Rein-back is an exercise in which the horse steps backwards in a footfall of diagonal pairs, as in trot. It is not normally ridden in the first year of training, but at the beginning of the second year when the young horse can make full halts easily from walk and trot. It is too soon to ask for rein-back when a horse has not learned to take weight behind through halting correctly.

Rein-back can be described as having two equal functions. It improves the horse’s ability to work through the back (although it requires a degree of ability to do this before it can be attempted), and develops collection. It is a movement the horse rarely performs in nature, and one must take care that he does not perceive it as a punishment. This does not mean that a young horse cannot go backwards – some young horses will try to avoid the rider’s aids by creeping back (although this is not desirable and does not constitute correct rein-back.) In normal cases, however, young horses try to evade by running forwards rather than going back.

Which aids should we give to teach the young horse to rein-back? We need a combination of weight, leg and rein aids. The starting point is a horse who is straight, steady in the contact and can halt square. We then give essentially the same aids with the weight and legs as to go forwards, although at the beginning of the rein-back the rider’s legs are placed back behind the girth to correct any crookedness of the steps. The rein contact is held in the same moment as the horse goes to step forwards, which starts the steps backwards in diagonal pairs. Once the rein-back commences the leg aids should be lightened to prevent the horse from going backwards too fast, and the rein aids can also be softened.

For young horses and those with hollow backs, rein-back can be made easier by the rider not sitting too strongly on the horse’s back, and leaning slightly forwards with the upper body. The first driving aids for the rein-back must come from the legs.

With horses who have difficulty understanding the aids for rein-back and lock the poll we try to follow this method: in the moment that the horse lifts his inside hind foot, we take up the rein on the same side. Should the rein-back become crooked or resistant, it is easier to ask the horse to step onto the leg that is already behind (by using the leg aid on the same side) as it is carrying less weight and is the easiest leg for the horse to move. Asking him to move the leg that is more forward (carrying more weight) requires greater effort and can cause him to raise his head and tighten his back in his effort to move backwards.

When a horse has been rewarded for a successful rein-back, the movement must not be used as a punishment in the future. When a horse resists against the rein-back a helper may be needed to tap the forelegs with a schooling whip to start the backward movement. While this can work well, it may also cause more resistance. The best alternative is for the rider to dismount and tap the front legs with the whip personally, rewarding the horse when he understands.

In training, a horse should not be asked to go backwards for more than a horse’s length otherwise this will increase the likelihood that he will think it is a punishment. A horse’s length is three to four steps. Four steps should be aimed for, to make the movement clear; two steps are not enough. After completing the rein-back, a square halt must be established. Should the horse leave a hind leg out behind, he should be asked to take one step forwards with it to correct the halt.

We must not forget that exercises are the means to the end, and not done just for the sake of it. We need rein-back to develop the horse’s ability to work through the back and improve collection.

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