Riding forward is not rushing, nor is it chasing a horse “off its feet.” It is a deliberate set of exercises with the horse “on the aids, ahead of the leg” and able to cover ground with the hindquarters enabled for whatever thrust is required by a gait. This includes the obvious gaits in their various expressions of ordinary, medium, extended, collected, as well as halt and rein-back. Forward riding is especially important for the High School airs of piaffe and passage.
If forward riding were easy, we could buy it in a bottle at the store! It depends not only on anatomy and coordination, but also on feeling and trust. It embraces the sensation of each gait, confidence from your horse, accurate rider position when in motion plus focus that is so hard to transmit by word and diagram.
Rider position for classical equitation is “gravity neutral” from top to bottom and right to left. It is not unique to dressage, but is a basic athletic posture that manages unified centers of mass of a horse/rider pair. In the diagrams and photos that follow, notice that departure from this alignment causes distortions in gaits as well as problems with straightness and bending.
If we first look at an “x-ray view” of selected internal workings of our horses, we can see that forward riding is founded on a general posture that allows athletic performance. Creation of this posture is sensitive and held in the relation between horse and rider. For a training scale, this highlights the importance of CONNECTION in terms of quality and quantity. Refining the dynamic patterns of connection is a goal that remains paramount throughout training for horses and riders.
Rather than discussing too many muscles, we can refer to the first diagram if we need to add details but concentrate on the large back muscles under the rider and the thrusting muscles of the hindquarters. For the neck, we will examine the roll of muscles that stabilize the neck in an unconstrained arc. The condition we strive for is that the energy of the hindquarters is organized and transmitted without any blockage from BACK to FRONT, being received by the elastic arms of a rider. The completed “circle of aids” brings the valued condition of “throughness.” The positive character of throughness is the foundation of all forward riding at any level of training. Throughness is elastic and continuous, regardless of the posture of the horse for collection, extension or free rein.
Circle of aids that indicate throughness: riding forward from hind legs toward bridle. Connection is complete through the horse and rider anatomy and is light elastic from bit to rein to rider shoulders. Poll is the highest point of the topline with even, regular striding. Seat controls the hindquarters and oscillates left hip toward right shoulder and right hip toward left shoulder in EXACT rhythm with the relaxation and contraction of the latissimus dorsi and medial gluteal muscles of the topline. Thumbs should be the highest point of the hands with palms toward each other to enable the flexor muscles of the rider’s skeleton. “Piano hands” or flat hands engage the extensors and stiffen the whole contect. This posture maintains the rider’s center of mass just below the rib cage near the spine. These muscles make an “X” under the rider and can be felt moving as the legs move in the patterns of the gaits.
Contact is damaged by distorted rider positions. The next two images show how a rider out of position loses or blocks the action of hindquarters. A rider pitched forward has lost influence over forward thrust from the hind legs, creating a stiff gait that may appear to have energy but does not cover ground. A rider slumped behind the motion (often called the “driving seat”) will block the hind legs and cause the poll to be lowered to some degree. Holding the poll low (this does not apply to the head bob of walking or stallions with heavy crests) creates slack and overstretched ligaments in the topline, pulling hind legs out. The effect is a flashy gait that lacks power in covering ground forward (lion in front, mouse behind). It also creates difficulty with breathing by crimping the windpipe and putting stress on the tongue via six muscles that connect the hyoid apparatus to the sternum.
Another feature encountered with distorted seats are compensations riders make to chase a horse forward or to adjust tempo (strides per minute). The worst of these compensations is the continual kicking of the legs or flicking with spurs. Some things are problematic with this habit (besides the fact that it is difficult to break). One, each instant a rider moves the leg away, connection is interrupted, only to be suddenly restored with a stroke of spur. Some riders are skilled with this and do not bring blood or raw spots, but the practice is ugly and involves a disturbance of balance when the mass of legs swings in and out. Two, continual wiggling of legs is more “noise” than “signal” in communication with the horse. During transitions among or within gaits, there is a high chance for mistimed aids. All dressage transitions are specific patterns of leg positions during adjustments of speed: horses can ill afford lost instants of preparation if transitions are to be level, fluent and prompt. Transitions are the most frequent movements in tests at any level. Three, as the hose progresses through the levels, it may respond to swinging body parts of its rider by swaying. Rope-walking and swaying in passage and piaffe (balancé) are serious flaws in a performance.
Rider positions that interfere with forward riding by disturbing the circle of aids. Contact dominated by heavy rein connection. Dotted line indicates a correct outline of a forward horse in trot, with the purity of the gait undisturbed.
Riders on a hyperflexed horse are typically braced out of a gravity neutral position and ride from the bridle backward. Our example here is from an Olympic competition. These can be clever riders, but their technique creates breathing problems for the horse, disunited gaits and stresses on connective tissues. As my mentor Dr. Henri van Schaik said, “People ride how they are judged.” Rather than belabor the problems created by this riding method, I will refer you to the international veterinarian Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s book Tug of War: Modern versus Classical Riding. He goes into considerable detail concerning medical issues stemming from hyperflexion. My point is that if a horse is to be freely forward, showing throughness with sound mind and body, then rider position is of primary importance.
Horses are shown by a computer model based on video frames taken at international competitions. Model 1 is a correct medium trot with positive disassociation of the diagonal pair in uphill balance, poll up and nose well ahead of the vertical to enable free breathing. Its Nuchal ligament (a), supraspinous ligament (b) and sacral ligament (c) are connected to support the deep fascia layer of connective tissue (*). The horse is covering ground with legs in the parallelogram of the trot. Models 2 and 3 are hyper-flexed (rollkur) and in a disjointed collected trot with gait purity ruined. Lefs striking the ground one at a time put sever stresses on connective tissues. When the poll is brought too low or the face comes well behind the vertical, breathing is impaired (A), the front end of the ligament system is slack (B) while the ligament system on top of the spine and poll is overstretched, causing the hind quarters to trail with short strides (C). The cramped posture in 2 & 3 disrupt what should be a CONTINUOUS SYSTEM OF LINKS THROUGH THE DEEP AND SHALLOW CONNECTIVE TISSUES. It is important to the physiology of exercise that a rider is aware enough of anatomy to allow the horse to breathe in comfort during aerobic exercise.
Even though a rider cannot always see what his or her position is accomplishing at a given instant, a coach, arena mirrors or a slow motion video on a smart tablet or smart phone can help. We will examine some “search images” of horses moving freely forward in basic gaits, piaffe, passage, halt and rein-back in PART TWO.
CLICK HERE TO READ PART TWO
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR DR. NANCY NICHOLSON