Rein-Back in Hand


Mark Russell

Rein-back has tremendous gymnastic benefits and is invaluable in every phase of training. In the early stage of training, it serves to teach the horse how to round his back and release through his pelvis. Correct delivery is complicated, however, and rein-back is all too often performed incorrectly.

Before being able to perform a correct rein-back, the horse needs to understand how to halt in balance. In order to achieve this from a walk the horse’s hind legs need to come forward and stop underneath the horse. This means halting the horse from a walk without pulling back on the rein. Pulling back on the rein to halt the horse actually interferes with the horse’s effort to balance himself and is instead likely to create tension. Ideally, the trainer can walk the horse forward then close their fingers on the reins as each front leg comes forward. This on and off tension on the rein slows the front legs while allowing the hind legs to come underneath the haunch.


Think of rein-back as coming forward in reverse: the hindquarters lead the front end back. Conceptually, when impulsion comes from the haunch, there should be no difference in directing the motion either forward or backward. In contrast, the front end should never push against the haunch. This forces the horse back from the shoulder, making the haunch follow the movement rather than lead the movement. For example: if the trainer pulls back on the rein to initiate rein-back, the horse will move backward to release the pressure of the aid. Pulling the rein effectively asks the horse to push back from the shoulder which is not what we want the horse to learn. Pulling a horse backward makes no more sense than pulling him forward. It is the indication of the aid, not force, which asks the horse to step backward.


It is important to teach rein-back with the horse in the long-and-low position. This frame stretches the top line, encourages the back to rise and the pelvis to flex. This disposition of the back, hip, and haunch is described as “coil” and is essential for gymnasticizing the horse. Coil means that the horse’s back is elevated with his pelvis tucked, and his hips and legs are underneath his body. Working in hand and without the saddle is the easiest way to teach the horse to utilize this position correctly. Even at an early stage of training, it is important that the horse uses his back in this manner.


To teach rein-back, start at the halt with the horse in a relaxed and long-low position. It will be easier for the horse if he stands with one front foot forward. Raise both reins so they slide up on the rings of the bit. Lightly use the whip to touch the chest; this contact should initiate a step back. When the horse steps back, the trainer steps with him, then allows him to halt and relax. Remember to not pull the horse back. Think of closing the door to forward movement; leaving backward movement as the next option. If necessary, repeat your aids until the horse steps back.

Initially, instead of stepping back your horse may simply shift his weight back; accept and reward this shift. A shift back instead of a step back should be viewed as a good beginning; it shows that the horse is thinking and responding. Continue working and gradually he will begin to step instead of shift. The horse may offer more than one step, but do not ask for them during the first lessons. Think of each step as a separate exercise; breaking the exercise down into small pieces makes it easier for the horse to learn and to be able to think his way through your requests.

Also, early in the horse’s lessons, he may only respond to the touch of the whip. It may require several sessions for him to identify that the lifting of the reins represents the request to move. Once the horse begins to respond by either shifting his weight back or by stepping back, begin to use only one rein concurrently with the advanced foreleg to cue the horse back. Continue to provide light support with the other rein to keep him from bending his head and neck. In time he will step back from the rein aid alone. As the horse’s response develops, slowly wean him from the whip aid.

Once the horse understands the aids and begins to take more than one step backward, the trainer needs to begin to focus on the horse’s footfalls. Remember, rein-back is a two-beat gait in which the diagonal hoofs hit the ground at the same moment. It is important that this rhythm be correct to maintain coil and balance.

Again, initially the trainer may need to encourage the two-beat rhythm with the whip aid on the chest in time with the diagonal movement of his legs. Once the horse sustains the rhythm, the speed of the execution of the backward steps should be slowed down by the trainer. If the trainer asks the horse to execute the movement too fast, or if the horse speeds up, the benefit of flexibility will be lost.

It is important to focus on each diagonal step as a separate movement before asking the horse for more. Better utility of the back through coil will develop after the horse can depart from the long-low position and while yielding to the rein aid. In addition, the horse learns to balance each step without looking to the rein for support.

Tilting the pelvis and rounding the back are what make rein-back such a powerful gymnastic tool. In the correct position the horse is poised not only to step backward from the haunch but also to utilize longitudinal bend in the forward gaits. Teaching rein-back in hand encourages the horse to develop this correct position. Later when working the exercise under saddle, the horse will have gained the balance and strength to carry the rider in the raised position.

Correct rein-back position

Correct rein-back position


For a moment let’s return to the discussion of pulling the horse backward by the rein. Pulling causes mental tension and muscle tightness throughout the neck and chest. In this state the horse is most likely to hollow his back behind the withers. In this hollowed-back position, it is easier for the horse to push back from the shoulders than to step backward from the haunch. Delivering rein-back in this manner would develop the wrong muscle groups, making it even harder to correct at a later stage in training.

Rein-back is an important lesson in balance; it must be taught with a rounded back and with the horse stepping from the haunch in order to have gymnastic value.


start at a balanced halt – long-low position – one foot forward – rein aids – whip aid – diagonal footfalls – don’t ask for too many steps – make each step count –


Before rein-back is begun under saddle, the horse should be fluid with the delivery of the movement in-hand. In order to ride the exercise effectively, the horse needs to be supple in his hind leg joints and be strong enough to carry the coiled position with the rider’s weight in the saddle. A good indication that the horse has the necessary suppleness and strength to begin rein-back under saddle is his ability to stay round while transitioning from trot to halt with a rider mounted. Practicing rein-back in hand and working on transitions will set you and your horse up for success for rein-back under saddle.

Correct rein back under saddle; notice the drape in the rein and the horse's coil. Here the horse is beginning to yield his chest.

Correct rein back under saddle; notice the drape in the rein and the horse's coil. Here the horse is beginning to yield his chest.