The concept of "forward" in horseback riding is a difficult one to explain, to feel and to be able to reproduce consistently. Before you know what it is, it might appear as though it's some "heebeejeebie" concept that is reserved for people far beyond the regular set. After you can produce it, however, you won't want to go without it, and you'll wonder how you ever rode without "forward" as one of the most basic skills needed to elicit the best movement from whichever horse you ride.
But it is a long road to true forward. Not only do you have to teach and then encourage your horse to move in a forward manner, but you also have to learn to feel and do it within your own body. Just because your horse is able to move doesn't mean that you can. Riders often get left behind when their horse moves honestly, mainly because the extra surge of energy is somewhat unexpected. So the horse moves, you lurch, and he stops all over again because he felt your lack of balance. A strong(ish) core helps correct this problem!
So if you've never felt "forward" before, how on earth are you supposed to learn it? You need a friend to help you with this one. Do it before you ride your horse so you can have a good sense of what you want ahead of time.
You pretend to be the rider and have your friend pretend to be the horse. You both should stand facing the same direction with you behind your friend. Put your hands on your friend's shoulders.
1. Not Forward ("Backward")
First thing to recognize is what "not forward" feels like. As the rider, you go ahead and push your horse (friend) into a walk. The idea is that you push her along, and she moves straight ahead.
To feel "not forward", have your friend push back just a little on you. Her feet still move straight and forward, but there is this slight leaning back she is doing on your arms.
"Not forward" should feel a little quicksand-ish. You're getting somewhere but it's work. The horse feels like she wants to quit every stride. The progression through space is stilted, not necessarily rhythmical and just not free.
When you ride, you might mistake "not forward" for smoothness. In reality, the "not forward" horse is moving flat. He isn't committing his energy honestly through his whole body. He might be blocking in the hind legs, through the back, at the withers, or through the neck (or more than one region at the same time). But the energy is somehow not flowing, not forward, or "backward". (No, the horse isn't actually moving backward. And yes, the back up can be "forward" and also "not forward"! Confused yet??)
OK now start all over again. The set up is the same. This time, your horse (friend) is going to be "forward". When you start to push her, she goes under her own volition. You go along, still with your hands on her shoulders, but both of you move together, lightly and in balance.
What a huge difference! There is no resistance. There is no chance that she'll stop if you release a bit. You don't have to force her nor do you have to tighten through your body and joints. Notice that you get to (have to?) step along sharply to stay with her. You become more able to control your own balance and position.
On the horse, the best way I can think of describing it is that you will feel a free flow of energy. This is when your aids can be light and specific. An onlooker might notice a strong hind end and freely flowing shoulders. Since there is no pushing/pulling on your part, you can both be in better balance. The extra energy that the horse is able to offer helps him in using his hind end better and rounding over the topline more consistently. Your contact likely becomes softer and you can aid through your seat more effectively. You might feel more motion through the horse's gaits - more of a trampoline-y feeling in the back.
3. Running Away
There is one other possibility. Go back and set up with your friend again.
This time, when you go to push her along, she runs away from you. When she acts as the "running" horse, you lose her in no time. The next thing you know, she's far ahead of you and you've lost all your connection with her.
This happens when the horse misinterprets your "forward" aids to mean "faster legs". Of course, it's not that you physically lose the horse (at least most times)! You'll likely stay on and just speed up with him. The key to being "forward" is to create and then contain the energy, not let it run out from under you. Thus, we have to learn all about half-halts in our quest to contain the energy we've created.
When riding, you have to learn to distinguish between the legs moving faster versus an increase in energy. Energy does not mean speed. Say it again - energy does not mean speed! If you think your horse just sped up, you need to be there quickly and promptly to half-halt or even do a full downward transition.
Now that you've read this, you can probably imagine what "forward" feels like. But go out to the barn (or even at home) and try it with someone else. There is no replacement to actually feeling something physically, and blueprinting it into your body. Do each one several times so you have a good idea. Then try to transfer the concept to horseback. Of course it's not exactly the same. But it's a place to start.
Did you try this? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
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Read more about "forward" here:
Stepping "Forward" In Horse Riding: We tend to think a horse is forward when the legs are moving and the horse is flying along – but this picture is far from the truth.
What To Do When Your Horse Pulls: “Pulling” is something that is absolutely under your control and something you can change if you focus on your aids and timing.
The One Answer to Most Horse Riding Problems: There are a lot of problems that can occur when riding a horse. Although they all end up looking like different issues, if you think about it carefully, you might notice that there is one common denominator.
6 Ways to Know Your Horse is Comfortable - While Riding: Is your horse really comfortable while you ride? If you listen carefully enough, he will tell you using his own form of communication. How can you tell?
The Five Stages of A Transition: Whether you are working on upward transitions or downward, progressive or non-progressive, there are certain aspects to look for in every well executed gait change.