Stop and back. It’s the final segment in many show patterns, putting the finishing punctuation on the phrases of the manoeuvres you’ve linked together for a winning presentation.

Equitation, western horsemanship, western riding and reining are among the classes that include a score for the stop and back.

Sounds simple enough…so, why then, do we have negative scores in that box on the judge’s score card?

To be honest, often as a competitor I didn’t take that final box seriously. I didn’t really envision the judge assessing the manoeuvre and putting a number to it. Instead, I would just breathe out, and with all the “important” parts of the pattern in the rear view mirror, mentally review the all the components instead of concentrating on the final one.

Judging has been an eye-opener for me, however. Every phrase of a performance is considered credit-earning, average or below average. So, why waste a manoeuvre score?

Typical reasons for a below average back or rein-back include:

Resistance – Your horse opens his mouth, lugging on your hand. He may root or pull down on the rein pressure, or evade bit pressure by raising his head above the bit, or hide from it, curling behind the bit. A horse might get stuck in his rhythm.

Tension –You may not experience the “push back” mentioned above, but if your horse is clearly not relaxed, and appears rushed or irritated, with ears back or tail swishing, the mark will be below average.

Crooked – Your horse gets out of line or curls his body out of alignment.

Try these fixes:

Begin with a light touch to test the waters. It is likely your horse’s adrenaline is raised by the pressure of being in the show ring. Add in your own butterflies, and you just may be initiating the back more abruptly than necessary. Surprising a horse causes him to gap his mouth, rush, toss his head or “spill” out in a multitude of ways.

On a scale of one to 10, make your rein contact a one and wait a second (to give the signal time to travel to the brain, as I like to say). Only then, in concert with your leg, increase your aids if required.

Your legs ask your horse to step in rhythm and determine the length and speed of each step. Imagine a triangle between your hand (if riding with one hand) and two legs. As your legs close on the horse, your hand forms the top of the triangle, preventing him from stepping forward. I use one light squeeze for each step, dropping my heel to remove my leg when I want to stop backing up. Using a greater or equal ratio of hand to leg is often the source of a poor back up.

Picture your horse as a train with three cars. If you reverse the train by backing from the first train car, the whole thing will jackknife. Now, picture grasping the middle train car, and pulling the cars from there. This is the role of your legs, creating energy to step back from the girth area.

Visualize your horse straddling a line with both front and both hind feet. With his nose directly over the line, be alert to deviation from any train car as soon as you sense it. If, for example, the nose fades slightly right, just shift your hand left to straighten. If the hip drifts left, slide your left leg behind the girth on that first step to re-straddle that line. By keeping your eyes a few metres ahead at a dot on that line, you’re quick to spot the first hint of crookedness.

Degree of difficulty earns credits, but not at the expense of accuracy and willingness. Once all the other components are mastered – any time in any location – go ahead and increase speed.

The best back up maintains a consistent, round outline from the gait approaching the stop, in the stop itself and in the backward steps. Simply pulling on the reins produces an ugly, behind-the-vertical intimidation or an irritated head toss and hollow back.

The pattern’s finishing…now take a deep breath and ace that back up!