Teach your horse a credit earning rein-back on the judge’s score card.

Stop and back. It’s the final segment in many horse show patterns –  the finishing touch on the phrases of maneuvers you’ve linked together for a winning “go”.

Dressage, western horsemanship, western riding , and reining are among the classes which  include a separate score  for the rein-back.

Sounds simple enough – so why do we earn negative scores in that box on the judge’s card?

To be honest, as a competitor, I just hadn’t taken that final score box seriously.   I didn’t really picture the judge assessing the maneuver and putting a number in it.  With all of the “important” parts of the pattern in the rear view mirror, I’d be mentally reviewing the previous components instead of concentrating on this one.

Judging has been an eye opener for me. Every phrase of a performance is considered credit earning, average or below average. So I remind the riders I coach – why waste a maneuver score?

Typical reasons for a below average rein-back include:

  • Resistance – Your horse opens his mouth lugging on your hand. He may even root or pull on the reins. He may evade bit pressure by raising his head above the bit, or hide from it, curling behind the bit.
  • Tension –You may not experience the “push back” mentioned above, but if your horse is clearly not relaxed – rushed, irritated, ears back or tail swishing, the mark will be below average.
  • Sluggish – A horse might get stuck in his rhythm, failing to maintain a distinct diagonal beat. He may grudgingly offer  2 or 3 steps instead of a showing off a full back up.
  • Crooked – Your horse backs diagonally or curls his body out of alignment.

The fixes (Conveniently beginning with the letter S – sorry, I couldn’t help myself)

  • Soft: Begin with a light touch to test the waters. Likely, both you and your horse’s adrenaline is raised in the pressure of the show ring. As a prey animal he feels vulnerable and on edge when he’s performing alone, away from home turf.  I often see competitors, triggered by competition butterflies, “pull the trigger” on the reins.  Surprising a horse causes him to gap his mouth, rush, toss his head or “spill” out in a multitude of ways.
  • Step:  Your legs ask your horse to step in rhythm and determine length and speed of that step. Imagine a triangle between your hand s (the bit)and your two legs. As your legs close on the horse, your hand forms the top of the triangle, preventing him from stepping forward.  I use one light squeeze for each step, dropping my heel to remove my leg when I want to stop backing. Pulling the horse back, using a greater ratio of hand to leg, is the formula for an ugly back up.
  • Straight: Imagine your horse as a train with three cars. If you reverse the train initiating from the first train car, pulling on the reins,  the whole thing will jackknife. Now picture grasping behind the middle train car and backing the cars from there. This is the role of your legs, signaling from the girth area, creating energy to step back.
    With your horse straddling the train track, and your eyes fixed on the line ahead , you’ll be quick to spot the first hint of crookedness. A stitch in time saves nine.
  • Speed. Degree of difficulty earns credits, but not at the expense of accuracy and willingness. Once all the other components are mastered, go ahead and increase momentum.
  • Shape. The credit earning back up maintains a consistent, round outline from the gait approaching the stop, in the stop itself, and in the backward steps.  Simply pulling on the reins squishes the outline, sours the expression and spoils the straightness  (and the judge says “yuck”).

You’ve heard it before – “Small wins make a big difference.”  Many training steps are combined to reflect the number in each box on the judge’s score sheet. And each box tallies up for the final score – even the forgotten rein- back!

The pattern’s finishing…now stop, pause, take a deep breathe, and ace that back up!