And In Balance
My last post evoked some question about "forward."
What's important to note is that "forward" and "fast/speed" do not necessarily go together. While it is often true that a horse will need to pick up energy to go more forward, that does not mean he needs to speed up. When, for example, a horse offers a good extended trot, the feeling is almost as if the speed of stride has slowed down. The horse has engaged its hind end, lifted its back, and reached forward with full energy without actually making its legs quicker.
This all has to do with balance. I once read, and agree with the idea that as soon as a horse starts to move, it is out of balance. The horse begins to walk. A leg is no longer under his body, supporting his weight. To keep from falling--particularly if his head and neck are stretched out--he must follow with his other legs to keep from falling on his nose. This is why so many green, young horses might want to run as they increase their gaits. The unbalanced horse starts to trot. His balance decreases so he must put his feet out faster and faster to "catch" himself before he falls. The problem is even more obvious at the canter.
Many horses try to keep from this "falling down" feeling by carrying or throwing their heads up in the air. By elevating their heads and necks, they are trying to keep the weight back more over their legs. Trying to force their heads down can cause them to panic because it makes them feel even more as if they are falling, so they resist the rider's efforts.
Indeed, lifting the head and neck does tend to rock a horse's balance back onto its hind end and you will often see show jumpers approach a fence that way. It's not always pretty, but it does the job.
So, what we as riders and trainers want to do is encourage the horse to go forward in balance. That means that the horse learns to carry more of its weight on its hind end as its body flexes in a round way to help carry itself and the rider.
With my first horse, Russell, I learned to do this by asking him to stretch down at the walk. I would hold the rein to keep him from "falling" on to his front end and encourage his hind legs to take longer and longer strides under his body, gradually "combing" the reins so he could take them out of my hands as he used his back more and more in the walk. Eventually, I could feel his hind end stepping under with energy and "forwardness" under my seat. Because his hind end was engaged, and his back rounded up under me, he was not rushing.
He was also not on his forehand. This is the part that kind of bugs me. In several of the lower level US dressage tests, the rider is to perform a "rising trot allowing the horse to gradually stretch forward and downward." My horses will, if I ask, stretch all the way to the ground without picking up noticeable speed. They do this by engaging their hind ends as they stretch over their backs. I have had judge's comments in tests, "Horse on forehand, 5." Now, apparently at some seminar or another, the movement was described to say that the horse's nose should not drop lower than the chest. Sorry. I disagree. If you look at the illustrations in Erik Herbermann's dressage classic, "The Dressage Formula," you will see a master rider "showing horses the way to the ground." That, to me is true stretching.
(I must add a word of warning here. "The way to the ground," and rolkur are NOT the same thing. Rolkur does not allow the horse to "take the rein down" as the horse's nose goes out.) There is an excellent article explaining correct down and out here: Down and Out
But, I digress. Out of balance, a horse cannot be truly round or on the bit. So once again, we are traveling a fine line between asking the horse to step with more energetic strides and still keeping its balance. What happens is that the horse steps into and reaches for the bit with forward energy carrying its body.
Again, the horse's individual conformation comes into play here as well, but more about that the next time...I think.