Lendon Gray: Teaching the Dressage Horse the Rein-Back

An exercise in obedience and engagement
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The rein-back is an exercise that is remarkably simple, and yet many riders and trainers don’t seem committed to practicing it enough. At the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, I decided to make a personal study of the movement among the top riders in the world. The rein-back was recently reintroduced to the Grand Prix test, and very few of the top athletes were able to demonstrate a high quality rein-back. I thought, Why aren’t riders of that level training rein-back? It is a useful tool. 

Rein-back is useful for practicing obedience and teaching the horse engagement, which is carrying power with the hind legs. Rein-back is something any horse, whether he is a fancy mover or not, should be able to do well. In my experience, the rein-back is simply not taught to the horse early enough or schooled often enough. The horse should learn the rein-back before he is schooling Second Level because a Training or First Level horse can practice the exercise so when he learns collection, the movement is already in his repertoire.

Virtues of Rein-back

Credit: Susan J. Stickle Before you ride the rein-back, teach the horse to back from the ground. The rider demonstrates how to use pressure on the chest to back the horse.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle Before you ride the rein-back, teach the horse to back from the ground. The rider demonstrates how to use pressure on the chest to back the horse.

The rein-back is a universal obedience test. An obedient horse responds easily to the rider’s aids, and the rider can develop him gymnastically to be the best athlete he can be. The rein-back proves the horse understands the rider’s hand, leg and seat aids, or what I like to refer to as the “go” and the “whoa.”

Backing creates engagement by bringing the horse’s hind legs underneath him and it shows his hindquarters how to carry more weight. With the added engagement in the rein-back, the frame shortens and the back comes up. The horse uses his hind legs to move forward out of the movement, teaching him the concept of thrust. Rein-back helps the horse understand the principle of the half halt because he accepts the whoa aids by adding weight to the hind legs and he accepts the go aids by developing pushing power or thrust. With the added obedience, sense of forwardness, engagement and thrust, throughness improves. The rider learns to direct each step of the horse with the tact and finesse necessary to achieve correct steps. 

Teaching the Rein-back

The thing that is lovely about the rein-back, unlike so many other things we do, is that it is easy to teach from the ground. Before you ride the movement, you first want to teach the horse to back unmounted. Rein-back is an important skill for every horse to know, no matter his age or level. How do you get the horse out of the trailer? How do you get him into the wash stall? Backing easily to the voice and a light touch makes the horse more obedient in the barn because you can safely position his body. Backing in hand also gives you and the horse understanding when you teach the exercise from the saddle.

Try this unmounted in the barn or the arena:

• Say “Back” so the horse learns to respond to your voice command.

• Touch or press on the horse’s chest with your hand. If the horse is comfortable with the whip, you can use it lightly on the chest.

• No matter what, don’t pull on the halter or bridle. You want the horse to think about his body when he backs, not his face.

• In extreme circumstances if the horse will not back, you can press the muscle on the neck next to the gullet. That is a strong aid but it will help your horse if he is stuck to the ground.

• When the horse obediently backs, try a lighter touch so you eventually use primarily the voice.

Before you ride the rein-back, make sure you understand the basic go and whoa aids and can ride a correct halt. The leg and the hand work together in the transition to halt and the horse stands squarely. He waits, relaxed, on light contact but not growing roots.

Try the Rein-back Mounted

Credit: Susan J. Stickle In the exercise trot–halt–rein-back–trot, the horse engages in the rein-back, increasing his ability to thrust in the upward transition.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle In the exercise trot–halt–rein-back–trot, the horse engages in the rein-back, increasing his ability to thrust in the upward transition.

When you start to teach the rein-back from the saddle, make sure you have a groundperson to help you.

To ask the horse to back:

• Slide your legs back an inch or two as a cue.

• Lighten the seat slightly to allow the horse’s back to come up. Do not lean forward.

• Say “Back” clearly, as you did from the ground.

• Squeeze your leg to tell the horse to lift his foot.

• Almost simultaneously close the fingers, without pulling back, to direct the step backward. The aids occur in a series so you are asking for each step separately.

• Have the groundperson apply the same aid you practiced from the ground so you can explain the movement to the horse.

Repeat this a few times per ride for several rides until the horse understands your aids without the additional aid from the groundperson. After backing, when you decide to go forward, ask with the leg aid for the walk. When the horse understands, you can go to trot or canter after the rein-back.

Caveats

Leaning back or sitting deeper during the rein-back has the wrong effect because it drives the horse’s back down and causes it to tighten. Some horses do better with both legs used together while others may prefer the alternating leg. Try alternating left, right, left, right to cue each corresponding hind leg.

Do not pull back because the pulling hand prevents the horse from stepping, makes engagement impossible and can cause faults in the movement. Maintain a soft contact throughout. The reins are not released when the horse moves forward because they should not have been holding the horse back.

Do not repeat any movement from the halt or walk—such as the rein-back, turn on the forehand or turn on the haunches—too many times in a row or you risk losing the sense of forward, which is the feeling that any next step could be a forward step. Always maintain the horse’s willingness to go by interspersing the rein-back with your regular work. Practice it every day. Why not? Your ride is already made up of other gymnastic exercises that improve your horse such as leg yields, transitions and shoulder-in. I think if everyone added it to their daily routine we would see a higher quality of rein-back across the board.

I do not like to use the rein-back as a correction, and the horse should not fear it as punishment. If you feel you need to slam your horse down and back him up, you need to go back and improve your basics and not make the horse nervous or fearful of the movement.

If you experience difficulty backing your horse, the problems may be related to weakness, soreness or pain in the back or hind limbs because of the engagement it requires. If you think your horse might be experiencing pain, address that issue first.

Now that the horse understands the rein-back, every time you halt he waits at attention to see whether the next stride you ask for is forward or backward.

Exercise 1: A Forward State of Mind

Trot–halt–rein-back–trot is my favorite rein-back exercise to improve the horse’s forward state of mind, in which any next step could be a willing, forward step and, therefore, encourages engagement and thrust. As the horse backs, the hind legs come further underneath his center of gravity and carry more weight. This engagement enables a more effective thrust as the horse pushes into trot.

Try this:

• Start in a working or collected trot and ride a transition to a square halt on a straight line. The horse waits in the halt, in balance, until you cue him with the rein-back aids.

• Back four steps, counting each diagonal pair as a step, and ask the horse to immediately trot.

• Halt again, this time back two steps and trot.

• Repeat a few more times throughout your ride, asking for a different number of steps each time—up to 12, as long as the horse remains balanced.

• Intersperse halts without backing.

When the horse is more balanced you can ride canter–halt–rein-back–canter. 

Exercise 2: Advanced Version

The schaukel, or swing, is a movement we used to show in the ancient version of the Grand Prix test. It is an advanced movement for a horse that understands collection reliably. Schaukel demonstrates that you have complete acceptance of the go and whoa aids as well as tact and finesse in their application. The horse must have a high degree of balance to complete the steps. 

To ride this advanced movement:

1. From the collected trot come to a square halt.

2. Back four steps.

3. Immediately walk forward four steps.

4. Without pause, back six more steps.

5. Proceed straight to trot or canter.

There is only one immobile halt at the beginning. The movement is called the swing because the fourth step back is also the first step of walk and the final step of walk is the first step back. In my experience, the four walk steps were the hardest part. It is a tremendous test of the rider’s control and finesse, as well as proof of the horse’s throughness, that he can accept the go–whoa–go–whoa aids easily. 

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 1. From the collected trot come to  a square halt.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 1. From the collected trot come to a square halt.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 2. Back four steps.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 2. Back four steps.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 3. Immediately walk forward four steps. [Steps 4 and 5 are not pictured.]

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 3. Immediately walk forward four steps. [Steps 4 and 5 are not pictured.]


Common Problems

The engagement required to ride this movement can cause a few problems that all riders experience to one degree or another. Avoidance of engagement, weakness or lack of understanding may play a part in any of these evasions.

Crooked Rein-back. Often the horse wants to back in a crooked line. He will try to back by putting the weaker hind leg out from underneath him, therefore veering off the intended line. You can practice this with the weaker side against a wall. The wall guides the horse straight without the rider nagging with many extra aids. If you are not on the wall and the horse has a tendency to back to the right, for example, you can aid the right hind not only back but a little left each step.

The horse may back crooked by putting the shoulder to the side. Although he backs straight, not deviating left or right, the shoulder is out of alignment. While working to get him straighter, notice that the shoulders tend to go away from the direction of bend. If the shoulders go left, for example, the tendency is to take the neck to the right, which makes it worse. Instead, bend the horse slightly left to make him straight.

Dragging the Feet. The horse may dig little gullies with his feet instead of lifting them during the rein-back. This problem is usually caused by the rider pulling and the horse not backing willingly. Try using a ground person and reward the horse for backing correctly to light aids.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle When you can ride an excellent rein-back, you will improve your horse’s obedience, sense of forwardness, engagement and thrust, therefore improving his throughness.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle When you can ride an excellent rein-back, you will improve your horse’s obedience, sense of forwardness, engagement and thrust, therefore improving his throughness.

Running Backward. Running backward usually comes from improper training, avoidance of engagement or tension. Fixing this problem is a retraining process. Ask the horse to back only one step and stand and wait. Only begin to string the steps together when the horse is relaxed and understanding.

Loss of Rhythm. Backing without maintaining the diagonal pair is a serious rhythm fault. Some horses break the diagonal pair because they take too large a step. The hind legs move out of the way without maintaining the rhythm as the front legs come back too far. In this case, ask with quiet aids for smaller steps. A horse who is out of practice may not back diagonally, and practicing it can correct the problem. A rider pulling the horse backward causes tension and therefore can compromise the rhythm. Use a groundperson to retrain the horse to the correct aids.

No matter the issue, in many cases it is useful to go back and do the movement from the ground. See how the horse backs naturally, unmounted and without pulling on the bit, to give you insight to what is going on. 

Gaining Quality

Now you have an idea of what the rein-back is, how to teach it to the horse from the ground and how to practice it mounted. You have a few exercises to improve the movement and tools to fix common problems that may arise. When you can ride an excellent rein-back, you improve your horse’s obedience, sense of forwardness, engagement and thrust, therefore improving throughness, and you will be rewarded with improved scores when you find this movement from Second Level through Grand Prix. 


Turn on the Forehand as a Tool

Another little tool you can try if you have trouble getting the horse to back up is to ask for one step of turn on the forehand away from the wall. The movement perfectly combines the “go” and the “whoa” aid: The leg asks the horse to move the haunches over and the hand prevents the horse from walking away. One step unglues the horse’s foot from the ground, and the rider can then direct the next step backward.

• Begin at a halt, tracking left, 1 meter from the wall.

• Flex the horse slightly right.

• Use the right leg to ask the haunches to do a step of turn on the forehand left.

• Give a whoa aid with the left hand and prevent the horse from walking forward as the right hind crosses underneath him.

• After one step, incorporate the rein-back aids so the leg asks the horse to move his feet again and the whoa aid directs the step back. 

Ask for a few steps back at a time and reward the horse by going forward. If he gets stuck after a step or two, you can ask for another step of turn on the forehand and try to back again, followed by an upward transition to a forward gait.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 1. Begin at a halt, tracking left 1 meter away from the fence. Flex the horse slightly right. Use the right leg to ask the horse to do a step of turn on the forehand off the right leg.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 1. Begin at a halt, tracking left 1 meter away from the fence. Flex the horse slightly right. Use the right leg to ask the horse to do a step of turn on the forehand off the right leg.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 2. After one step, incorporate the rein-back aids and ask the horse to step backward. Then reward the horse and move forward.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle 2. After one step, incorporate the rein-back aids and ask the horse to step backward. Then reward the horse and move forward.


The Ideal Rein-back 

What does a well-performed rein-back look like? The horse comes to a square halt, waits for the rider’s cue and backs in diagonal pairs with regular steps, at approximately the same speed as the walk. Then he proceeds seamlessly to the walk, trot or canter. The term rein-back is somewhat inappropriate because it sounds as if the rider uses the reins to back the horse. Instead, the horse remains reaching for the bit and he remains soft to the leg and hand without resistance.

Rein-back is defined in the FEI Rulebook for Dressage: Rein-back is a rearward diagonal movement with a two-beat rhythm but without a moment of suspension. Each diagonal pair of legs is raised and returned to the ground alternately, with the forelegs aligned on the same track as the hind legs. During the entire exercise the horse should remain “on the bit,” maintaining his desire to move forward.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle Carl Hester, riding Uthopia, demonstrates the ideal rein-back. The horse backs in diagonal pairs while reaching for the bit.

Credit: Susan J. Stickle Carl Hester, riding Uthopia, demonstrates the ideal rein-back. The horse backs in diagonal pairs while reaching for the bit.

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