Backing Forward: How a Green Pony Taught Me How to Rein-Back
Most beginning riders are taught a quick and simple formula for the rein-back: legs off, steady hold on reins, and pull harder with the hands if the horse doesn’t back up off the lighter cue. Most seasoned lesson horses are familiar enough with this system that it works, and, voila, the student has learned the rein-back.
I learned this way, more or less, and the horses I owned and rode responded to these cues. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why even think to?
Then I acquired my Scout. At the time he was one of the greenest horses I had ever dealt with. A sweet disposition, but little “life experience,” and figuring out what he did know was a trial-and-error experience of finding and filling holes in his training. One of the holes I thought I discovered was in his rein-back. When I applied the aids, the only response I got from Scout was giraffe-necked bit evasion and frustration.
Luckily for both of us, the mantra of soft hands forbade my pushing the issue or forcing him backward by hand alone. So with the help of a little research and a green pony, I re-learned how to ride the rein-back. Without forward motion, you’ve got nothing. Not even backwards
Step One: Back is Forward
The first error I made was taking my leg aids away. The first part of riding the rein back is to sit deep in the tack and allow the legs to “hug” the horse. It should feel more like you are kneeling on the saddle than sitting on it. The kind of pressure applied by the legs should be the “toothpaste squeezing” variety. This was plenty to motivate Scout’s energy, no kicking or bumping or other dramatics necessary.
The upper body should sit tall, like a string is being pulled up from the crown of your head. Another visual aid that helped me was to think of my chest and torso like the sail of a ship, filling with energy that carries forward.
This should sound familiar… like asking your horse to walk on. And it should. Because that is what we are asking for. Just backwards. With just the seat and leg action, your horse will probably start walking forwards. If he doesn’t, this point is where you need to stay. The horse should understand move actively forward off of your seat and leg before the rein-back is introduced.
Step Two: The Proper Role of the Hands
So we have forward. How do we direct the forward energy in a backwards direction? By closing the front door with our hands. It isn’t a pull, but a soft hold. More akin to not following the natural motion of a walking horse’s mouth, than to any form of a pull. More advanced riders on horses heavy on the front end might (among other exercises to lighten the front end) employ a slight lifting of the rein to encourage lift and lightness in the shoulders.
Make sure to not ask for miles of rein-back, especially to start. Reward a single step at first, and reward it by following with the hands and allowing your horse to stride ahead, and rub your horse’s neck. This is among the most unnatural movements that we ask of our horses, and especially in the early stages we want to reward the smallest change and slightest try that our horses give us.
The Results and Key Takeaways
No more rein-back angst! It was like flipping a switch — my green bean pony almost instantly had a better rein-back than any lesson pony or seasoned horse I had ever ridden. We had energy, straightness, cadence, and a soft mouth. We even had the beginnings of self-carriage, moments of “that’s right.”
The first big lesson of deconstructing the rein-back is the concept of “forward.” Odds are good that if you are not riding your rein-back with “forward,” you aren’t riding ahead with “forward,” either. And without “forward,” there won’t be enough energy to ask for much else from your horse.
The second big lesson that day was that horses often already are able to do most of the things we ask of them. Our job as riders is, more often, to make it easier for the horse to do what he already knows, while carrying us.
How about you? Anyone else ever get “schooled” by a greenie?