Finding the R gear

When we first talked about training the backing movement, I explained how I had tried to train backing out of Guinness as a response. His aversion to contact and quick flight reflex made him seek release from contact in unasked backing up. I'd mostly succeeded, and Guinness has come to understand that forward is always wanted and that backing is bad, bad, bad.

Of course, I need him to know that backing is okay, but only when asked for. At first, I was pretty intimidated by this whole prospect. How do you teach a horse that one behavior is not okay at some times, but okay at another? My mind, it felt blown.

Then I remembered, he's a horse. This isn't brain surgery, it's training. TRAINING. You know, the systematic and (mostly) logical teaching of an animal. I'm actually pretty good at training animals (I own huskies, if I couldn't train them my life would be way more hectic than it is currently!). It's amazing how easy it is to forget that this is all horse training is, a logical progression of teaching.
Learn! Damn you!
So, I've been approaching teaching the rein back in the same way that I would teach my dogs a skill. I see the rein back as a bit of trick, the same with lead changes. I think that's why they are trained so differently on different horses. These are "tricks" not so much natural progressions of forward like the trot lengthen or the collected canter. Maybe I'm wrong here, but it's working for me. Here's what I've been doing--

Step 1. Teach horse to reliably back with a voice command. 
This I already had done. I insist on ground manners and space from my horses, and learning to back on voice command is a big part of this. It started by teaching him to back by gently pulsing a pressure on his chest until he moved backwards away from it. At the same time, I repeat "Back" verbally. Eventually he associates the word with the action, and voilĂ 

Step 2. Establish a good halt/stand, halt/walk and halt/trot cue and response. 
This was also already done. I'd encountered some resistance to just standing at the halt, as my horse is the King of ADD. Any stray leg movement used to (and still almost will) send him moving off. However, we got it done. He understands to halt and stand in a frame, and halt/walk, and halt/trot and the differences between the cues. This was mostly just repetition and being very consistent with my cuing. 

Step 3. Decide on cues to use for rein back, and understand fully the differences between cues used for halt/walk and halt/trot. 
I've always asked a horse to rein back by leaning slightly forward, moving my legs back when I add leg, and closing my hands. I wanted to be careful not to pull back when training this, so I've tried to stay conscious of not doing that. I know some people do pull back for a rein back, but I don't think it's entirely correct, and mouth pressure is already something that has sent Pig into a tailspin in the past. I think it's best to avoid it and go completely off body cues. 

Step 4. Introduce rein back under saddle, using verbal cue with new physical cues. Eventually, refine this so that the horse understands the physical cues and the verbal cue can be dropped.
This is where I am now. I introduced my cues to Pig, who was very resistant to move backwards. The verbal cue was certainly necessary to avoid getting a panicked response from Pig, who was expecting me to get upset with him when he backed up. The first few steps were really panicky and crooked. Instead of trying to correct him, I just sat up straight and asked for a halt. Then I praised him. I wanted him to associate those cues with backing, and I figured the panicky stuff could be cleaned up later. 

So far, things are going well. I practice this movement every few days, and each time Pig is getting more confident in his response to my physical and verbal cues. He's stopped freaking out and paddling backwards, instead taking slow and measured steps. We're still a little crooked, but I want him to gain more confidence in going backwards steadily before I add straightening aids. We're almost to the point where I think I can drop the verbal cue. 

It's been a journey, but it feels good to make measured progress! How do you guys train the rein back? Am alone out here in treating it a little bit like a trick?


  1. My horse currently has no back installed. I need to do this. Right now if I ask for it he grows roots and and stands there obnoxiously with his head in the air.

    1. Ugh. I hate the head-in-air move. It reminds me of being a teenager...

  2. It sounds like you're on the right track. Fortunately for me, the rein back was easy for both of my boys even though it's not a skill I need yet to show. I just added leg and kept my hands still. When they figured out that forward wasn't the right answer, they stepped back. I can now ask for as many steps as I want by alternating my legs with each of their leg steps. I have a plant o father issues to work on tough, so it seems only fair that I get a "free pass' on at least one thing!

    1. That's awesome! I think we all deserve a free pass every once in awhile!


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