Teaching young horses rein-back is just like training a young horse to do anything whilst ridden. Some young horses will find certain movements or requests easier than others, and others may simply have a different view to the rider on whether or not to perform the requested movement.
My own experience training young horses to go backwards with me on their back has been varied. Currently, I’m teaching my 6-year-old, Dutch Warmblood mare, Jaliva (Mary), how to rein-back, which has proven a difficult task as she has her own opinions on the idea of reversing!
In this blog, I’ll explain what rein-back is, how to perform it, provide a step by step guide on how to teach a young horse to rein-back, and share some of my own experiences.
What is rein-back?
Rein-back is a dressage movement that is officially defined as a two-beat movement in which a horse is asked to go straight back in diagonal pairs with their forelegs following those of their hind, but without a moment of suspension.
How to perform rein-back
To perform rein-back, the rider applies both leg aids and pressure down the rein. The leg aid asks the horse to move, and the pressure down the rein to the horse’s mouth stops them from going forward, so instead the horse will release the energy created in a step back.
When the rider wishes the horse to stop moving back, they sit deeper into their seat, lighten the contact to the mouth, and put more pressure on with their leg which asks them to go forward again.
Step by step guide to teaching a young horse rein-back
Before you can begin to teach your horse rein-back whilst being ridden, you must be able to ride a square halt. If the horse is trailing a hind leg at the start, they won’t be able to keep their balance or step back clearly in diagonal pairs.
Start teaching rein-back in your horse’s stable
Teach your horse to go backwards in the stable from your voice and by gently pushing them back on their chest. Repeat this exercise every day or as often as you like. With enough repetition and persistence, your horse will learn to go backwards in their stable from your voice without the presence of a physical aid.
It is always best to have someone on the floor to help teach rein-back
When asking for rein-back for the first time whilst mounted, it is an easier exercise to do with help from someone on the floor – ideally your instructor who you have regular riding lessons with. The person on the floor has the responsibility of applying pressure to the horse’s chest. You are responsible for sitting quietly on top of the horse and using your voice to ask for rein-back, just like practised in the stable.
Limit the number of steps in the beginning
Your young horse wants to have a positive experience, although in Grand Prix you are asked to perform five steps backwards, when you are starting out, aim for two steps backwards followed by praise. Repeat this exercise a couple of times and then move on to something your horse finds easy.
Start introducing the aids to perform rein-back
When the horse is confident and understands the request to go backwards being ridden from your voice and someone helping from the ground, you can start introducing the aids –a light pressure on the reins, a light seat and pressure on your calves.
What happens when your horse starts listening to your aids?
With repetition and lots of praise, each time you practise rein-back your horse will grow in confidence and need less support from the person on the ground and your voice. There is no set timeline for how long you should need help from a person on the ground, however one to two weeks would be recommended as a minimum if you have never trained a horse to perform rein-back before. When you are first training your horse rein-back by yourself continue to use your voice as a support for your aids.
My own experience of training young horses rein-back
From my own experience, when you have a horse who finds it straight forward to perform rein-back, after being guided a few times by someone on the floor whilst the correct aids are applied, they understand quickly what is being asked. You may find you are able to perform the movement in a test successfully within a couple of months.
When horses aren’t as enthusiastic about going backwards, like my six-year-old, Mary, it can be a much longer process. I have been trying to teach her rein-back on and off for a year now. When asked to halt, she would plant her feet and throw her head in the air in anticipation of being asked rein-back.
Surprisingly this new party trick wasn’t what I wanted when I went down the centreline of my Novice test at the regionals last year, so I put it off for ages. But she has been competing at Novice level for over a year now and is ready for a bigger challenge.
Since there were no competitions during COVID I thought it was the perfect time to teach her rein-back. Armed with the knowledge that the traditional way of teaching rein-back wasn’t working, I decided to try something else.
An alternative method of teaching rein-back
In walk, I would turn her on the forehand whilst applying leg pressure with my inside leg coaxing her hindlegs to move away from my leg whilst on a small circle – almost like a reverse pirouette.
After teaching your horse to move their hindlegs away from your leg in walk, start from the halt position and again ask your horse to move their hind legs away from your leg applying the pressure.
This teaches your horse to move away from your leg and be submissive to the aid. Over time you should be able to start asking them back a bit when you go sideways, gradually going less sideways and more backwards.
When I first started doing this method she would plant regularly and get stressed. When this happens with your horse, walk them forward a number of strides, reassure them they are okay and repeat the exercise. If they continue to get stressed, stop the exercise and focus on something they find easy for the rest of the session. There is always another day to practise movements your horse doesn’t find easy.
Rein-back is a movement when the horse and rider go back in balance. Teaching a young horse to perform rein-back is almost always best started on the ground and with the help of another person. Hopefully you have found some of the information I’ve shared useful for your own training. If you have any questions on rein-back or anything else, please send me a Facebook Message to Lucy Jane Amy Dressage.
About Lucy Amy
Lucy Amy is a 23-year-old international dressage rider and coach currently competing at U25 internationally on her 11-year-old dark bay gelding Extra Time, competing 11-year-old Rudy at Inter II, and 6-year-old-mare Jaliva (Mary) at Novice. Lucy is on the lottery funded, Podium Potential Pathway.