If you’ve successfully followed Parts 1 & 2, you can now start, stop, and turn your horse in hand, in response to a clear set of aids in conjunction with your body language.
Your next step is to ask him to step backwards in clear, controlled steps.
As ever, ensure you have the correct equipment: sturdy boots (really important for this close-up work), gloves, and a bridle. You may also want to wear a safety helmet.
Reasons to teach Rein Back
One of the main benefits of in hand work is that you are teaching your horse how to use his body without having to contend with lifting or balancing a rider’s weight on his back. This is particularly beneficial for horses with
- a weak or stiff back
- weak core muscles
- damaged back muscles, often caused by incorrect posture when ridden, or saddle issues
- kissing spines and rehab from kissing spine treatments/surgery
- young horses who have not yet had a chance to develop the strength in their core muscles necessary to carrying a rider
Done correctly, rein back in hand
- is suppling to the horse’s back
- teaches him how to lift and round his back without the pressure of a rider’s weight on his back
- teaches him to engage his hindlegs further under his body, resulting in a lowered croup
- engages and strengthens his core muscles
- helps strengthen his entire postural muscle system, especially the weight carrying capacity of his haunches
- reinforces obedience, although it must never be used as a puishment
- prepares him to learn this important movement under saddle, and
- with a ground handler in addition to a rider, takes out the confusion and stress that may occur when he is first introduced to ridden rein back aids
What, precisely, are you looking for in a good rein back?
As before, I want to reiterate that movements can be performed with mechanical obedience, or with true understanding on the part of the horse of what you are asking him to do. Only the latter version will have mental and physical training value.
You want him to
- step backward willingly
- maintain a steady, preferably lowered and arched, neck position. [Stepping backward with a raised and/or inverted neck compresses the top of the spinal processes together, and is extremely uncomfortable for a horse.]
- step backward in clear diagonal pairs
- take measured steps that and neither rushed or sluggish
- stop going backward at any time you choose, and either halt, or move forward as soon as you ask
- Standing at the mid neck position and facing the tail at halt, place your whip hand on the middle of his chest. Make sure to keep your feet to one side of his – i.e. don’t stand directly in front of him
- Incline your body slightly forward (towards his tail) and press gently on his chest. Depending on how aware of the whip he is, you might either keep the lash end pointed down, or raised so that the whip is horizontal (or anything in between). You will need to experiment to discover your own horse’s response
- use a voice command, ‘Back’, or repeated ‘Back, back’
- Resist any forward inclination by gently restraining with the reins, but do not try to pull him backward using the bit
- If he doesn’t move backward, press harder against his chest
- When he takes even a tiny step back, stop and praise him, then go again, without moving forward in between.
- Once he gains an understanding , you will be able to move him backward for as many steps as you want before halting him (or going into immediate forward steps) by dropping the hand from his chest and putting your own body and feel on the reins into forward mode.
- Keep trying with the above aids, and only if he is truly reluctant, you can reinforce your backward aid by using a shorter whip to tap him on the chest instead of pressing with your hand. You should only need to do this once: this is about him understanding what you are asking of him, and not about frightening him into obedience. As soon as you have achieved a step or two backward using this extra aid, go back to just a pressing hand.
Case study #1
Kirsty with 22 year old Beamish. This clip shows a forward and backward exercise with a horse that finds this work easy to understand. Her steps are clearly diagonal, and the controls are good.
Case study #2
Maggie with Dia. This clip shows the movement being taught in the yard rather than the school, and using the environment (in this case the side of the horsebox) to aid in keeping the mare straight.
Dia finds this sort of work difficult because she has a stiff back, so here we are only asking for a few steps before rewarding her for trying. If you watch her steps carefully you will see she moves her legs independently, instead of in correct diagonal pairs. As she learns to round and relax her back with better engagement of her core muscles, this will improve.
As ever, if you have any specific questions please leave them in the comments below and I will answer as soon as possible.