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The use of rein back: Dr A McLean


Rein back is a window as to how a horse stops, slows and shortens his strides, says the Australian equine behavioural scientist Andrew McLean. It gives a lot of information as well as being an excellent exercise to bring up the back of a horse.

In English it is called ‘rein back’, which is an excellent expression as it tells how it should be done. Many riding ideologies have deviated from the actual function of the rein. It is so simple: the mouth of a horse is not made for a bit, but for eating grass. And in a very selective way. This sensitive construction we put a bit in, which can hurt. If a horse does what you want and you release pressure on the reins, he learns quickly that by showing that specific behaviour he can get rid of the pressure in his mouth.

McLean considers rein back not only an important riding exercise, but also a way to teach the horse how to react to the signal for downwards transitions. He starts with it at an early age: even after a few months young horses are being taught the principle while led by a headcollar. Once broken-in he starts doing it early in the warm up of a training session.

Start small

McLean starts rein back with one stride. “Don’t ask too much in the beginning. Take contact and release straight away when the horse puts his front leg back. Nothing else, no leg aids, just rein,  and then release when you get the right response. You will only have to repeat it a few times before the horse learns it well. Then, you can ask for a whole step back by holding on the rein aid just a little longer. It is important to follow the movement with your seat. Leaning back or tightening will block the horses back”.

If a proper rein back is wanted (multiple steps), McLean adds a signal by putting both legs back, without squeezing. “The rein indicates the backward movement and is released when the horse goes backwards. The riders legs slide back and tell the horse to continue to go backwards until other aids tell otherwise. There are also riders who don’t put their legs back but instead lighten their seat, which is also fine by me. As long as it’s an unique signal that is not being used for something else as well, so the horse won’t get confused as to the meaning”.


What is very wrong according to McLean is squeezing with the legs during rein back. “It means ‘go’ while you ask him to ‘go back’ with the reins at the same time which is very confusing and can lead to serious behavioural problems. especially if the rider gets tougher when he doesn’t get the right response.”

What it, when a horse starts to rein back, he puts his head up? “After a few successful releases of pressure to reward the legs going backwards, so he knows the pressure will be released immediately, he will no longer raise his head. Only then the rein back makes the back of the horse go up, which is good for his back muscles and his ability to carry the rider”.

“Nowadays there is too much emphasis on being ‘on the bit’. A good contact is a result of lightness, not the other way around. If a horse trusts you to be light he won’t be afraid to follow your hand. Forcing his head and neck into a certain position will cause behavioural and physical problems. You’ll see it when they grow older”


By doing rein back the right way it teaches a horse to react the same way in downwards transitions. He’ll come back at the slightest signal, without losing self-carriage or tightning his back.

A horse that doesn’t rein back when asked, and even gets heavier, has not been ridden the right way. It can be corrected, but you’ll have to start over, re-training just one stride backwards to achieve the correct response.
“If a horse reacts the right way, you don’t have to do it over and over again. But if he needs to learn it properly, don’t move on to the next thing before he understands.”
Don’t be worried when a horse starts to anticipate and does more steps they you had in mind. It’s easy to get him forward again with a leg aid. Why is too many steps bad anyway? If he offers it in piaffe, everyone is over the moon…”


Some riders think rein back has to do with dominance or lack of it when he doesn’t do it. “Rubbish”, says McLean. “The social organisation amongst horses is far more complex then we think. A horse doesn’t see his rider as a leader, he simply tries to find way to avoid nasty pressure. If he doesn’t do what you ask it is not because he doesn’t see you as a leader and you should enforce your ‘leadership’ by brute force, but because he simply doesn’t understand what you want. Most common mistake is that riders don’t let go of the reins at the proper moment.”

Use of voice can also be a good aid for rein back, this can be trained through classical conditioning, where the voice aid is applied just before the rein aid. Soon the horse will respond to voice alone.  “It’s very old fashioned that the voice is not allowed in a test.. I hope one day the rider with the least ‘weapons’ who performs well will win.”