Forward: A good ground covering gait that pushes from behind, is very uphill, and free. Oh, so free. Sigh. We know all the words. We’ve all read the books, watched the videos, and taken lessons.
It’s the natural way of going for a horse, and it sounds simple enough, but not necessarily that easy once you are in the saddle.
So I continue chanting Forward! more often in lessons than any other word. For one simple reason: It’s about the only thing that matters. It’s the very first requirement for anything we do on a horse, in any riding discipline. Forward is the pass/fail test: if we have forward everything is easy and light, and if we do not have forward, nothing works and everything is a fight. It’s either high art or a grudge match.
How do we go from book knowledge or visual (I know it when I see it) awareness to learning the perception to recognize the feel of it? How do we learn finesse? Sometimes I think the art of riding is as much about learning to feel as it is about horses.
What does NOT forward feel like? Sticky. Flat. Thick. Hungover. Bone-jarring. Discordant. Lead-filled. Uneven. Tense. Not forward can feel like making a long distance call, having ankle cramps, and dragging a box of rocks, all at once. Horses were never meant to move this way. It makes them weak, hollow and dead in the head. And eventually lame.
Forward is tarnished by driving and pushing, it’s a gift when volunteered and rewarded. That’s why it’s called the art of riding.
Okay, then how do we feel forward? Forward is a sweet combination of relaxation and swinging movement and should include a positive mental/emotional state. For both horse and rider, there is no resistance.
First, let your intellect rest, dismiss internal chatter. (Repeat as necessary, which means often…)
Feel your sit bones be lifted by each stride from behind, loosening your hips with each of his steps. Let him move you. The stride gets longer as he warms up, your hips and sit bones grow more fluid. As he steps forward and his inside hind leg reaches under, your waist loosens, lungs fill, and your shoulders feel light. In this connected moment, your sit bones can ask for longer or shorter strides, and he answers without hesitation. Let your mind settle in your sit bones and breathe. Listen to his body. Set the rhythm of forward and let him carry it. Refresh the cue when needed, and reward the effort. Stay happy in your seat. Spend the time to let forward build from the inside out.
Feel his ribs soft and giving with your calves, folded around him like bird wings. Feel his barrel move from side to side as you follow. Let the arc get larger by pulsing your inside calf as his barrel swings out. As his ribs release, feel him release each vertebra forward. Ask for just a little more and then listen for his answer.
Feel his neck long in front of you, and as you turn your waist, and then your shoulders, feel his shoulders move to match you. No resistance, just flow as he covers ground softly and your body (eyes, shoulders, waist, and soft legs) lead him to bend, letting the rhythm of his stride grow. You do less and he offers more.
Feel his poll gently bend with the arc of your shoulders, feel his jaw soften and hear him lick and chew. If he blows, join him. Breathe and feel the natural roundness that is the result of a relaxed back, warmed by striding up from behind. Back to front, grow the feeling of push that has no edge, drive powered by perpetual motion. Feel each stride inform the next with energy that is fluid and strong. Bask in the sunny awareness that you have not pulled reins or kicked ribs. Let the energy of your torso expand, and feel him carry you, in trust and lightness.
Forward feels amicable, balanced, uncomplicated, harmonic, rhythmic, and of one mind. Simpatico.
Forward on a horse feels like floating on an ocean wave, gliding on ice skates, soaring on wings. It feels like being young and strong. Like he breathes into your heart and you exhale through his.
Fluid. Dynamic. Relaxed. Powerful. Effortless: Forward is the perfect marriage of Yin and Yang.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.