This is generally in the stable or stall, when asking them to move backwards is something that will occur often daily. Rather than just pushing or shoving horse around the stables, think about using this basic movement as a start for when they are later under saddle.
Regardless of your horses age, I suggest first taking him out to the arena, fully tacked if necessary, and beginning to explain rein back to him with you on the ground. Ask him to halt correctly, which is square, and once he is standing still, not fidgeting, place your hand on his chest (where it joins his neck) and using a little pressure, push him back while asking him verbally to do so as well. Use a single word all the time, I suggest 'Back', and then later when you are in the saddle, you will initially use this same word.
When you begin, just ask for one or two steps. Don't worry too much if they are crooked or if they are a little hesitant to begin with. What is important is that you reward any step in the 'right' direction and then ask him to move forward immediately after going backwards.
The going forwards as soon as the rein back is finished, is vitally important. Allowing him to stop and wait after he has performed a few steps of rein back will begin to set him in a 'sticky' mindset. Horses must always think 'forward', so make sure you keep instilling this throughout his groundwork exercises and his ridden exercises.
You may notice that I did not mention 'pulling' or 'resisting' with the reins or the lead rope when I spoke about asking for the rein back. Rather only using your voice aids and the pressure from your hand on his chest. This is really important to note; the rein should never be used to 'pull' the horse backwards. The horse must first understand the concept of moving back and then later, when you are in the saddle, the rein is merely to tell the horse "Okay, not forward here, rather backwards with that leg you have lifted in the air."
When a rider uses the rein to actually move the horse backwards, it generally results in the horse lifting his head and neck, which causes the horses back to stiffen and tense up. This, in turn, causes the actual steps of the rein back to become choppy and short and, if persisted with, fall out of sequence. So rather than the legs moving in diagonal pairs, the horse will move each leg individually. When this happens, it is not a true rein back.
Take the time to truly make sure your horse understands what is being asked of him on the ground and also to work things out without the added distraction of a rider's weight on board before hopping into the saddle. Once you are in the saddle, I suggest finding a sympathetic helper on the ground who will take your space in front of the horse to apply those same groundwork pressure at the front of the horse.
From the saddle, you will set up the square halt, and then, lightening your seat bones a little in the saddle and sliding your lower legs back slightly, ask your horse to lift his leg. At this moment, your helper will apply pressure while you say the 'Back' and resist any steps forward with the rein. As before, look for one or two steps initially and then move your horse forward into immediately when you are finished with the rein back.
Be sure that you remain upright in the saddle. Many riders will lean forward a little to try lighten their seat bones, however this can be quite off-putting for the horse and unbalance them further. Also, make sure you are not pulling on the reins. They are only there to 'direct' your horse as to which way he must move his legs. Think of them as a detour sign, rather than as a gear stick!
Finally, once your horse clearly understands what is required of him in the rein back, you can begin working this into your everyday schooling sessions. As he becomes stronger and more balanced, he will be able to perform a straighter and longer rein back ,however 4 to 6 steps is generally ample. Just make sure that you ask him to move forward each time immediately into either walk, trot or canter so he continues to think 'forward' rather than 'backwards'.
Rein back will help to not only supple your horse, but also begin strengthening this hind quarters for later work that will require more collection. It is also, as mentioned at the beginning, a pretty handy movement to have when out on the trails with your horse!