The rider brings her horse smoothly to a square stop. His ears flick backward, ready for her next signal. His back is up and soft. He yields quietly to the bit and shifts more weight to his hindquarters. His hocks flex softly as he steps backward with his hooves moving in diagonal pairs. In response to the rider’s nearly imperceptible signals, he continues to back slowly and in control. When he reaches the corner of the “L,” he turns carefully and neatly in response to her rein and calf cues. As he exits the ground poles, he comes smoothly to a balanced halt.
While the focal point of the rein back is the backing itself, what happens before the horse takes a step back is vitally important. The halt — good or poor — sets you up. If your horse stops well and quietly, in a balanced manner, without resisting the bit, you’re set up for a good rein back. If, instead, the horse is too heavy on his forehand, his back is hollow with his head up, or his hind legs are strung out behind him, move him forward a step or two, then halt again before asking for the rein back. In between rein-back sessions, you can halt, pause and jog forward — this exercise encourages the horse to stop in a balanced manner with his hindquarters under him and his back up so that he can be ready to move immediately forward again.
While riders know that the horse’s head should be down, it is good to remember why. In order to stop well and back well, the horse must take more weight onto his hind legs. To do this, he must bend the joints of his hind legs and bring his hind legs more forward under his body. In the continuous and related structure of the horse, this movement is linked to flexing at the hips, raising the loins, lightening the forehand, arching the neck and flexing the poll. All these are possible only in a relaxed and responsive horse.
Once you have a good halt, you can work for a good rein back. If your horse does not move easily backward from your light rein signals, practice this weight-shift exercise: from a good halt, increase the resistance on the reins until the horse just begins to shift his weight back. Release and send him forward in walk or jog.
Then, from the weight shift exercise, ask for one full step back. His legs should move in diagonal pairs, like they do in jog and trot. The release of your aids is the horse’s reward. Ask again for a step, followed by your release. As the horse progresses, he can string together a whole series of steps.
Don’t hurry this; it will take time to develop his muscles and coordination before he can comfortably back a dozen steps. The advantage of asking for one step at a time is control. Do periodic checks of the horse’s understanding and willingness by ceasing the rein back and jogging forward. The “forward” urge in the rein back helps keep the horse light and responsive to your aids.
One of the most dangerous things you can accidentally teach a horse to do is to get “behind your aids,” meaning that you can’t get him to go forward again from your legs. This can lead to other “behind the aids” resistances, such as bucking and rearing.
The horse is less likely to resist if you bring your rein hand back toward your elbow. Raising your hand encourages the horse to raise his head, while pulling downward often results in jaw and poll resistance — both encourage the horse to stiffen his neck and back, which makes it difficult for him to get his hindquarters under him.
With shortened reins, bringing your upper body back slightly will bring your hand back and produce the desired slight cue. Keep your calves near the horse’s sides and passive, ready for the forward or sideways cue.
To rein back in a straight line, remember to look straight ahead — this lets you know if you are on course or not. Try placing poles on the ground six feet apart. Walk through them, halt and rein back the length of the poles. If the horse drifts, you can use one calf as an aid to move his hind quarters away, which is softer than rein aids.
When training to back through an “L,” your one-step-at-a-time routine is particularly useful. Suppose the “L” requires a turn to the left. As you reach the corner, reach a few inches back with your right calf and cue the horse to move his hindquarters to the left one step. His soft response to your reins will also allow you to move his forehand to the right one step. Creating an “L” with hay bales will make it easier for the horse to feel his way backward as he learns.
Remember that backing requires muscular effort throughout the horse’s neck, back, hindquarters and abdomen, and it takes time to develop the strength of these muscles. If you encounter a roadblock, don’t force the issue by dragging the horse backward with the reins. Work systematically, using exercises like these to strengthen the muscles and perfect each part of the maneuver.