Exercises that define the Western Horse – the Rollback

Exercises that define the Western Horse – the rollback
Western Horse Rollback
Western Horse Rollback

A well performed rollback is, of course, one of the defining manoeuvres for a western horse. It’s the agility that is the core of what he does.

NRHA Definition

The NRHA defines a rollback as follows:

“Rollbacks are the 180 degree reversal of forward motion completed by running to a stop, rolling (turning) the shoulders back to the opposite direction over the hocks and departing in a canter, as one continuous motion. The NRHA Handbook states no hesitation; however, the NRHA Judge’s Guide allows that a slight pause to regain footing or balance should not be deemed hesitation. The horse should not step ahead or backup prior to rolling back.”

So: it’s just (“just”!) a horse stepping smartly back 180˚ to the direction he’s just come. Properly done it happens in one sweeping step with the horse’s back feet well under him and his haunches well down. Cutting horses don’t know how to turn any other way. It’s in their DNA. But done well, it’s a thing of beauty to behold with the horse loping along in one direction and then, seemingly in the bat of an eye, swapping ends without any attitude, without rearing and without seeming to jump.

Doing it with George

George just seemed to rollback naturally (of course, he would, wouldn’t he?).

I discovered this early on in our relationship when things did not always turn out quite as planned. Not so much western riding as cowboy capers. This time, we’d found ourselves on a ledge of ground about 6 feet up and no more than 18” wide (yes, really, it was that narrow). Don’t ask how we’d got there, it was just one of those things that happened in those days. “What do I do now”: I asked Lesley  Powell, who happened to be on hand. “Jump him down”: she said.

I’m on a 16.3 horse and from where I am Lesley is a speck down there in the distance. Jump? I’d often seen lesser obstacles of this sort tackled by brave men and women on an eventing course. But we’re standing along what is virtually a vertical wall. I’ve only had this horse a few weeks and Lesley says he’ll turn 90˚ and leap out into the blue if I keep my head, sit back, put my feet forward and give him all the rein he wants. Presumably uttering a careless “yeeha” as we go…

My first rollback

I couldn’t just get off him because there was nowhere to get off to, if you see what I mean. The boy meanwhile is just standing there wondering what this buffoon on his back is going to ask of him next. Well, a trusting buffoon because I just sat and thought through Lesley’s advice. I took a deep breath and reined the boy round ready for our leap out into the wild blue yonder. I’m glad I didn’t shut my eyes because I would never have believed it happened otherwise. George just dropped his haunches and swung out and round, placed his feet perfectly on the ledge going back the other way and walked off it! That was a rollback.

I should make it absolutely clear at this point that I’m not counselling you to find a handy ledge 6’ up in the air and give it a try. Just that I was lucky  to have a horse that did rollbacks as if they were second nature to him. We never had to work too hard at it.

Not just a reining exercise

Unlike the sliding stop (something else that defines the Western Horse), a rollback really does have a useful purpose . It’s the ability when he’s on a cow to just stop and reverse direction in the bat of an eye as his cow jinks one way or another. Or, as in Working Cow Horse, running the cow down the fence and turning it back the other way.

And, if he’s cutting a cow, he’ll keep doing it as the cow tries to find a way past. Admittedly, he will not in a Cutting Horse class be loping-stopping-turning through 180°-loping.  But he’ll be almost sat on his haunches and jumping his front feet from side to side as necessary. It’s what a real versatile horse does and I don’t know anyone who has seen a good rollback for the first time without a drop of the jaw. It’s just a joy to watch.