Forward, having a ground-covering fluid gait, is the foundation of balance and comfort for a horse, mentally and physically. Horses gotta move.
Forward is also one of those concept words. There is a literal meaning, and then the meaning out-beyond, where ideas are more dynamic than words and the faint-at-heart quake. Forward is a way of movement but it’s also bright intention and positive attitude. It’s as mental as it is physical. True forward is the absence of stress or negative energy in the horse. He glides, he soars, he floats.
You know when you don’t see it: A gait that scurries, tight and short, with a tense poll and braced neck, is not forward. It’s energy but it isn’t free.
Or you still don’t see it: A gait that drags its toes, lead in front, with some stumbling, his nose might push out, he needs to toss his head, his front end pulls instead of a push from behind. It’s energy even less free.
To some degree, all horses are flip-floppers, different in the high noon sun than on a foggy crisp morning, or in a new place with strange horses than at home in the same old routine. Then there’s a bit of quirkiness for no reason you can know. That said, if a horse is not forward, the first thought should always be pain or lameness. Don’t take it for granted, really check him out.
Reluctantly, you believe your horse is sound and not forward. You push him, but he doesn’t want to go. You’ve been told more leg, so now you nag, pounding on his sides, bearing down with your seat, and yakking to anyone you meet about your lazy hay-burner.
Be careful, the names you call your horse…
The second thought, if a horse isn’t forward, has to be the rider. To use your own indelicate term, are you lazy? Is your energy low? Your body restrictive or uncommunicative? Does your energy tend toward frustration rather than enthusiasm? Are you the one who’s not forward?
In the beginning, we are all taught to sit still in the saddle. Decent information for novice riders, especially horse-crazy girls so excited they bounce. Is there a time when that stillness in the saddle works against us? Groundwork is no different, are our feet the ones filled with lead? Over time, has that quiet body become sedentary, even a bit like a cinderblock?
Think of it this way: In order to partner with a horse, we need to become physically connected with his movement but also mentally forward. We need to be the energy he needs in that moment. Instead of reacting to what just happened, we want to be thinking ahead to better forward.
About now, you get a training aid, maybe spurs or a whip, and you use them to manipulate the conversation, to have your way. To be clear, I have no issue with the correct use of either aid, but they were never intended for use by lazy riders.
If the horse is quick, tense, and hollow, the rider must adjust her energy to embody quiet confidence and safety, soft sit bones and lots of exhaling to cue relaxation. Make simple, steady transitions that are easily rewarded, show him the way back to forward balance and rhythm.
If the horse is heavy and slow, the rider must adjust her energy again; check yourself first. Be honest about stiffness in your own body, and any judgment or restriction in your mind. Are you riding like someone who’s been made to feel wrong every day of her life? Are you looking for something to punish or something to cheer? Can you be Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire and then vice versa?
Start here: Put a smile on your face and crank up the music. Remind yourself that you love horses.
If it’s groundwork, shake out your body, release your jaw. Feel your feet on the soil, your head cleared by the air deep in your lungs. Let energy rise in your core. As you cue, continue that life-affirming breath, move with intention and rhythm. Start right where the horse is and build slowly from there. Embody a confidence that draws your horse to you.
In the saddle, ask for a walk but instead of judging his movement, check in with your own. You need the warm-up as much as he does; breathe into stiff joints, remind your shoulder blades where they belong, stride along feeling the change of how your shirt moves at your waist. Can your ankles relax so your legs fold softly around your horse’s barrel? Can your thighs release to allow your seat deeper in the saddle, each stride met with the release of your sit bone? No resistance.
Now, remember transitions are the key to connection.
A horse’s training can progress being screamed at by a drill sergeant, or by being inspired by the light-hearted praise of an equal. Your choice but it’s obvious one is much harder to maintain than the other. To be positive, listening, and engaged in every stride takes great mental strength. We tend to think of a riding ambition as a bad thing, but what if we were ambitious about aware in the moment and energetic? Isn’t that where we need to meet our horses?
On the ground or in the saddle, use two words to answer your horse’s efforts; Yes and Good. It’s your job to come up with questions that would set your horse up to receive those answers.
Time passes and you’ve both done some great work. You’ve been light and energetic. He has been forward and responsive. Can you tell when your horse begins to tire?
Now you are looking for the slightest loss of forward, but for all the right reasons. Be so present in the ride that you can stop just before either of you want to. Finish strong and both you and your horse will come to the next ride with best expectations.
[Last week, lameness. This week, laziness. Next week, what your horse wishes I’d said in the first place.]
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
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