Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ever Forward

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.


  1. I can believe an uneducated judge commented your horse was on the forehand. Such a shame so many judges don't know what's going on. Anyway, we always train our horses to go long and low and they are all soft in our hands. Our star pupil for "plowing potatoes" is Blue, his nose will almost touch the ground as he's trotting around, until asked to come back and Dusty has her moments now too and will actually have moments of brilliance when she puts herself on the bit.

    She's got some balance issues to the left yet, which we are working on. Good explanation of forward, a lot of times it is confused with speed and rushing.

  2. good post jean....

  3. Very good post. Dawn has learned to stretch down, which has helped enormously with her tendency to curl up and go behind the bit. I'm working with Drifter now on that - he tends to carry his head and neck high and bring his chin in rather than stretching down - for him it's an issue of relaxation.

    And forward isn't rushing or speed, as you point out.

  4. Thanks for the article! The photo shows exactly how Teena and my friend's QH stretch out! Except their triangles are less wide, but I think it is due to conformation.

    Jane Savoie on her member website has an audio about the difference:
    Rolkur, behind the bit and behind the vertical.
    She did not want to comment about Rolkhur (basically saying it was an abomination), then she says that behind the bit was NEVER accpetable or behind the vertical was NOT acceptable in competition.

    HOWEVER, a horse could be " ON THE BIT" and " BEHIND THE VERTICAL". She says some of her horses like to warm-up "deep" i.e. on the bit, behind the vertical, and on the forehand. I have heard this here in Italy from a Dressage trainer, it allows the horse to warm his back up and swing. Obviously it is a training tool and NOT the final product.

    If I remember well, I think she says that they want contact at training level, but "not on the bit". I will double-check, if you would like.
    But it makes sense that if training level is all about contact, the horse should "chew" the reins out of the riders hands even if it is on the forehand.

    Woah! This is getting technical ^-^

  5. Very nice article and post.

    My horse has learned to stretch down and out on the longe, like the one in the photo. He will do this under saddle too, and offers his best stretch when the reins have some slack. This helps him find his balance, but sadly is marked down in a judged test. What a pity, because I can feel that he has shifted his weight back to his hind legs and is truly carrying himself and me. I understand your point.