Riding Skills: Cue For Rein Back; Using A Flank/ Rear Cinch

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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.

Thank you,

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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Issues From The Saddle: How Do You Stop A Horse When He’s Running Backwards

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: How do you stop a horse when he’s running backwards?

I was trail riding over the weekend, and my horse took a dislike to the horse behind him. I saw the symptoms (making faces) and tried to get his attention on me, but he would have none of it! That awful equine behind him clearly needed to be taught a lesson (he must have been several feet back). So my horse (an appaloosa) RAN backwards!

I wasn’t very effective in stopping him – just tried to kick & push him with my legs into forward, and he finally did stop without a catastrophe. But how could I have handled this? Pulling back – as one instinctively does to stop – is obviously counter-productive. It seems to me that pulling his head around with one rein might cause him to fall. Does clasping the rein tightly at the neck work in this instance?
Thanks! This situation might not arise again, but I like to be prepared.


Answer: Janet,

You’re right! Pulling back on the reins when your horse is running backwards is not a good idea and will probably make the horse backup faster or rear. While forward motion is what you’d like to ask for, in this instance, because the horse is threatening to kick someone, it is more important to stop the backward movement immediately by disengaging the hindquarters.

There is a lot of information about disengagement and rein aids on my website; it is executed with the indirect rein behind the withers (a rein of opposition), by lifting the rein up and back toward your belly button or opposite shoulder. It will move the hip away from the rein aid and cause the horse to cross his hind legs and stop his impulsion. Although you might not want to use this technique if a horse were running forward and bolting, it is unlikely to make him fall or even stumble while backing.

When a horse is threatening to kick, the best solution is to turn the horse’s head toward the horse he wants to kick. When you turn toward, it makes the horse’s hip move away from whatever he is aiming at. So your solution is to disengage the horse’s hindquarter, in order to stop the horse’s impulsion, while turning the horse toward his intended target. When two horses threaten to go butt to butt, always bring their noses together.

Your horse is extremely disobedient to act that way while being ridden. Horses need to be taught, in no uncertain terms, from day one of their interactions with humans, that when they are in-hand or under-saddle, they are absolutely forbidden from displaying any herd behaviors, especially acts of aggression. Toward this end, horses should never be allowed to fraternize or even move a nose in the direction of another horse when being ridden together. They are perfectly capable of understanding this rule, when it is strictly enforced.

In punishment for such a disobedient act, once I got him under control, I would have immediately taken him away form the group and tried to work the shoes right off his feet (hissing, spitting and growling at him all the while). My goal is for my horse to associate being ostracized from the herd and having to work hard with his aggressive actions. Like all training, timing is critical to get the horse to make the right association.
My guess is that you need to work on your horse’s manners both on the ground and in the saddle. Again, there are scores of articles on my website that will help you with all of these things.

Good luck!

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.