BY GIGI NUTTER – The old Master’s directive was to “ride your horse forward and straight.” It is important for a rider to understand that there are mental and physical aspects to the concept of “forward” riding. The physical characteristics center on the horse, while the mental aspects apply to both horse and rider.
Beginning with the physical, riding a horse forward builds the correct muscles from the hind legs through the back. As a horse’s strength improves in these areas, so does the thrusting power. This results in “impulsion” or the pushing force that allows a horse to move forward powerfully and with energy. It is critical that this strength and physical ability to move forward be developed and encouraged in the young horse.
Riders must not confuse forward riding or impulsion with speed. A forward trot is correct when the horse pushes powerfully from the hind end and through the back. This is very different than a horse rushing flatly using hundreds of short, choppy steps.
Shifting to the mental aspect of “forward”, a trained horse must have an innate desire to move forward with power and enthusiasm. Not all horses are born with a genetic “Go” button. Others are hot and always ready to move but this comes with tension and anxiety. It is up to the rider to develop a horse’s willingness and understanding.
Rider’s must teach their horses that the driving aids mean “forward.” That means a horse should always respect the seat, whip and spur without negative tension. Any driving aid given should be met with a positive forward response. This is another aspect of training that is not emphasized enough in the early stages of a horse’s education. Once a young horse learns to resist by either kicking or bucking at driving aids, you are in immediate danger of creating a “backwards-thinking” horse. Correctly trained horses understand that the driving aids mean “go forward” and they continue advancing ahead without constant reinforcement of the aids.
Not all horses that respond to driving aids do so willingly. This willingness is created through trust and a rider’s ability to keep the training relaxed and enjoyable for the horse. Years ago, I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke work horses in Germany. There was a sand track surrounding the farm. After walking on loose reins, young horses were asked to move forward. In most cases, they looked like they really wanted to. It was like watching children being let out of class for recess. If trainers earn a horse’s trust and develop a willingness to go forward, the pair is well poised to move up the levels. Horses need to feel free, relaxed and unrestricted.
In my experience, it’s not the horse that has the most difficulty understanding the concept of “forward.” It’s the riders.
At clinics, students frequently demonstrate a lack of understanding regarding how forward they can ride their horse. There is a limit based on the horse’s conditioning and athleticism as to how hard he can push and maintain relaxation and balance. Most clinic riders don’t ride anywhere near that limit. Many trends in equestrian training emphasize relaxation and calmness. Dressage riders frequently interpret this to mean they should spend hours on the longe cooing to their horse and seek constant calm as they school from the saddle. This doesn’t result in a strong, forward horse that is prepared to move up the levels. It creates a horse that only offers the minimum amount of effort necessary to get through the work.
While most people equate courage to eventing, show jumping or steeplechase, dressage riders require this trait as well. It takes a certain amount of courage and confidence to steadily ask a horse to move more forward, especially those that are inclined to be lazy from the start of training. Riders that fear the occasional buck or disobedience will have problems taking their horse to the limit. This will restrict their progress in training.
A horse must develop the ability to move willingly and powerfully forward in a relaxed manner before collection can begin. The rider must create this confident, powerful equine through thoughtful, dedicated schooling conducted with courage and patience. Both horse and rider must enjoy the process.
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