Novice Test – Rein back

I had a surprising email from the U.S. recently asking me why we English riders DO NOT use ‘backing up’ in our training.  She had been advised by an English instructor … “we NEVER back a horse up!”   The instructor couldn’t really say why she never backs a horse up, just that it’s not done.  The question was “I can work with answers that have content and rationale.  I can’t work with answers that are ‘just because….’ do you have any thoughts as to why, in English schooling, horses are never backed up?

My dear Dressage enthusiasts, we all know this not to be true.

So, somewhat bemused, I responded advising my new American friend that we do indeed ‘back up’ our horses.  It’s called rein back and is in every test from Novice to Grand Prix.

An example of what you will find in a test is …

 C Rein back (for one horse’s length)
CH Medium Walk

So, let’s have a look at the whys and wherefores.

Why Do We Teach Rein Back?

Being able to manoeuvre your horse; having control of his shoulders and quarters with the lateral work; being in control of the rhythm and tempo with the half-halt and having the ability to control the hind quarters in the rein back is every rider’s ultimate goal.

There are a number of very good reasons why we teach rein back …

  • Teaching your horse rein back, when done correctly, can help him to transfer more of his weight onto his quarters; lighten the forehand and help him to get ‘off your hands’ if he is inclined to lean on the bit.
  • When you come to training collection at Elementary level the rein back will again be a useful tool for engaging the hindquarters.
  • Rein back is often used to help bring a horse’s focus back to the rider when it becomes inattentive or anticipates the movements and when a rider has a particularly hot horse that needs help with waiting for instruction.

But it’s not all about the dressage, rein back is a very useful movement in all kinds of situations such as opening gates out hacking, it helps to have a manoeuvrable horse, in narrow spaces or difficult situations.

Like many horse owners, I ask my horse to ‘back up’ from his stable door when I go in so I am not invading his space and he is not invading mine!  It starts with placing a hand on his chest and saying ‘back’ quietly but firmly.  Praise him when you get a response (any amount of effort is good).  With consistency, you will get to a point where he’ll back up on voice command alone.

What Is The Judge Looking For In The Rein Back?

In rein back the horse’s feet step backwards in diagonal pairs as it is a two-beat movement.  The steps should be clear, even in length and with regular tempo.  Your horse should be attentive to your aids and willing to take as many or few steps as you ask for.

[Tweet “In rein back a judge is looking for acceptance of the bit just as when your horse is moving forward”].

The quarters should lower; the forehand should become lighter; the back should lift, round and soften; there should be no blocking of energy and most of all, he should remain straight with each step.

As with every dressage movement, there should be plenty of ‘oomph’, your horse should show willingness, obedience and absolutely no resistance.

How Do You Train Rein Back?

It is really important not to attempt rein back until your horse is able to stand quietly in a square halt.

To teach your horse the concept of rein back under saddle, first and foremost you must have a positive frame of mind.  You need to be confident and sure that the movement will go according to plan.  Your confidence will be communicated to your horse.

Secondly, all of your aids should be light and subtle they must be even in pressure so as to prevent your horse from swinging out his quarters or bending his neck to the side.  Try just a little and add rather than applying harsh aids and taking away.

Some people like to train the rein back by facing the horse towards a wall or fence to make it easier and prevent forward movement.  I think this is a good idea. Some people prefer to position the horse along the fence to help him stay straight.  Either way is good.

  • Ride up to the wall and execute a nice square halt. If your halt is not square, do not attempt a rein back.
  • Ensure your horse in on the bit before you ask for any movement. You need his back to be round and engaged.  If he is hollow to begin you are giving him and you an impossible task.
  • It’s a good idea, particularly if you have trained your horse to go back in the stable, to have a helper on the ground and ask them to press on your horse’s chest using the verbal command at the same time as you give the aids.
  • Look ahead, sit up tall and straight that includes your seat, hips and back.
  • Lighten your seat, by lifting the weight off your seat bones. This will help to free the horse’s quarters and make it easier for him to step back.
  • Using both legs at the same time, apply pressure slightly behind the girth to encourage him to keep nice and straight. Close both legs quietly against the horse’s sides and maintain equal pressure on both reins.
  • Without flexing the neck squeeze gently on each rein alternately and in time with the horse’s footfalls. Never a pulling-back hand.
  • Initially aim for one step and ultimately build up to four, concentrating on maintaining a steady rhythm with purpose.
  • Use your voice to reward the slightest attempt, but keep the contact and the leg aid on in order to confirm that this is what you want. If you pat him as soon as he responds you may confuse him.  He needs to know he’s doing the right thing so don’t release the rein to reward.
  • When the rein back is successfully completed (could be just one step) bring your weight back onto your seat bones and sit tall.
  • Keep your legs quietly on the horse’s sides, thinking halt and maintaining a light, even rein contact.

Once the horse has halted immediately ask him to walk forwards by closing both legs around his sides and relaxing the rein contact.  Or you could ride out of the rein-back in a brisk trot to free his mind and body.  The extra engagement of the quarters will give you a more uphill feeling and produce a really light and energetic trot.  You can also ride out of the rein-back in canter.  The rein-back will help your departure to be lighter and freer.

A good exercise once the rein back is established is trot-halt-rein-back-trot or canter-halt-rein-back-canter.  Of course, in the Novice test you are required to walk out of the rein back so don’t forget to practise this.

What Goes Wrong When Training Rein Back?

Rein-back is tiring, physically and mentally, so don’t ask for too much in one session. Do three or four attempts mixed with other exercises in-between.  The rein back should never be used as a punishment!

The most important thing to remember is subtlety, finesse and NEVER to pull on the reins.  Make sure that your rein aids are not too strong as this can encourage evasion and rushing.  All too often the rein back is spoilt by various forms of resistance.  Here is a list of ‘no, no’s’ to look out for.

  1. The rein back is performed as a four-beat movement (not stepping diagonally)
  2. Your horse does not travel straight or loses straightness by skewing to one side or the other
  3. Your horse shows stiffness in the legs, back or neck
  4. Your horse shows resistance
  5. Your horse shuffles or drags his feet
  6. Your horse rushes backwards, usually with uneven length steps and interrupted tempo
  7. Your horses back hollows
  8. Your back hollows (and thus affects your horse)
  9. Your horse resists the bridle by coming above the bit, setting his jaw, opening his mouth or avoids the contact by over-bending and ducking down
  10. You set, see-saw or fiddle with your hands

If your horse starts to rush, simply halt and walk on.  If he hollows, keep asking for more steps until he lifts his back and rounds through, more steps are not a punishment, they offer a long enough go at rein-back for him to get it right.

Rein BackConsider what it would be like for you to walk backwards without being able to see where you are going.  This is a real test of the confidence your horse has in you.  Don’t give him any reason to doubt you.  It may not come naturally to him, but it sure is proof of good communication, obedience, relationship and strength.

Have fun!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

The Novice Test Series of Blogs is sponsored by Blue Chip Feeds





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top