Saturday, March 2, 2013

Rein Back

I use rein backs frequently in my riding.  Most dressage riders I know do not.  The rein back is not considered a "forward" movement, and thus most dressage riders find little use for it in their training.  We dressage riders are always taught "Forward, forward, FORWARD!".

Rein backs are seldom asked for in the tests. As a dressage rider, I have always been told not to school it, but to just let it happen if the test called for it.  Good advice for some, but I do find it useful in my training.

I come from a western riding background, in which rein back is used much more frequently, so I never had the prejudice against it that I find many dressage riders do. I was brought up riding "working horses", cow horses, trail horses, etc.  Rein backs were useful for working cattle, getting out of tight spaces, and opening and closing gates while mounted.  They were always taught to horses, and schooled frequently.  You did not want to be stuck in the brush with a horse who didn't understand a rein back!

I find the rein back is also very good for riding in busy boarding barns, as you never know when some idiot fellow boarder is going to invade your space with her darling Schnergleumfinwangin, the fancy imported Warmblood who likes to assault every horse within striking distance just because he knows his rider isn't going to do a damn thing about it.

As soon as I got Spider, I made sure to teach him a good rein back (mainly to protect him from the many Schnergleumfinwangins that I boarded with).  Then I brought him home to my little farm and started trail riding, and I continued to use rein backs to get us out of the sticky situations we found ourselves in while out exploring.

Now, as Spider and I are moving into the more difficult levels of dressage and delving further into the idea of collection, I have found even more use for the rein back.  When used tactfully and judiciously, it is an excellent exercise for strengthening the haunches and increasing collection.

This seems counter-intuitive. It is not a "forward" movement, how could it possibly increase collection?

Properly done, the rein back requires the horse to tilt his pelvis under his body.  This tucking under of the pelvis is the base of collection: it causes the back to round up and gives more power and range to the hind legs.  So, while the rein back is not a "forward" movement, it is still a good exercise to use when working on collection.......

With a few caveats:

1.  It should never be used as punishment! It is an exercise, and should be treated as such.  Don't get pissed off because your horse isn't on the bit and then back him around the arena to "fix it".  It's not going to work.  The horse has to be on the bit to do a proper rein back! (I should write that last sentence in all caps, but I don't want to be too obnoxious)

2. Don't drill it! It's a very difficult exercise for a horse, do it a few times, then be done.  If you over-tire the horse, you will lose the quality of the rein back and then you've lost the entire purpose of the exercise.  3-4 steps is enough for each rein back.

3. Don't let the horse race around backwards!  It's just like going forward, keep the same rhythm and regularity in the rein back.  If the horse just runs backwards, he's not getting any benefit from the exercise.

You have to think of the rein back as a strength building exercise.  It must be slow and controlled.  You must maintain the proper form.  If the correctness of the movement is compromised, abandon the exercise and move forward immediately.

Rein back is not for everyone, nor is it for every horse.  But, I've found good results with it.

You know you've hit the big time when you've got your own groom!

Let me know what you think of rein back in the comments.  Negative or positive doesn't matter, every horse is different, every rider is different.  Part of the process is learning what works for you and the horse you're sitting on now. 


  1. I feel that rein backs are a very important part of a well rounded horse's training, whether you ever have to do them in a test or not.

    1. As do I! I'm just surprised they don't come up more frequently in the tests.

  2. I use backing a lot to introduce a braced horse to softening - unlocking the neck and back while backing gives the horse the feel of what you want in forward. But it's important that the backing is soft - not braced on the hand, not just moving the feet backwards, but balanced and candenced and lifting the body using the core muscles.

    I think of backing as another version of forward - there's energy and engagement and use of the core - it doesn't matter what direction the horse's feet are moving in.

    Backing as punishment is just abuse - it's using a movement you may want to train the horse to do as a punishment - it's just as bad as using the aids - spurs or leg or bit or whip - as a punishment - it poisons the aid or the movement for the horse.

    I find checking in with backing from time to time very useful - I expect when my horse is standing there on a loose rein, if I barely touch the reins - the drape isn't out of them - that the horse will soften immediately and start slowly, in a cadenced way, stepping backwards. I also use it sometimes as a softening "step back" immediately after halting - sometimes we don't even move backwards, but just slightly rock backwards before going forwards immediately.

    1. I agree completely about the backing as punishment, as well as using other aids as punishment. But, I see it done so frequently that I felt compelled to include a disclaimer about it.

      Thank you for your excellent insight about softening and balance. Rein back requires quite a bit of balance on the horse's part, and is a great exercise for "checking in" on the horse's balance and obedience!

  3. I have found that asking for a few steps of rein back followed by asking the horse to trot off, helps get that hind end engaged. I don't school it obsessively nor do I avoid it. And it is enormously useful in trail riding. I was nodding my head in agreement the whole way through this post -- and laughing at your (accurate) description of Schnergleumfinwangins.

    1. The Schnergleumfinwangins were the bane of my existence when I boarded. The assault was usually accompanied by the rider squealing, "Oh look! Schnergie wants to be friends!!!". On more than one occasion, Schnergie became "friends" with my dressage whip. I was considered to be quite the meanie by the resident Dressage Queens ;)

  4. Schnergleumfinwangin had me laughing - great name.
    In keeping with your observations about most teaching, I was told not to use the rein back at all early on, in case Rogo learned to use it as an evasion (he'd stop and refuse to go forward). Although we're schooling level 2 now, rein back still hasn't been introduced into our lessons. He seems to do it easily enough when I need to manouver around a gate, etc., but we never use it as an exercise. I see the benefits after reading your post, so maybe we'll integrate it into our work.

    1. For a green horse, I tend to treat the rein back as more of an exercise in obedience. From my experience with "working" horses, I have a strong belief that the horse should move in any direction I want him to without resistance (I teach all my horses to side pass, neck rein and turn on the forehand for the same reason).

      Once the horse has started learning collection, and the balance that comes from collection, I think the horse can really benefit from rein back as an exercise. I don't know of many dressage instructors who teach it this way, though.

  5. Schnergleumfinwangin = Hilarious!

    I am not sure why the rein back has disappeared from the First Level tests. I remember riding a rein back in the test when I was in college, but I am not sure where they pop up in the current tests. Second or Third level maybe?

    You made a lot of good points. I have taught the rein back to some of my able-bodied riders. I was very careful to include the forward element of the rein back. The aid begins with the legs placed farther back against the horse's sides. I also lighten the back of my seat to make space for my horse to step backwards. If the forward element is there, then the horse thinks forward motion, feels the change in his rider's position and resistance from the reins which tells him to send his forward energy in reverse.

    The rein back is excellent for horses that have a tendency to travel downhill or are built downhill. Sylvia Loch describes and demonstrates using the rein-back to teach the piaffe in her books and videos. The horse rein backs with diagonal pairs which lends itself well to trot work.

    The aid should never be given with just the reins, but so many teach it this way (and sometimes with awful sawing back and forth to "soften" the jaw. Yuck.) I also do not get the bridleless riding technique of leaning back to backup the horse. This pushes the seat bones against the horse, which blocks backward motion.

    1. I can remember riding them in First Level, too. I can also remember having to give both reins fully in canter, but that's disappeared now, too. The only tests that still have rein back are Test 3 of 2nd, 3rd and 4th Level and Intermediate I. I have no clue why they were phased out.

      I cue the rein back by leaning slightly forward and applying my leg in the usual place. To me, it doesn't make sense to use the reins at all, the contact of the hand to the bit should remain static regardless of the direction of travel.

      However, my cue has occasionally caused problems for other people riding my horse: they leaned forward, Spider started backing, they put their leg on but didn't fix their forward seat, Spider backed faster. After a few incidents where I ended up racing after my rapidly backing horse yelling "Lean back! Lean back!", I now warn people about that cue before they get on.

    2. Static contact is what I meant by "resistance", not pulling back or actively using the reins.

      I can picture that backing situation you described perfectly. It makes sense to the horse!

    3. I was taught to "open the back door" for the rein back... to tilt my pelvis forward, which is also "closing the front door".

      We practiced a couple of them yesterday. One by product of working on the rein back is that Val gets more tuned in to my pelvic position and afterwards will offer the rein back whether I ask intentionally or not. :D

  6. I use reinback often, both to check for balance and softness and also to engage the hind end. The key for me is to move off forward almost at once after the number of reinback steps I've asked for are complete. Otherwise, it's too easy for the horse to get stuck in "backwards mode" and not be able to move forward. I, like Kate, think of the reinback as just another kind of forward. I always need to feel that within a moment a change of my seat from the weight forward cue to the sitting down and back will send my horse forward into walk or trot without hesitation. If it doesn't then something has gone wrong with forward gear and I need to work on that.

    A good rebalancing exercise is repeated transitions with hesitations to walk during the trot and sometimes a full halt, reinback, trot off, each time expecting an energetic transition up.

    Of course, reinbacks are really important out on trails where I can't even begin to list the numbers of times and places I've needed them.

  7. Sometime last year Heather Blitz gave an exercise including backing for getting the horse in self carriage and in front of the leg in Dressage Today. I love it! I think as mentioned above the immediate forward is necessary to keep it a forward movement, which is what it really should be no matter the direction of the legs. I also learned to not ask for back until the halt was very well established, as it caused my horse to anticipate if I did not wait long enough.

  8. I completely agree with your use of the rein-back. It's a tool like any other, and must be used with tact.

  9. I completely agree with this post. Rein back is a very important tool and should be taught correctly to all horses and riders. Had to laugh at your
    "Schnergleumfinwangin" I've met quite of a few of them myself at boarding barns. By the way love your new groom, hope she got lots of treats for all the hard work!

  10. Just found this older post of yours when I was doing a google search - still good advice! We are working on rein backs now. They were not part of our repertoire in hunterland so we're a bit behind the 8-ball on this one.


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