Do you guys have issues with your horse just hanging and lugging or leaning on the bit and ya feel like he’s pretty much just taking you for a very long exhausting ride? Let me tell ya, he’s as ticked off at you, as you are at him, and that’s why he keeps trying to hang until you give up.. or he’ll just get a wild hair up his butt and just yank the dang reins outta your little meathooks!

Have you found yourself white knuckling the reins and just locking one arm or the other to simulate a “siderein” for an outside rein? Are your poor little fingers getting tired from holding the reins so tight and (aacckk! god forbid!) maybe even getting blisters on your hands (even under gloves!? Yikes!) Is your horse making you flat out depressed cause you just can’t seem to keep your horse on one outside rein or the other, much less keep him even and elastic on both reins as you ride a circle or go down the long side of an arena trying to have a feather light elastic touch?!

Never fear! You’ve come to the right place to learn how you can easily fix that hanging-lugging mess in just one quick lesson! (Of course you will have to do those itty bitty daily reminders from time to time to maintain he stays sensitive to your light rein aids!)

OK! Lets fix this!! Some of you may or may not know, but I grew up utilizing solid dressage basics to put great foundations on all my horses and ponies, but even though I had a Mom that trained dressage, as a kid I mostly rode Stock Seat (aka “western”) until I was 21, and then I started to specialize in dressage as a sport all on it’s own. So yeah, all my Stock Seat Equitation horses, western pleasure horses, and reining and cuttin’ horses all had incredible “move off your seat” dressage foundations! WooHoo!

Dressage is not just for people who can afford to be wearing fancy clothes, buying $3500 saddles, and riding 100 thousand dollar horses ya know! REALLY! We can all do this bareback and with a simple snaffle bridle or even a Dr. Cook bitless bridle! Even we horse gals that got our horses by truck outta Texas, and that might have even been more western oriented from a very young age – Dressage is really not a foreign language and anyone can do it!

“Dressage” is just another word for “training”! I try to incorporate training tips from all disciplines, and then I throw in a major bit of horse whispering/herd behavior techniques to top it all off, and voila! I consider myself someone that is approachable, and who loves sharing what I’ve learned over the years. I may not have all those pretty USDF year end awards, and bronze, silver, and gold medals to tack onto my bio, but ribbons and trophies have never been what’s most important to me.. what IS most important, is seeing a happy horse and a happy rider – no matter the level and the desires for the future. My hands on practical experience, for well over 40 yrs, and my good fortune to train with some of the names you all see in lights on TV and in magazines, well that may not have put me long or short listed for any Olympic team, but it’s dang sure given me a PhD in “talking horse”! (OK. Well, at least in my own mind…)

So.. here’s the simple trick (aka “what the Doctor ordered”) for a horse that is hanging on you like migraine that just won’t go away!!

Rollbacks, people!!

Yup! Simple as that! Good ol’ western cow horse training!
(As Gomer Pyle would say on Mayberry, RFD, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”)

Now don’t laugh! Even well known First Choice Farm dressage trainer Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel had us all doing rollbacks off the wall in a clinic at my barn one day in Jupiter, FL. So who is Felicitas you may ask? Well…

Felicitas placed first in her native Germany when completing her “Reitlehrer” (federally certified instructor) certification. She also graduated with the highest score ever awarded up to that time following the restructuring and improvement of the program in 1982 by the German government. Felicitas has also served as a USDF examiner for the Instructor’s Certification Program here in the United States. She edited Reiner Klimke’s book Ahlerich: The Making of a Dressage Champion, and is a frequent contributor to Dressage Today and Practical Horseman explaining her philosophy on the importance of hill work for developing “propulsive power” and “carrying power.”

— and now you know. 🙂

Rollbacks worked! Talk about getting a horse so sensitive to a rein aid that the even the lightest lifting of a rein had your horse wanting to turn and go!

Okay. So you may ask.. “How the hell do I do that??”  Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ll even show ya a picture or two so your visual side of your brain gets the idea!

So, for example, when you’re walking down the long side of your arena, with the wall (or fenceline) on your right, lets pretend your left inside hand is now your new outside rein. Lets pretend that your outside (rail side) hand is now your new inside rein. Now I just want you to think about a… “one rein stop” — Almost! First.. you’ll sit up, stay centered in that saddle (No dropping a shoulder or leaning down and over to the right!), just allow your waist to relax, and have your head and shoulders turn as your right hand comes back and you want to be looking over your right shoulder, and at the same time you’ll be taking the one rein with you, the right rein, and asking for the turn.

You’ll be totally relaxing that left rein – keeping your thumb up on the right hand as you slide it back over your thigh, and keeping your elbow following the motion and going backwards at, or below, your right hip and past your waist and hip, and keeping your hand relatively close to your body, not allowing your hand to come up above your thigh too much – yet not pulling downward on the rein (just sliding it back).. it’s more of a sliding motion back. This should now have your horse turning his head toward the wall, bending his neck, and dropping his head, and that’s with you not allowing him to lift his head up and over your fenceline or wall.

Next. Up to this point, your outside leg has just been staying quiet and passive on the horse (just behind the girth) as this is keeping him from throwing his butt too far off the track and just doing a turn on the forehand into the wall. Now that your horse has just about completed his turn, you are going to give both hands forward very fast and kick him quickly to burst down the longside on a loose rein at a perky trot (or canter off is okay too) — but what is most important here, is that he does not hit a rein once you’ve turned and sent him speedily forward!! God forbid you kick him to go, and then slam him in the mouth cause you didn’t give the reins forward!

Go 6 strides or so then regain a light contact on both reins – even elastic contact – follow the motion with your hands, and when you’re ready, do the same exact thing on the left side!

Getting a horse to have a lower head in the rollback has to do with getting his back soft and letting him bend all the way through his spine, from tail to poll, while executing the rollback. A horse who is stiff and hoppy through the rollback will throw his head up. This means there is some brace or resistance in his body when you are doing a rollback.

Most of the time, the brace or stiffness is the fault of the rider. It can be lots of things. It can be that the rider is trying to turn for the horse, by leaning to the inside of the turn and trying to pull him through her body weight. It can be that the rider did not let the horse set his hip and is trying to do things too fast. It can be that the rider did not set the proper arc for the rollback by using inside leg to get his ribs away and shoulder up before asking for the rollback. It can be that the rider is trying to force the rollback by being too strong with an outside rein or outside leg before the horse can complete the move, therefore stiffening up the horse’s ribs and making him throw his shoulder in the rollback.

In order to do a good rollback, a horse has to have a soft back and be relaxed. He has to stop on his butt, and then he has to follow his nose while he rocks back on his hocks and folds through himself, pushing off on outside hind leg to stay balanced through the whole turn. In order to do this, the rider has to have good timing and be out of the horse’s way. If the rider gets in the horse’s way, he cannot move correctly and he will stiffen up, maybe throwing his head up.

Look at this sequence of pictures to see how the horse needs to move to do a rollback with his head down.


You’ll be amazed that after doing that about 8 to 10 times, your horse is so gonna respect a light contact on each side of the corner of his mouth, that you just won’t believe it! All of a sudden your horse is not hanging in your hands, as he’ll be wondering when you’re gonna be turning him next, and he’s gonna be listening to you like you can’t imagine!

Happy Riding!


Shaana and Jorrit 363. Photo by Cally Matherly.

Shaana Risley, is an FEI level dressage rider and trainer, who has had a long and varied career working with all breeds, primarily, Quarter Horses, Warmbloods, TB’s, and specializing in Baroque breeds. She’s ridden many disciplines, and has coached many novice/beginners to upper level riders and trained their horses, or worked on issues. Her business, “Frieze Frame”, is based in West Palm Beach, FL. She has served on the USDF Freestyle Committee from its inception until 2005, and was also Performance Director for a Friesian Registry in the US.

You can read more about Shaana in her contributor bio.