The Reverse Button: A Fairy Tale

Let me tell you a story. . .

Once there was a very nice horse named Rillo. It was a stupid name, but that’s beside the point. Rillo was lovely in every way, except one, he went absolutely out of his mind at horse shows. It had all started at a horse trials in the dressage warm-up, where he went leaping through the air doing excellent impressions of Lippizanners, or Cirque du Soleil performers, whichever you prefer to imagine.

Either way, it was terrifying, and Rillo’s Wonderfully Brave And Talented Rider did not enjoy the leaping about, even though the impressions really were spot-on.

Rillo was examined following the first horse trials incident and was found to have severe White Line Disease, and after hoof debridement and the long months of growing back his feet, was sound and fit and happy and rarin’ to go. So off Rillo and his Wonderfully Brave and Talented Rider went to a cross-country schooling day.

Rillo did several interesting and destructive things during this cross-country schooling day, including throwing his head up and cracking the roof of the aluminum trailer, going back on the tie and then lunging forward at the trailer, denting the hubcap, and yet For Reasons Unknown, the Wonderfully Brave, etc., but Less Than Brilliant Rider tacked him up and got on him anyway.

And perhaps it should have surprised no one when Rillo began cavorting and leaping, and doing an interesting number where he froze, head straight up like a giraffe’s, and stared sightlessly at the horizon, before doing a very powerful and very vertical move, which frightened all the Pony Clubbers for miles. And then the trainer stepped in.

She wasn’t foolish enough to get on the horse, but she set about getting the horse’s attention – and this, friends, is the point of the story. When a horse stops focusing on you, and starts focusing only on their fears, and they freeze, you have to do everything you can to get it back, or someone, however brave or talented, is going to get hurt. You might even take out a Pony Clubber or two. How did she get Rillo’s attention?

She backed him.

She backed him and backed him and backed him. What do horses hate to do? Back up. Why do they hate it?  They can’t see where they’re going and it’s physically demanding. Why do we do it? Because it’s the equine equivalent of slapping them across the face when they’re going into hysterics.

My trainer backed that horse for fifteen minutes. He hated every second of it. He pushed against her hand, he tried to wheel his hindquarters away, he did everything he could, but she kept him backing. She owned those feet. Own their feet and you have the power – a universal truth.

Rillo jumped every fence on the training course that afternoon. He loaded into the trailer meek as milk. His Wonderfully Brave and Talented and Much Wiser Rider took him to a show and brought home several ribbons the following week. And any time – any time at all – he froze up and started to replay whatever scenario took him away from reality, we backed him up. The incident was never repeated. His Cirque du Soleil days were quite finished.



Filed under Hooves, Rillo, Success Stories, Training Theory

5 responses to “The Reverse Button: A Fairy Tale

  1. I’ve also found the back button works great on the ground. If Gabe is being a putz in hand…back, back, back and I get his mind back. It doesn’t take much, that’s for sure!

    It’s almost like putting their little brains into reverse to the point right before they went elsewhere. 😀

  2. Opens file cabinet and pulls out folder, tucks this little tidbit in, puts folder back and closes filing cabinet. Waits in the sure knowledge that this will be needed someday.

  3. Barb Fulbright

    My OTTB, Vince- Oh, sorry, Invincible Vince- was quite a delight to ride at our first meeting. I took him home, and things weren’t so easy. Keep in mind that he’d been at a TRF rescue site for over a year and had been off the track for four years. My riding had taken a 10 yr. break, post divorce.

    Initially he would start off fine, but then he began to use the reverse gear when it seemed that he’d had enough of whatever, nothing huge or lengthy. Since my old confidence wasn’t quite back, I wasn’t sure if it was something I was doing to aggravate him, or just Vince up to his tricks. He could and did literally back all the way across the arena.

    For awhile, I tried to avoid anything which I thought might stress him out and cause him to back, but one day we were riding with my friend, Laura, and Vince’s best friend, Fabian. (Vince and Fabian are charter members of the Good Old Boys’ Liars Club. Fabian, a tubby QH, tells Vince he’s quite the ladies’ man and Vince tells Fabian he’s a famous race horse who won the Derby twice!)Anyway, we had ridden out away from the barn and Vince decided he’d had enough, refusing to continue forward, and starting the rapid reverse. Something came over me- finally- and I just mentally and physically planted myself in the saddle, thinking that the reason why he did this didn’t matter. It was just intolerable and I gave him a swat on the butt, preparing for the explosion which never came. He shook his head and was meek as a lamb and hasn’t tried that anymore. Yay, me!

    We also do round pen work, just to re-emphasize who’s the Boss mare-> me. He’s come around and most days is quite delightful, and I’ve gotten back my horse sense.

    • Natalie Keller Reinert

      Oh Barb, who’s funny now! I love it! Invincible Vince, what an adorable name. That’s a great story. Geldings, especially, can think they are so clever when they have a go-to trick that gets them out of work everytime.

      I really love round pen work as well. Doing join-up in the round pen is one of my favorite things. When they come up behind you and put their nose on your shoulder – goosebumps! And it’s so easy – no magic sticks required.

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