The Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither

The fifth and final rein aid, the Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither, is perhaps the most important in executing more advanced movements as well as helping balance a horse on circles and in turns, whether in dressage or hunt seat schooling.

Again, because the technical name of this rein aid is a mouthful, I will refer to it in future as “the Indirect Behind.”

The Indirect Behind, like it’s cousin the Indirect in Front, is a rein of opposition, which means that it creates its effect by opposing forward impulsion and therefore has a blocking and somewhat collecting effect on the horse.

To use this rein, the rider simply brings the hand slightly behind the wither and in line with the horse’s opposite hip, as always being careful not to cross the mane. In this position, the rider simply closes the fingers and offers resistance. This temporary resistance blocks the horse’s impulsion on that side causing the horse to bend evenly throughout his body. In addition, the horse will load both the outside hind and outside shoulder, and will have a tendency to move forward and out through both. While the hind is the predominant point of balance here, exactly how much each quarter is loaded can be influenced by the use of an opening outside Direct Rein (to place more balance on the shoulder) or Direct Rein of Opposition (to increase loading of the hind). Leg and weight aids also influence this rein aid greatly.

Imagine drawing a line from the corner of the horse’s mouth, through his body to his opposite hip, and you will have a good approximation of the angle this rein should take. The key to this rein is, as its name suggests, taking the hand behind the wither. While a few inches might not seem like it would make much difference, here inches make all the difference in the world. Taking the hand behind the wither bends the horse behind the wither. Keeping the hand in front of the wither, as in the Indirect in Front, bends the horse in front of the wither. As with all reins of opposition, this rein is not pulled toward the outside hip, but simply positioned in line with it while the fingers are closed and the hand resists. In fact, because this rein is such a powerful aid, sometimes just the positioning of the hand with light contact is enough to get an effect from the horse, without ever having to offer resistance. And, though it is probably obvious by now, it bears repeating that the hand never crosses the mane when giving this aid. It may be necessary to lengthen the rein a little before applying this aid to make sure the horse is not over-bent to the inside.

While the Indirect in Front pushes the shoulder out and toward the rear, the Indirect Behind bends the horse “evenly” from nose-to-tail while impelling both the hindquarter and the shoulder outward from the middle, making it an indispensable rein for lateral work of all kinds.

It has an obvious role as an inside rein in sideward movements (if not true lateral movements) like leg-yielding and shoulder-in, as well as holding a horse out on a circle or into a turn, spiraling out (and in, when the horse needs re-balancing,) setting up a roll-back or volte, etc.. But it is also critical in positioning and balancing the horse for more advanced lateral movements such as in travers and renvers, half pass, etc. in which a driving outside leg can move the horse into the direction of bend.

Compatible Reins:
Because this rein can influence the loading of both the outside hind and shoulder, it can be safely paired with either an outside Direct Rein of Opposition or an ordinary Direct Rein respectively, depending on the desired effect. For example, to encourage the horse to move more sideways than forward or to lead more with the shoulder, an opening Direct Rein would work. To set up a canter transition or collect the horse in preparation for, say, a pirouette, an outside Direct Rein of Opposition might be called for, and so on.

As always with reins of opposition, there is a lot of potential for abuse of this rein, but by now readers should understand the pitfalls of pulling a rein of opposition or crossing the mane. What I find more worrisome is that few trainers even make a mention of the different reins, or confuse them, and when they are actually mentioned, they are seriously misunderstood. For example, modern manuals on hunt seat riding claim that the Indirect Behind is a corrective rein only, and should never be used in turning or lateral work, etc.. While I would agree that the primary turning rein for all horses and riders is and always should be the simple Direct “leading” Rein, a rider would not get very far without the Indirect Behind at the more advanced levels.

It is a powerful rein, and must be used judiciously and with tact, but I think it is a mistake to dispense with it entirely. George Morris has often claimed that advanced riders should use ONLY a Direct Rein of Opposition for turning (my arguments against this can be found here,) and that the greatest degree of bend a horse should ever have is just enough to see the outside corner of his eye (so it’s no wonder he also claims all horses should go in a slow twist snaffle or stronger, among other preposterous notions.) That is all well and good when one is hacking in the field on loose reins, but how, exactly, does one ride a volte, etc, without a greater degree of bend than that? Whatever happened to relating bend to the curvature of the line being ridden? And, if we can agree that the Direct rein of Opposition is inappropriate for turning and bending, that leaves only the Direct “leading” Rein; how, exactly, does one keep the horse balanced on a small circle or short turn with a “leading” rein, since this rein loads the inside shoulder? One doesn’t make a short turn at speed entirely on the inside shoulder, especially if there is a jump at the other side of it – unless we’d like our hunters and dressage horses to go like barrel-racers.

So I suppose what I am saying is that, while this rein should be reserved for more advanced riders and more technical movements, it should not be shunned in favor of more restrictive aids or bigger bits and spurs either. There is a reason we have five distinctly functional rein aids at our disposal as riders – I would not be so quick to throw any of them away simply out of fashion.


Other Posts in this Series:

Holding the Reins

The Turning Seat

Inside vs. Outside: The Weight Debate


The Five Rein Aids: Introduction

The Direct Rein

The Indirect Rein

The Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Wither

The Direct Rein of Opposition


Going Bitless


  1. Thanks for another informative post in this series. I've learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed being taught the correct way to use the five rein aids.

    I agree with you about Mr.Morris, he's become such a celebrity because of his 'innovative' teaching methods, and shameless promotion of himself, no one has the nerve to question him. It's a shame that mediocre trainers get to expound endlessly on whatever subject they deem important to the masses and have it taken as gospel. When it is obviously so off the mark of the correct classical training methods used by 'the masters' for decades.

  2. You are so smart!

    I just love reading these posts and I wish (again) that I could have you standing in my arena saying these things to me as I try to do them.

    When you complete this series I wonder if you might tackle the subject of rein aids from the perspective of using a bitless bridle - I am so curious whether these things can transfer to that, or even to riding in a halter with snap-on reins. How much does the bit actually have to do with it? If the Big Bay understands the rein aid, does he really need the bit?

    Obviously, I'm not talking about competing here, but riding on my own and possibly doing away with the bit in his mouth.

    If it's not something you're interested in writing about, I understand, but I would personally LOVE to read your take on it.

    Thanks for these informative posts.

  3. GHM - i'm glad you enjoyed the post. i know i'm in the minority, but i've just never seen what the fascination is with that particular man or his philosophy, except that it has allowed a lot of mediocre riders to be successful competitors without every having to put any real work into it. i'm going to do a post on jumping releases, and you'll see what i mean!

  4. billie - thanks so much! that means a lot coming from someone who's such a smart, thoughtful rider :-)

    i wish i was there too! it's good to talk theoretically about this stuff, but there is nothing like seeing it put into practice :-)

    the bitless factor is an important point when talking about rein aids, and i think it would make a great topic for a little post! i've got one and i love it :-) i'll work on it tomorrow so long as i don't lose my internet in the snow storm we're supposed to get :-\ thanks for the idea!

  5. it can definitely wait 'til you make it through the storm! stay warm and I hope you don't lose power/internet!

    I just realized I need to start printing these out so I can take them to the barn with me and keep them in the tack room. (read and ride! while it's still fresh..:)

  6. i ended up mucking stalls today, so didn't have time to work on a new post, but i'll get to it! :-)

  7. Great bit of information on classical horsemanship. Though alot of trainers in western riding teach the indirect rein of opposition to pass behind the wither upward and diagonal towards your opposite shoulder for the disengagement and submissiveness of the horse as to bend the horse in the hip and you feel the horses back bend underneath you when they disengage.I am now Confused as to which is correct way in the use of this rein aid . LOL

  8. hi steve - thanks for the comment! now i get to learn something new today :-) i admit i don't know much about western horsemanship, so i can't really help! but it sounds to me, by the action the diagonal rein produces, that it might be a rein more similar to the indirect rein of opposition IN FRONT of the wither, rather than behind. the indirect in front will weight the opposite shoulder and disengage the hind. but you probably know more about it than i do, since i've never used the aid you describe :-\ anyway, it sounds like something i should learn more about, so thanks!


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