Riding The Rein Back in Dressage Riding

There is much controversy in the discipline of dressage regarding the rein back. A rein back is defined as a rider asking her horse to take a few steps backwards. USDF dressage tests introduce the rein back in the second level test, after the requirements of both training and first levels have been accomplished. The reason for this as I understand it is that the horse must be confirmed as being able to move freely forward before introducing him to the idea of going backward. My belief is that this theory originates back to the older style of horse that influenced the development of modern dressage.

The colder type of Warmblood horse was the breed most available to ride and train 200 years ago throughout Europe. Being descendants of carriage horses they were bred for hundreds of years prior to dressage to use their bodies in completely different ways than what is now required in this modern day sport. It was necessary for a carriage horse to pull forward with their shoulders and push out behind with their hind legs. They were rather dull and required motivation to keep their hind legs active enough to train them. Sending them forward was the easiest way to keep their hind legs awake and mobile. It is easier to influence a horse’s way of going when they are young. By the time a horse is 5 or 6 years old, most of their personality has already developed. So, this is why it was so important at that time to get them “thinking forward” before introducing much else.

Today’s horses have only traces of this blood in them. I feel teaching the horse to back up after being ridden for years at training and first level is far too late in the training process anymore. Throughout the years Dressage enthusiasts have taken the calmer, draft-type Warmblood who is empowered with great bone mass and height and we’ve selectively bred them into an entire different beast. We no longer have to settle for a horse with decent clean gaits and add suspension and flare to their movements with training. Today they are born that way. But—along with this brilliant movement comes flight instinct. Rarely do we witness a young horse that naturally bounds across the ground yet who exhibits a rather calm temperament. They exist, but they need more motivation to make it across the diagonal line than say, famous international dressage competition horse,Totilas.

No matter how we selectively breed horses for our recreational uses, they are still prey animals and they will always have flight instinct. This “run first, think later ” mentality is how they escaped mountain lions for a thousand years. Flight instinct is what kicks in when they bolt and sometimes when they buck and pitch. When a horse reacts this way, they are not thinking, and a horse that who has always been your best friend acts as if they’ve never seen you before in their life. I hear it described by horse owners as “he flips the switch,” or “he loses it”. Most of what I’ve learned over the past six years since my riding accident is how to teach a horse to stop and look/listen to their human instead of reacting on instinct.

This is a stepwise process. It is not something that can be achieved in a weekend. The only place to start is from the perspective that every horse is a wild horse. Every horse must learn to get out of the human’s space on cue and stay there because they respect the handler. Every horse is different, but they all need to learn to mentally yield to humans. By teaching them to yield physically, they also yield mentally. If you watch horses interacting on their own out in the field they rarely back up. If they do, it is because they are yielding to a horse who is higher up on the totem pole. The beta horse yields to the alpha horse. For anyone to train a horse they must be their horse’s alpha.

By teaching your horse to back up, you therefore teach them to respect you because you are their alpha. By getting them to do something with their bodies and feet you influence their mind. Since this falls more under the category of equine language than human language, I think this can be a little bit of a hazy idea for a lot of us humans to conceptualize. The best way I can think of to describe this is to think of how we may cheer up a friend after a bad day at work. At first we tell a silly joke and they smile just to humor us while not really feeling any better, but after 15 minutes or laughing and smiling their mood actually does begin to lighten. We get them to smile physically and as a result they may feel better mentally. This concept works with gaining our horses respect in much the same way.

Horses crave safety and look to the lead horse to find it. In every herd of horses, there is always a hierarchy. This chain of command ultimately leads up to one main alpha horse (usually this is a mare) for the sake of having one top watch-dog for the entirety of the herd. She keeps an eye on the horizon for signs of approaching threats so the rest of the herd can focus on grazing. If she notices anything leery, she moves her herd away. All horses crave this leadership. Their survival depends on the presence of a strong leader who continually watches over them, yet horses are skeptics and they test us as well as their equine companions regularly, especially the smart ones. For a horse to trust a weak leader is an almost certain death.

I, like most horse trainers love acquiring my horses at a very young age because they are the most impressionable. No matter what age horse I receive, whether its a young filly who’s not yet broke to wear a halter or a well trained first level horse, the first thing I do when I get the lead rope in my hand is teach them how to back away from me. For that young weanling filly that I just got the halter on for the first time only minutes ago; I may only have to wiggle my wrist a tiny bit to get her to yield backwards, and then I quit asking—I relax my wrist. I reward the try. For the older horse, perhaps an adolescent type of four-year-old that is really testing boundaries, I may have to turn that slight wiggle-of-the-wrist into a big wave-of-the-arm until the rope is swinging back and forth and the buckle on the underside of the halter has bumped his chin a few times to get his attention. With this four-year-old I would also want to see a good three or four actual steps backwards as opposed to that young timid filly who was only asked to rock her chest back. For me to consider any horse “trained”, no matter the discipline or level of that training I personally want to see that horse be able to rein back from a handler on the ground with rhythm, a low/relaxed head carriage naturally (no *side-reins), on the slightest move of the the wrist and rope as possible.

This applies to being ridden as well. I have a specific way that I “close” all of my aids, I stop movement of all joints and muscles and imagine being pulled backwards as if a rope were tied around my waist pulling my straight-spine backwards. If the horse I am riding doesn’t feel this, I increase this pressure until they feel a pulling back on the bit, and then I reward the try by releasing. A horse’s stop is only as good as their back up. Yes, it is a goal to use only the seat to perform a down transition such as a walk to halt. But that is refinement and before refinement you must have something to refine, so it is not unusual in the beginning of teaching the rein back to have to resort to the feel of pulling back at times. No matter how good you get at refining things on a trained horse, a good horse is always going to test you. There may be times you get pulled out of the saddle by a very good horse after halting for what seems is no good reason at all. Or your horse goes faster heading back to the barn than away from it. These are all times that a good dose of respect would be a handy tool to have. ~MG

*side-reins are a training device used to tie a horse’s head into position.

Originally Posted by Megan Georges on January 5, 2013 
Reposted by ThinLine on April 17th, 2013

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Meet ThinLine’s New Featured Blog Writer: 

Megan Georges
from Phoenix Rising Equestrian Center, Texas

Photo by Lisa Tannenhill

“My name is Megan Georges. I’ve been riding horses since I was five years old. I’ve been riding dressage for the past 15 years. I’ve been a dressage trainer and instructor since 2003. In 2006 and 2007 I had two bad horse accidents which prompted me to seek answers from a different perspective.

Coming from a predominantly English riding background I’ve been shocked to learn that horses with a Western performance background are far more responsive than English horses! For reasons I will discuss in upcoming pages I’ve been spending quite a bit of time cross training in Western riding disciplines. What I’ve learned over the past two years has been so exciting to me that I’ve decided to share as much as I can in a blog.”

Visit Megan’s Blog 

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