When your mounted horse is backing calmly and well, his legs will be working together in diagonal pairs, his head and neck will be somewhat extended, his mouth will be closed, and his movements will be smooth, straight, and relaxed. You’ve probably seen just the opposite many times at horse shows or lessons – a horse rushing backwards crookedly, one leg at a time, often with jaw set or mouth open, chin tucked or head up.
Judge Kitty Bowland says two common rein-back problems she sees at shows are shuffling backwards and resistance to the hand by opening the mouth with head up, behind the vertical, or pulling. “These problems are usually a result of incorrect training, or training at too early an age,” she says.
To execute a proper mounted rein-back, the horse must first be able to back up correctly when handled from the ground. When learning to ride the rein-back, note that the cues for backup are not the same as the cues for stopping. In the stop, most of the horse’s weight is on the hindquarters, while in the backup the horse uses mainly his front legs to propel himself backward.
To cue a horse to rein-back, halt him from a walk and then wait until he relaxes. Sit in a balanced position and put your weight into your stirrups. Gently collect and flex the horse with a light use of your legs, slightly behind the girth, and your fingers on the reins. Once you have his attention, squeeze with your legs and lean back a bit, bracing to let him know the direction you’d like him to go. Keep your aids as light as you can to get the results you’re looking for (which will depend on the level of training of the horse you’re riding.)
Use your reins to stop forward movement, but don’t pull on your reins. Your fixed hands will block any forward movement. The most you should be doing, if needed, is a slight vibration of the bit created by opening and closing the fingers.
As soon as your horse takes a first step backwards, slacken the reins immediately and relax your leg pressure, thus rewarding his correct response. Once your horse has done three or four successful steps backwards (practicing one step at a time at first), walk him quietly forward. Don’t prolong the lesson, and never ask for more than a few steps.
If you’re having problems with the rein-back, face a fence to prevent the horse from moving forward. If your horse is backing crookedly or swinging his hindquarters, use your leg behind the girth on the side of the bulge and slightly increase the tension on the rein on that side.
A horse that is having real trouble understanding the mounted rein-back cues needs a ground person helping the rider. Kitty recommends the following for both a beginning horse, and for an older horse that is having a problem understanding the cues: “By placing both legs slightly behind the girth in your setup to reinback, your horse will learn to recognize this aid. At the beginning of training the horse, a ground person can apply pressure to the front of the chest as the rider applies the aid. One step backward, and the pressure and the leg aid release. Remember, your hands should not pull – merely resist any forward movement.”