The term 'forward' is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood. 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. So if forward is not an increase in tempo (the speed of the footfalls), then what is it?
Imagine a mother/father and child walking along holding hands. There can be several variations in this scene:
- both parent and child are walking along in tandem, progressing through space at a mutually accepted pace, reaching for each other's hand willingly and confidently
- the child is pulling ahead of the parent, thereby pulling the parent off his/her feet
- the child is pulling behind the parent, thereby causing the parent to slow down/stop
- the child is pulling sideways from the parent but the parent isn't letting go; this causes the parent to be dragged left/right, again causing a disturbance in the progression
The only 'forward' scenario is the first. The parent and child move along in tandem while holding hands, matching stride for stride and walking/running in a cooperative, mutually beneficial manner.
Similarly, when a horse is 'forward', it is reaching ahead of itself, gamely assuming a forward space each stride, reaching confidently to the bit, and showing a calm, confident, round and overall happy and willing demeanor. The horse can reach forward for the bit in the same way that a child offers his hand to be taken. Of course, the hand of the rider must be as accepting and gentle as the hand of the parent, inspiring the horse to want to reach even more and settle into a comfortable "happy place".
A horse can be forward while slowly progressing through space - so speed is not a variable in being forward. In fact, a horse can be moving backward and still be 'forward'! Confused yet?!
Even though being 'forward' is primarily a secretly hidden feeling kept between the horse and rider, you can actually see 'forward'. (Click here to tweet that)
What does it look like?
- the horse is round, calm and athletic looking: it appears as though the horse can stop/turn/change gait at a moment's notice
- the horse has soft (not perky), forward ears; it looks like he is eagerly moving to somewhere he wants to go
- the hind legs are freely reaching deep underneath the body (as far as conformation allows)
- there is a sense of graceful power; the horse can float into upward or downward transitions without losing balance
- the horse is off the forehand; he is neither heavy on the hands and heading into the ground nor is he hollow-backed with a 'giraffe neck' sticking upward at an awkward angle
- the tempo of the gait is strong, powerful, supple and almost leisurely - there is no scrambling for speed nor does the horse look like it's stuck in quicksand
- most importantly, the horse looks to be comfortable, confident and enjoying the moment
Realistically speaking, we spend most of our riding time NOT being in a forward state. Many factors contribute to a horse being 'backward' including rushing/being lazy, scary spots (spooking), distractions, uneven footing, and even the mood of the horse or the rider. In fact, being forward results in an improved psychological and physical state - for both the rider and the horse.
Do you have a better word for it? How would you describe being 'forward'?
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More fun reading:
In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!
20 Ways Horse Riding Becomes Life Itself: You could say that horses are our teachers. Not only do we grow in terms of physical ability, but perhaps even more so, we grow in character.
First, Plan Your Ride. Then, Scrap It: Even though you are inspired to get that horse to do the next cool thing, your horse might simply not be ready.
What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.
3 Questions to Consider Before Riding Bareback and Bridleless: What should be in place before you take off the tack?