Stepping Forward In Horse Riding
Photo credit: NBanaszak Photography

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

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- 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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Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

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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?


  1. Forward implies a linear concept. I prefer to visualize a circular, uninterrupted energy that once put in motion can be manipulated, effortlessly, in any direction and without interruption. Those fleeting moments hopefully become more frequent and develop with harmony. This is when technique becomes art.

  2. I agree, it is an energy, through which you can regulate the length of the paces. There is no blockage of energy, nor is there any running away. It is controlled yet free flowing energy.

  3. This is such an important point that you are making very well here.

    As for a better word for forward, I would describe true forwardness as ‘transmission’, because this word denotes the way that energy is transferred through the horse’s whole body in engagement. In fact when the horse is truly ‘forward’ it is very similar to a vehicle moving in-gear instead of freewheeling, because the postural engagement creates a kind of traction very similar to the ‘engine breaking’ of a car. This is why a horse that is moving with transmission (real forwardness) always comes back to the seat, and if the rider drops the reins and stops leg aiding the horse will slow down or stop, instead of running off.

    This article goes into more detail on transmission and how it relates to straightness :

      1. I totally agree with the above comments about the circular nature of balanced forwardness also, and I think this feeling that engagement gives you fits perfectly with the bio-mechanical phenomenon of the postural ring of engagement described by Dr. Deb Bennet. When we achieve this circular flow of movement feeling, it is strongly related to the longitudinal stretch of the horse’s spine, which is what gives us that wonderful feeling of the horse lifting under our seat, and stretching and softening into the contact.
        I often visualise this circular flow between horse and rider as two cogs pushing each other round in the right direction (forwards of course :)). I hope you don’t mind me posting another link here, but I drew a diagram of this cog dynamic on another page of our website in case anyone is interested:

  4. I think your description is great for helping a rider recognize forward when it is felt. It seems as if the first introduction to forward is frequently scary to riders, as the power suddenly in their control can be intimidating. I have a thoroughbred who will often look forward to spectators who don’t know him because his sensitivity and enjoyment of movement looks like forward on a less energetic horse. When he becomes forward, though, I always say he “found his engine.” The change in his demeanor is huge and obvious to those watching, but especially obvious to the rider. His hind legs develop more bend than normal, he fills in in front of the withers, and his tempo slows. He can either take shorter or longer strides depending what I’m asking of him, but he no longer loses his energy backwards and his legs seem to only step forward. He develops suspension and cadence and a stronger contact, as he prefers to get behind the bit when not forward. He is one of those horses who gets dramatically uphill when forward, with withers significantly above haunches.
    The Friesian cross I ride is less dramatic when forward. She simply is ready to do anything the rider wants when asked. If she isn’t forward, she feels like she is meandering, looking for her next snack.
    My favorite part of forward is that it is so much safer on a horse who can be trouble. If my thoroughbred is having an explosive day, forward keeps him happier and explosion-free. Funny enough, his slight bolts or bucking sprees only happen if not forward. I’m not controlling and using his energy, and pay the price. Spooky horses seem to work the same way. If they are forward, they have accepted our partnership and are trusting me with their safety, rather than looking for monsters. Our combined energy looks for a positive outlet, rather than their keeping their energy to themselves and the shadows.

    1. That was such a great description of your Thoroughbred! I was right there with you! So true about the surge of energy once feels – and how intimidating it can be if you haven’t felt it before.

      And yes, forward is a Happy Place for all horses, if only they can find it.

    2. I have to thank first the author for this article and second you for your comments regarding the spooky horse. I am just not learning to see this in my horse and finding ways to provide that positive outlet you speak of. I have some pretty severe confidence issues and have been fearful of his energy. Comments like yours are helping along my journey to a true partnership filled with trust for each other. Thanks you again for sharing your thoughts and to the author.

  5. Per the USDF Glossary of Judging Terms “Forward” is defined thusly:
    To or toward the direction that is ahead or in front of the horse, or moving or tending toward that direction. Forward indicates the direction in which the horse goes
    (in contrast to sideways, backward, or standing still); it does not indicate how he gets there. References to specifics such as impulsion, energy, reach, length of stride, and tempo more accurately express how the horse should proceed in a forward direction.