Backing an Arc - Part 2


Article \by Leslie Desmond
Photos by Lisa Popowich

A horse-and-handler team that can back a smooth arc on the ground are well on their way to backing a circle accurately! The relevance of this skill could seem illusive until you analyze the reason that a snappy turn-around, quick roll-back or the ability to back slowly out of a trailer are still goals that have not been reached. The advantages of learning how to back an arc are many, but the most important is that it helps the horse to cement an understanding of what is meant by what is presented to him by the handler. Later, from the saddle, this maneuver becomes useful in small spaces, in competitions where tight, accurate time-saving turns are needed (e.g., barrel racing, pole bending, jump-offs, and team penning), and where finesse adds to the beauty of simple movement such as the shoulders-in and haunches-in exercises taught in basic dressage.


The ability to back an arc or a circle accurately is a skill that also fills in a missing piece in the foundation in the horse that will not stand still while being mounted. (Note: The name associated with the arc is not a reflection of which side of his body the horse is being directed from. The arc - be it an arc to the right or left - takes the name of the leading shoulder associated with it.)

In the Part 1 (January issue of EQUEST), I mentioned that I know of no other maneuver that will prepare a horse and rider team better for a wide range of advanced skills they are likely to need in the future. This is regardless of the breed, riding style, or sport of choice. I bring it up again in this issue because of the potential challenge that could arise when trying to reconcile that in these photographs that I wear English jumping attire while a school a half-draft that is out fitted in ranch gear. Outfits are only that... and can quickly be changed! In this demonstration, we are both exclusively focused on my presentation and the timing and placement of his feet.

Luigi is a 6-year-old half-draft, and green at this exercise. Perhaps this is the fourth or fifth time that we attempted it. When I prepare a horse that is new to this exercise to back an arc to the right from the ground, I position myself at a spot roughly 45 degrees off the point of his left shoulder. Then, together, we move away from a spot is about 8 ft. ahead of us and approximately 8 ft. to the left of the horse's left eye. This way the horse does not become concerned that I am trying to move him. It is we (after I turn to my right and stand ahead of his shoulder) who move away from the spot I am pointing to here, that is behind us. It will take a few tries to get comfortable with the illusive aspect of this mental setup, but once you have it, the horse will respond to your careful guidance and flow gracefully backwards, one clean step at a time, in a precise arc to the right. When you get comfortable at this, it contains its own reward because to do this well has a distinctly good and useful feeling.


If I wanted this horse to move forward and around me to the left, instead, then from the same position I can offer an "opening" rein, shown above. This same rein in a new function is also variously known as a "leading" rein, a "direct" rein, or a "plow" rein. The term, whatever it is, has no meaning to the horse, but is determined by custom, or the discipline a person has been around. Either way, a horse that has been schooled with adequate and consistent "feel" understands the invitation to move toward the slack, and not wait for it to be pulled tight. His ability to "follow a float" and keep the rein slack as you invite him toward it, will go a long way towards building his respect for the slack when you offer it, instead of a hard pull or a series of yanks, in your downward transitions. The rider will experience an ultimate payoff for taking the time to install this essential foundation element when his/her galloping horse can maintain top speed in a turn over his hocks, as he can in a pasture, or stop in a stride, on the release. This feels a lot better that leveraging the mouth until pain causes the horse to reduce his speed. A special bit is not needed. When we focus on the timing and placement of the feet consistently the horse can, too. This exercise and those it leads to, also works well in a rope and halter.


New task: Same side, same equipment, new functions. Instead of walking forward on an arc to the left we back in an arc to the right. In this image, the "opening" rein from the previous photo has a new role as I ask Luigi to step back and to the right. Two arms, two separate functions. What was formerly my directing arm (the left arm) for a forward arc to the left now becomes my supporting arm. It can be used exclusively to liven the horse up - when he is ready for that - in a backwards shift in an arc to the right. Notice that he takes direction (Leslie, where should I place my big feet?) from my right arm, and support from my left. Remember that when you attempt to liven the horse up with the hand that is connected to his mouth or head it disturbs his focus, making the precision you hope for a too-difficult challenge at this critically delicate stage of a horse's faith in his own comprehension. His head is turned in the new direction here, his right (inside) shoulder is reaching back and to the right, and he has already placed weight on his left hind leg, which got a little ahead of things as he "reached" laterally left and back. I am not touching his shoulder with the rein. We both move away from "something", a "spot" that is about 15 feet to the left of that little white apparatus that stands in for a cone. While the horse is leading the way, I follow (moving my feet at a slightly slower pace than he does) and direct the placement of his feet as they are headed back to the ground The speed at which this maneuver takes place depends on how much "life" the horse has available for the job in a given moment. In this photo, he has the right amount, and is making slow, steady, and clear steps. This is a relatively new exercise for Luigi. 

Note: When working with a green horse like this, it is tempting to make a large fuss over small achievements along the way. While a reward is not always out of order, the reward that many people offer a horse for doing what they request - crowding around the head and patting the face a lot while blocking the view in one eye (or, vigorously scratching or slapping him affectionately on the neck) can be confusing to a green horse that has not already been over-exposed to this sort of thing and become dull, or "safe" to it.  
For an expanded discussion of reward through feel and release, check this link: https://lesliedesmond.com/index.php?id=595.


We have a little rhythm going here now. Luigi is focused, responsive, light, and well balanced. He places and re-places each diagonal as I direct him in a backward arc to his right. If I slow his hips down and keep the forehand moving, we complete a turn to the right over the hocks or haunches; or call it a slow-motion rollback to the right, if you prefer. Or, if you like, consider it a pirouette in walk to the right.  
Whatever you choose to call it, this exercise offers a handler or rider an opportunity to slow the component pieces of more advanced, complex maneuvers way down. When this is done consistently at a foundation level, a handler/rider increases the potential for optimum results in mounted work. Because slow, accurate work is the foundation for fast, accurate work, this is a great way to see what is taking place for a horse from his own point of view. If you make short home DVDs or snap shots of your groundwork, it is beneficial to discover if handler oversight or error is a key contribution to difficulties the horse might experience the mounted version of these maneuvers. If there is, just take a little breather, and start over. 


Under saddle now, we prepare to make a right turn. I offer him an invitation to do this with a clear line of sight to the right, a slightly open toe at the right shoulder so he does not feel hemmed in, or blocked by my foot when I liven up. When this exercise is perfected, he will make that shoulder freely available and it will reach generously out and back to the right. Notice that the "outside", or "supporting" rein, also known as the "bearing" rein and the "indirect" rein, is not tight. I do not shorten, or tighten, or shorten and tighten (three different things done for different reasons) either rein if I want more speed in the turn.     

At the same time, I offer an opening rein to the right that, unfortunately, is obscured from view in this photo. If I want faster turns, my slow turns must first be accurate, slowly, on the ground from both sides through feel and release, and then under saddle. Then, when we have those things working well for us, I will raise my available "life" - that is the energy that resides in the core of my being, and in yours, too - so he can respond with an increase of energy that, hopefully, matches and does not exceed mine. To get a quicker response, I do not suddenly start pulling and kicking up there with active hands and heels. Add core energy if and when more power is desired. All of this takes time, and must be practiced with care, and in "bite-sized" chunks to ensure a successful, confidence-building outcome.

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View of my (slightly exaggerated) invitation to tip the poll, bridge of the nose and root of the neck to the right. My line of sight, a slightly open right toe, and an opening rein all indicate to the horse that I prefer to go right than left, when he begins to move. Because I am just sitting up there, and I have not added energy to the request, this is received as it is presented: a request for a change in posture, or body alignment. In the absence of core, livening energy form the rider or handler the reins, per se, should never mean “go”. If they do, you will encounter serious confusion when using the reins to ask for a turn, collection or a decrease in speed.

Since I did not liven up my body and ask him to move his feet, his inquiring mind was available when I extended my left arm a little further forward, and drew my hand out past my right leg a bit, about half way between my hip and knee joints.  I did not tighten the inside (right) rein to achieve the change that you see here between this image and the one right before it. But, I did add just the barest little flicker of attention-getting feel to the extension-release of the left rein down along that shoulder groove so he would hunt up the slack I was offering to him on the right side.  What that release of the right rein does (whether I offer it first to him, or if he puts the float toward my hand of his own volition) is to raise the withers, just a touch. This lets him know I am about to need the whole front end available -- withers, ribcage, shoulders, forelegs, neck and head. Speed is not relevant at this point.  If I wish his forehand to be available, moveable, then of course I also his hips must also be available, because it will be their immediate job to take the weight I am about to displace from the forehand. When 4 quarters and two ends are this available, it is simple for him to move without any resistance in the direction I want! He knows if I ask for him to release the forehand to me, that the weight has to go somewhere and I let him take care of that job. Luigi, like most horses, instinctively understands efficient locomotion, and he knows that the only logical place for the displaced weight to be, temporarily, is back.


[photo missing - coming soon]

If I wanted to cover more ground going backwards as he reaches to the inside (left with the forehand, and to the right with his outside (right) hip, I would first lay the right rein against his neck (outside of the bend) a little closer. Just enough so he can feel it laying there. Then, I would draw my outside (right) hand in a straight line back towards my outside (right) hip bone.  This action, when used on a well-prepared colt or re-start, will usually causes a tightness to come into the direct rein (left) for a moment as he searches forward, or up, for meaning in the increased firmness on the right side. If you do not increase the tension on the outside rein or stop breathing, or do something else to interfere with his desire to better understand your presentation, he will decide to relieve that new outside rein pressure by reaching towards your direct rein again with the base of his neck, poll and head. If he doesn’t, then a return to feel and release exercises basic groundwork is good review.  Then, after he remembers that it is up to him to re-establish the light connection between your hand and his mouth on the left side, he is apt to lift the wither and shoulder in response to lighter and lighter presentations of feel from the outside, or bearing rein. This allows him, in fact, it shows him, that he can lift his back up with more conviction across that essential balance-point (right diagonal) that the right foreleg and left hind create in this example. In so doing, he can offer a wider reach in your backwards arc with the other two legs (left fore and right hind) whose main job it is in this exercise to reach laterally (following the bridge of the nose, and leading the opposite hip) as he steps back.

In no event would I bring my outside rein across the neck, crossing the mane (centerline) to the left in an attempt to sharpen (meaning: tighten, or increase its angle) the turn or to speed it up. This action would tip the head in a direction that is exactly opposite (right) the one we are traveling (left). Over time, and not too much time, in fact, the transgression of his clear understanding about your hands and their purpose will cause a horse to become excessively heavy on the inside shoulder. This is something I like to avoid unless I specifically ask for it.

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In most cases, a horse of any age will not have experienced the same amount of time and attention on his right side that he received on the left.  Therefore, when doing, or viewing, any mounted maneuver that is done to the left, he must be carefully prepared to understand the refined responses that are possible. It is actually fairer to the horse and a lot less work for the rider, to educate him early about the purpose of your supporting right rein. It will be far easier for him to understand your purpose/intent for the root of his neck, poll, shoulders and hips at specific time under saddle if he already had the basics of feel and release clearly understood in halter and a lead rope.

Compare the details in this image with those in Figure 5. In both, he bears more weight on the right hind leg. In the top photo (5), it would serve him better to do this, because balance on the left diagonal (left front and right hind) would free his right shoulder to follow my leading rein if I asked him to “go” while he was in that bend and posture.  Now, when you look at this image (9), you can see that if I will were to liven up and ask for “action”, “life up, please!” and “forward” he would have to shift his weight up, then back off that (left) diagonal, in order to offer me a light and available left shoulder to me. If that maneuver contains any finesse, he will also raise his wither, lower his neck, relax, and let his air out as he follows my opening rein.

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This looks as bad to an onlooker as it feels to the horse, I suspect. A horse cannot easily shift the withers up and back to free either shoulder for a rider with this sorry habit.

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Not perfect, but somewhat improved! This rider should drop her center of gravity lower, and get her hands set on the reins a little better before someone takes the picture!  (I have no worries about firming up on this rider, since it is I who stepped up for this round of photos. LD