Backing in a serpentine is a great exercise for discovering problems in your horse’s bend and flexion. It can help your leads, straighten out a horse that is backing crooked, and can improve your turnarounds as well as your timing and balance in general.
It is a helpful way to develop a clear idea of how your horse’s front and hindquarters reach. Many people have a difficult time feeling this when they are riding forward, but when they slow down and back a circle, or in this case a serpentine, they can get a better sense of what is going on underneath them.
In the following series of photos I back some serpentines on my mare Sally. Note that Sally has her weight extremely far back. Your horse might not carry his weight as far back, and so will have a different amount of reach than this horse.
If I am backing a circle to the right, my horse is flexed to the right, just as she would be if I were riding a circle to the right. When backing a circle to the right, my horse’s hindquarters will be stepping to the left, as her front quarters are reaching to the right. Your horse’s feet move in diagonal pairs when they back. In the example above of the right circle, the “reaching pair” will be the right front and left hind, they will reach away from each other (right front to the right and left hind to the left). The “backing pair” in this case the left front and right hind will be stepping straight back.
If you have problems in this exercise, your horse is either losing the flexion or the backing, or you are getting in your horse’s way. Reorganize by backing straight or by bending and stepping he hindquarters over as needed, then start again. I feel like I sit a little forward in this exercise to allow my horse’s hindquarters to come more under herself and allow her loin to lift. If I leaned too far back, it could inhibit her ability to engage.
This exercise also highlights your imbalances in your ability to bend left and right. In these photos you might see that I have more difficulty shifting my weight to my right seat bone. This is can be from my body awareness, or something Sally is doing that is causing this difficulty.
The most important thing to remember in this exercise is to adjust. You will be learning to feel when your weight is in the wrong place or where you will need to make a change to help your horse. This is as important as the exercise itself. Moving your weight forward, back, left or right will vary how your horse moves. Find what you can do with your weight and position to help your horse be successful.
Serpentine: The serpentine consists of half-circles made alternately left to right and connected by a straight line.
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.30