Question Category: Riding Skills
Question: Hi Julie,
Would you please explain the correct way to teach a horse to back up in both English and Western? I have seen so many variations of this that I am now thoroughly confused. Also, on a Western saddle, what is your thought as to how tight/loose the flank billet should be and why? Again, I have heard many thoughts on this; anywhere from snug to loose with a 1” to 2” drop.
Answer: Dear Shryl,
Thanks for your question and it is one that comes up in almost every clinic that I do—how to properly cue a horse to back up (or cue for a rein-back, as they say in most every other country). Don’t feel alone in being confused about this because while many cues are fairly standard, the rein-back cue does indeed have a lot of variance to it.
There is not really any difference in cueing a horse to back between Western and English. There are some differences in the style that the horse backs—mainly that the Western performance horse should tuck his tail and back rapidly, while the English horse backs smoothly and methodically. But the cues you use are the same and both English and Western horses should drop their heads, round the back and back with their hocks engaged.
The most important thing to know about cueing the horse for the rein-back is that you do not pull him back with your hands, but instead close the front door to forward movement with your hands (by picking up lightly on the reins) and then ask the horse to move his feet with your seat and legs (shift your weight back then apply gentle pulsating leg pressure).
When the rider tries to pull the horse back with his hands, the horse will almost always stiffen his neck and shoulders, bracing against the pull, and consequently come heavy on the forehand with stiff and resistant movement, dragging his feet if he backs at all. In the ideal rein-back, the horse brings his hindquarters up underneath him, rounds his back and lifts his shoulders moving freely on a light rein and with impulsion.
Some horses are cued for the rein-back with alternating legs aids (right-left-right-left) while others will respond to both legs closing softly on his sides at the same time. When I am riding a horse that is unfamiliar to me, I’ll generally experiment with both these leg aids to see which the horse is more familiar with.
Often, you’ll see riders cue their horse to back by shifting their weight in the saddle from side to side while pulling back on the reins. While this works for some horses, it is not a cue I would use because of the strain you are putting on the horse’s back while doing this. Horses will learn almost any cue you give them as long as you give it consistently and release the pressure when he responds. But still, it is best if your cues make sense to the horse and does not interfere with his movement.
As for your question about the flank cinch (sometimes called the rear cinch), this is also a good question and in fact, it is a pet peeve of mine to see the flank cinch hanging below the belly. The purpose of the flank cinch is to hold the back of the saddle down and to help distribute the weight evenly across the bars of the tree, regardless of the movements and actions of the rider. If the flank cinch is hanging two inches below the horse’s belly it is serving no purpose and is in fact hazardous, since it is possible for a horse to hang a hind foot in the gap and get in a huge wreck.
The flank cinch should be adjusted quite snugly against the horse’s belly—not as tight as the front cinch, but snug. As the horse warms up, it will loosen; so either you’ll need to tighten it after 15 minutes or so or riding or put it very snug to begin with. A horse must be accustomed to the flank cinch being tight—if he’s never had it tightened on him it may make him uncomfortable and reactive at first.
If you are not using the flank cinch in a snug position, then it is serving no purpose and should be removed. Another critical safety feature is that there is always a hobble between the two cinches, adjusted so that the two cinches stay parallel and that the flank cinch will not slip back on the belly and become a bucking strap. That is likely a mistake that you will only make once!
Thanks for your excellent, but simple questions.
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