From what I see in barns and arenas all around the world, the rein-back seems to be the most underutilized and improperly ridden gaits/movements that the horse has to offer. When developed “properly,” (meaning, with understanding from the horse and biomechanically true) both on the ground and under saddle, the rein-back: improves our connection, improves the horse’s understanding of the aids, helps with balance, lightens the forehand, is a necessary prerequisite to a well understood half-halt, introduces the horse to his first real steps in collection, keeps us from getting our toes stepped on, and so much more.
The benefits to the horse’s mind and body are pretty much endless. But why don’t more riders utilize it?
“The rein-back will “ruin the horse’s forward.” This is NEVER the case when the horse is educated to a properly engaged rein-back. BUT it can be the case when it’s ridden/taught wrong.
“It makes him heavy on his forehand.” Again, only when not ridden correctly.
“He doesn’t like to back up.” Unless he has a serious injury or condition, that’s just B.S. He may not UNDERSTAND how he needs to coordinate himself or he may not understand your request, but it’s not that he doesn’t like to back up.
“He always backs up crooked, so I just avoid it altogether.” In this case, there may be a physical challenge that we want to have looked at by a bodyworker, vet, chiropractor, dentist, etc (YES, dentist! Balance in the teeth will affect everything about a horse’s movement). Aside from a physical issue, I have never been able to improve anything through avoidance, so we need to take the time to educate the horse better.
“I don’t know how to ask him to do it right.” FINALLY! A good reason. And here’s some tips for asking under saddle (the same principles are true from the ground, also):
DON’T PULL Set your position into a slight shift of weight rearward to initiate, and hold the slack out of the reins.
WAIT. For as long as it takes for the horse to engage his SPINE and consider backing up. This is about his BALANCE learning to rein-back. At that moment, release the reins forward to help him understand that he made the right choice. After a moment of relaxation, ask again. * For some horses that don’t understand, I have had to wait 20 minutes or longer for that first initiation… be prepared to wait (and did I mention NEVER pull?!)
DON’T ADD LEG until the horse is confident and understanding the rein-back off the light seat and rein aids. Otherwise, we will cause the horse to lean into the hands and get heavier on the forehand.
In rein-back, the bit acts as a ballet barre, giving the horse a point of reference. We are not pulling the horse backwards, we are simply HOLDING the position of the bridle and “riding the horse backwards,” waiting for his understanding with every request. Adding the leg aid to ask for more quality of the steps comes AFTER the horse is understanding the request.