When you train a maneuver correctly from the beginning, you have a much better chance of that horse performing it correctly throughout a lengthy career. A solid foundation gives you a basis to grow from and reduces the likelihood of your horse developing bad habits.
This holds especially true for rollbacks.
In these photos, I’ll demonstrate my process for training rollbacks in young horses on my 3-year-old mare. I’m riding two-handed in a snaffle bit at this phase and will progress to one-handed riding, whether in split reins or romals. Note that you can’t rush rollback training. A great rollback isn’t hurried!
I teach rollbacks near a fence. By staying a horse length away from the arena’s fence, I’m close enough to use it as a guide without confining my horse, nor giving her too much space to make a big U-turn. I lope to my predetermined spot and stop her. I then back her a few steps (as shown in this photo) to set her back on her hocks. You can see that I’ve turned my head slightly to the left, in the direction of my rollback. As I start to look where I want to go, my horse intuitively thinks about going in that direction, too.
My hands and body follow my head and begin to turn to the left. My horse naturally wants to go where I’m looking. At the same time, I raise my hands to set them up to cue my horse. I pick up my left hand to start directing my mare’s nose into the left turn. I follow with my right hand (indirect rein) to bring her shoulders across. She plants her left hind leg because of the way I’ve set her up with my hands and body. My ultimate goal, once she’s fully trained, is to go from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock without her front feet touching the ground in between. Here she begins to lift her front end to make that turn while balancing on her hocks. If I use too much left rein and not enough right rein, I’ll throw her shoulders on the ground and she won’t have fluidity to her rollback.
As she comes around in her rollback, you can see that my mare starts to rock her weight to her hind end. The fence is just close enough from her head that she’s not tempted to go forward but far enough away that she can stay relaxed as she comes around. My hands draw her back into herself, keeping her front end light. Her hind end does the work. This is where I see most riders make a mistake: They drop their hands right at this moment, which is too early in the rollback. When you drop your hands, your horse’s front end hits the ground. This contributes to the U-turn rollback instead of the correct one, directly over your horse’s hocks. Instead, I don’t drop my hands until I can just see that my horse is set up to be in the tracks she made as we approached the stop.
Now is when I lower my hands—as my mare finishes her rollback. She’s set up to exit her rollback on the correct lead (her left), and she’s loping out in the tracks we made in our approach to the stop. If she went past this point, to 4 or 5 o’clock, she’d be set to pick up the incorrect (right) lead because I’d have to push her to the right to get on track. Loping out on the correct lead adds smoothness and correctness to the rollback.
Bob Avila, Temecula, California, is an AQHA world champion, three-time NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity winner, NRHA Futurity champ, and two-time World’s Greatest Horseman. He's been named the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year. Learn more at bobavila.net.