Rein-Back (aka Backing Up) the Right Way

In this excerpt from The Principles of Riding, the classic book from the German Equestrian Federation (FN), we learn what makes for a correct rein-back and how to correct common rider mistakes that lead to issues in the movement.

When performing rein-back, the horse moves backwards with each diagonal pair of legs in unison. The diagonal steps are in the same sequence of leg as in trot, but without the moment of suspension. Therefore, as with trot, the footfall of rein-back is referred to as steps. The horse should step back willingly, markedly and on a straight line, with even steps. The horse’s feet should be lifted actively off the ground and set down backwards. This can only be achieved when the rider manages to have a controlled driving influence, even when going backwards. The rider’s aids are comparable to riding half-halts, which means that the horse is ridden into the sustaining or lightly asking hand, from back to front, with weight and leg aids. This is then followed by a giving rein aid.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

Specifically, rein-back is ridden with the following aids, with the precondition that the horse is in a square halt on a straight line.

  • The rider needs to have the horse on the driving aids so that she would be able to ride off at any time without any delay.
  • By tilting the pelvis backward, a weight aid on both sides carefully gives a forward impulse without placing any more weight on the horse’s back (the upper body remains erect).
  • The rider’s lower legs both provide a forward-driving impulse to enable an active lifting and, subsequently, stepping back of the horse’s legs.
  • Both reins work briefly in a retaining or slightly asking manner and then immediately yield again. The diagonal pair of feet lifted off the ground through the driving aids steps back; the movement impulse being diverted in a backward direction.
  • This giving of aids as an interplay of driving, regulating and then once again giving aids is continued step by step until the horse is brought to a halt by the last half-halt.
  • Any sideways stepping of the horse is countered by the rider bringing the forehand onto the same track as the hindquarters, but not by pushing over the hindquarters.
  • Rein-back is completed when the rider rides the horse clearly forward using the leg and weight aids and gives with the hands without giving up the connection.

 Typical seat-and-aid mistakes/possible reactions of the horse:

  • If the rider uses the rein aids in a dominant or exaggerated way, she makes it very difficult for the horse to step backwards. If the contact becomes tight and stiff, or if the neck is too “short,” and the support from the driving aids is lacking, the horse will not go backwards with clear two-beat steps. The feet are instead dragged backwards (for example, dragging forehand). If resistance also emerges, the horse will tense up in the back. The horse is then no longer able to step backwards with a pure rhythm.
  • If the rider reacts incorrectly to the horse escaping sideways, owing to natural crookedness, for example by positioning a leg slightly too far back or by a rein that is directing minimally sideways, the horse might step backwards in an entirely crooked way. However, crooked steps can also be caused by an uneven use of leg and rein aids.
  • If the rider leans the upper body forward and at the same time, places the lower leg too far back, she no longer has the horse “in front” of her. The aids are then reduced to the rein aids only. In this case, horses frequently tend to drag their feet backwards in an irregular sequence, or they become too rushed.
  • Excessive forward-driving aids cannot be understood by the horse if it is meant to step backwards. In this instance the rider works against the forward tendency with distinct rein aids. The horse will react with resistance.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books

This excerpt from The Principles of Riding from the German Equestrian Federation is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (