Got your Back(ing)?

(“I gave her the goose egg . . .”)

I may already have told the story of a rider at a horse trials who stopped in front of me before she began her dressage test. As you may know, in eventing a halt and rein back are given two separate scores unlike in regular dressage where the whole movement is combined into just one.
“Mr. Woods,” she said, “I’m not going to do the rein back, so don’t bother to ring the bell. Just give me a zero.”
“Um, okay,” said I, “but why don’t you even want to try it?”
“Well,” she explained surprisingly cheerfully, “he always falls over backwards when I do.”

So we left it at that. I gave her the goose egg, and she did the rest of the test and went on to cross country. For my part I couldn’t help but think that unless her horse was hiding a serious injury, there had to be some gigantic flaw in how the two of them approached the movement.

I see lots of bad reinbacks, although most are less extreme than the resistance she described. The human instinct to pull back to go back is totally counterproductive. By nature horses don’t understand that “command.” It’s a restriction that often promotes claustrophobia in them, and the result is anywhere between stiffening, head tossing, and trying to rear.

A correctly ridden reinback is actually “riding forward in reverse.” In simplest terms your calves send the horse forward to the bit where a momentarily non-allowing hand redirects the motion to the rear. Non-allowing or blocking closes the door on forward movement but doesn’t actually pull the bit backwards. The horse should react by stepping away from the pressure which immediately subsides as your fingers relax.

As the rider your greatest ally is patience. If the aid doesn’t work, don’t give up after a few seconds and resort to pulling or see sawing. This is an occasion where process is more important than immediate result. A panicky, rushed backing doesn’t do you much good and confirms your horse’s worst expectations. Think of inviting him to step back and not punishing if he doesn’t understand. Teach him first from the ground using voice aids and tapping with the whip on his chest or front legs. Rewarding the correct response with a treat is also a good idea.

Keeping your horse alive to the aids and laterally supple is also important. Try using just the leg and hand on one side to get a single step of movement and then the other one. Don’t worry if he doesn’t stay straight in the beginning. A rewardable response is what you are looking for and you can tidy it up as you go along. If it’s not working, a ground person reinforcing your aids as you give them while mounted can help him understand. If he feels locked, even a side step or the beginning of a turn on the forehand can loosen him to follow with a step back.

Remember your goals are not simply to move backward but to keep him connected over the top line, staying out to the hand with the poll remaining the highest point, not dragging his legs, and being willing to move forward immediately when you ask. That’s where you’ll receive the highest scores (and the happiest horse).