Why is it when you’re taught to ride you’re never taught how to reverse?
A gate is a prime example. If you don’t know how to go backwards what do you do? Kick and pull back? Why not? The theory’s sound. The problem is nine times out of ten it has the opposite effect.
Perhaps you’ve reached a level in your schooling where rein back is a natural progression. You may follow the same pattern as many riders -
First - halt on the track. (So you only have to worry about one side – right?)
Second - shift your seat around in the saddle to get it ‘just right’ so you’re ready.
Third - fiddle with your reins so you’ve got a good contact.
Finally, lean back, put your leg on, pull on the reins and expect your horse to go back.
Looking at it like that is it any wonder nothing happens?
As flight animals horses will always run forward. They don’t enjoy going backwards. More often than not their initial reaction is to resist. Your horse is likely to hollow against your hands and your seat. When his back is tense he can’t use his hocks correctly. If he steps back at all he’ll swing his quarters to one side.
The other thing to mention with that example is you’ve just spent the best part of five minutes in halt shuffling and fiddling in the saddle. Your horse won’t be focused or expecting you to do anything other than maybe get off!
So how can you achieve a good rein back? Try this –
The first thing you need to remember is rein back is just a pace. Treat it as one. Your horse needs to carry his weight on his hocks so sit up and look up. If he’s tipped onto his shoulder he’ll only be capable of falling forwards not stepping backwards.
As with any pace the quality comes from the transition into it. The quality of that comes from the energy in the pace before it.
OK so you can only rein back from halt but even halt can be full of energy. When your horse halts from an energetic walk he’ll be ready for your next aid. If he dawdles to a standstill he’ll struggle to get into walk again let alone rein back!
Practice riding around the school in an active walk. Ask your horse for halt and the instant he does walk on again. Halt at least on every marker, more if you can to keep him thinking forward. Eventually he’ll be itching to walk as soon as he halts. That’s an energetic halt. (For ways to improve your halt and sharpen your horse up to your legs check out The Other Way of Stopping and Be a Lazy Rider)
The less you can use your hands the better. Use a ‘restrictive’ hand not a pulling one. Instead of relaxing your hand as your horse goes to step forward you tighten your fingers around the reins. This steady, non giving feeling will be enough to tell him not to move forward. It won’t be enough to make him tense up and tighten his back.
Use both legs at the same time in the usual place. Don’t be tempted to swing them back if nothing happens. That will confuse your horse. He may think you want him to move his quarters to one side. If he’s slow to respond do what you would do in any transition. Tap him up with your whip.
Avoid asking for rein back on the track. You may feel the fence helps to keep your horse straight but it actually shows him a clearer way out. If he gets tense he’ll swing his quarters to the inside if he has a fence on the other.
The ideal place to ask is with the fence in front of you so your horse has no forward option. This means you can stay soft with your hands. When you ask him to move back he should step straight back. If he swings his quarters to one side that’s the time to move your leg back and use a nudge with your heel on the side he swings to.
Although there is a technically correct way to ride any school movement there’s no reason why you can’t change things to suit your horse. If he refuses to go back try lifting your seat out of the saddle as you use your leg. This may be enough to encourage him. However small the initial steps are be quick to praise him. At this stage you want to show him that stepping back is what you want.
Remember rein back is a pace not a movement. Having taken one or two steps back don’t just stop! Relax your hand and keep your leg on to allow him to walk on. Treat it as you would any transition. Don’t lean forward and drop the contact to ‘send him forward’. That will drop him straight on his shoulder spoiling the rein back and the transition to walk.
You will never force a horse to rein back but with patience and clear aids you can teach him. If things get tense go for a canter and come back to it another day.
Rein back has more to do with the way you approach it than it has to do with the pace itself. Ride forwards to go backwards and you won’t go far wrong!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.