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What is 'forward'?

From: Helen

Hi Jessica! I have used your sound (pun not intended but acutally fitting) advice on EL and on Horse Sense over the past months. I LOVE your book and can't wait for more! (And I can look for that, when in my favorite bookstore?)

Anyway, I am having difficulty identifying when my horse and others are moving "forward" as opposed to just moving. Also, what is the best way to get your horse to move 'forward' and to check to make sure the horse stays that way? From the ground, without knowing a horse, what are the clues? Hind End engagement?

Helen and Kidren

Hi Helen -- the "forward" you are talking about is also known as "impulsion." It's not a matter of speed -- horses can move very slowly with lots of impulsion: think of a Grand Prix horse doing the passage or piaffe! Horses can also move faster without increasing their impulsion: think of a tired horse stumbling down a hill on the way home from a long ride.

I can't give you a specific length of stride that your particular horse would use if he were moving forward -- this depends quite a lot on how a horse is built, what sort of work he is doing, what condition he is in, and how far along he is in his training... not to mention what the footing is like, and what the rider is ASKING him to do! Some horses can work very hard and barely track up at the trot -- it wouldn't be fair to get annoyed with such horses for not overtracking, if they are already giving you 100%. Other horses, built differently, can overtrack six or eight inches without making any particular effort!

The best working definition I can give you is this: when your horse -- ANY horse -- is truly "forward," you will feel as though he is alert, attentive, and that he would very much like to go a little bit faster than you are allowing him to go. Again, it isn't about speed, but you want to have the sensation that he is (mentally, not physically!) bouncing on his toes and that he would LIKE to offer you more than you are asking for. You should feel that he is enthusiastic and wants to see what is around the next corner -- that his stride would lengthen if you let him out a notch. You do NOT want to feel that it's taking all of your energy just to keep him moving, or that you would need to blow a whistle in his ear just to wake him up.

The best way to create "forward", IMO, is to begin with a horse that is healthy and fit, add tack that fits comfortably, and then begin to work that horse in ways that keep him interested and alert. Carry a dressage whip and USE it to reinforce your leg, so that he learns to listen to a softly-whispered leg aid. If you squeeze, then squeeze again, then kick, then kick harder... he will learn to ignore everything up to (and eventually including) the hard kick. And you'll be out of position, and neither one of you will enjoy your work. Instead, give the aid you WANT him to respond to, give it clearly, back off, give him a moment to respond, and then give it again and back it up immediately with the whip. If he leaps forward, be ready so that you don't catch him in the mouth -- don't punish him for doing what you asked him to do! Praise him whenever he tries to do what you want, and vary the work -- don't always follow the same routine, or do the same gait changes in the same places along the rail.

Go outdoors if you possibly can -- you can work on "forward" along a trail, and your horse will see a REASON to go forward on the trail. After all, look at it from his point of view: why bother going forward energetically in an arena? You're only coming back to the same spot anyway... outdoors, there might be something interesting to look at, or something to eat, around any corner! And you can learn how "forward" feels -- it's easier outdoors -- and then try to recreate that same feeling when you work indoors.

The feeling you want is really the same feeling that you get when you go for a before-breakfast ride, and you're on your way back to the barn. If your horse is warmed up and eager for his breakfast, he'll be moving energetically forward; if you are walking him, as you should be, you should have the feeling that he would trot if you gave him the slightest HINT that it would be acceptable, and in the meantime, he's definitely GOING SOMEWHERE -- he's enthusiastic, he's energetic, he's flexible, and he's covering as much ground as he can without breaking gait. THAT's the feeling of "forward."


Thanks for the kind words about the book! Any bookstore or tack store should be able to get it for you. And if that takes too long, or if you want a signed copy, you can get one directly from me (see the note in last week's horse-sense).


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