Blissfully Backwards by Horseback
By my instructor’s amount of hand wringing, you might have thought I had no idea how to back up my horse while mounted. To the contrary, I felt well schooled in the fine art of rein-back. But I had never backed horses up this much. Here in Portugal, it seemed like a fourth gait: walk, trot, canter, and backing up. And evidently there was a minutia of the movement that I failed to get right, although honestly I had no clue what it could be.
When our instructor Georges told us to back our horses up, which he did about a dozen times each lesson, I got my horses moving backwards no problem. Georges was still shaking his head, though, by the end of the first week. Finally, one day he asked me to get off the horse, to hope down to the ground right in the middle of what felt like a darn good rein-back.
Church bells banged in the hills around Alcainca, the warm sun fell around us, and I stood frozen in confusion. I had not been asked to get off a horse since I was a kid and riding so wretchedly that it was in kindness to my pony that an instructor plucked me off. But for flunking some hair-splitting details of a Portuguese rein-back? This seemed a bit much.
“Now, here, put your hand over mine like this,” Georges said, holding out his arm in a way that made me think briefly that we might waltz together around the arena. Then, I saw he held his fist more like the way a falconer gets his hawk to alight. Perplexed, I placed one of my hands over his sideways-turned palm.
“It’s like this. This.” Georges rocked me ever so gently back and forth on my feet by drawing my hand a fraction of an inch forward and then back. The whole time, he kept tipping his palm to keep my fingers stretching forward no matter which direction my body shifted.
“See? Like this, it’s like this.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
The horse needed to continue reaching forward with his body and energy even while he stepped backwards. That was what differentiated a really good rein-back from simply traipsing in a backwards direction. Georges guided me back and forth across the sand, my sweaty horse standing patiently near us, until I had the subtlety of movement in my body.
Since those early visits to Portugal, I have seen and ridden and experienced rein-back in entirely new light. It is a deceptively simple exercise that a rider can forever refine. And its gymnastic benefits for the horse cannot be over-stated. In addition to releasing tension from the lower back, it flexes the joints of the hind limbs—hip, stifle, hock—while toning the abdominal muscles and stretching the deep digital flexor tendon. It improves the horse a myriad of ways and makes him a far better athlete, especially when its minute nuances are accessed.
Originally appearing in Grand Prix tests from days bygone, this simple maneuver loosens the horse’s sacral region, enabling him to use his hind legs more powerfully and evenly. Ideally, the last hind hoof to step backwards is the first to move forward when motion is again initiated.
- From a square halt with the horse on the bit, ride four to six steps backwards.
- Immediately walk the horse forward four steps and halt again.
- If the horse is not square, take a few steps to square him up.
- Immediately, back up again for four to six steps.
- Repeat this sequence.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse cycling forwards-backwards, forward-backwards.
In step 2, you want him to surge forward as soon as you ask. His movements should be quick and light rather than lumbering or sluggish. If any resistance is encountered, it is best to tune up this movement from the ground off his back.
The Magic Behind the Poles
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.
- The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
- Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
- There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
- Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
- For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
- Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.