Does your horse pull down on the reins, getting heavier and heavier with every footfall? Does he fall to the forehand, seemingly oblivious to you, the rider, at the end of the reins? Maybe his legs move faster and faster, rushing through your requests and leaning heavily onto his shoulders. Maybe he communicates discomfort through pinned ears, grinding teeth or tension.
If your horse has moments where he feels like a tank running through everything in his way, don't despair. Many horses (and riders!) go through a pulling phase at some point in their development. Rest assured, he likely doesn't want to pull you around the ring. But because of either the rider or the horse or both, he ends up sending most of his weight and energy to the front legs. The result is a pulling contest between the horse and rider, the kind of which never ends in a win for anyone.
Many people fall into this riding pattern, not sure of what to do when their horse "roots down" and leans into the bit. Try interrupting his movement as one way to help him rebalance.
What Not To Do
Kick the horse on.
Although it's true that we always speak of "back to front" when it comes to energy, adding more oomph in this instance will only result in more weight coming to the forehand. This is one case where activating the hind end will only serve to be counterproductive. Keep working on establishing your horse's best rhythm, but don't let the legs go faster faster faster.
Pull harder on the reins.
While it seems that taking a stronger hold of the reins would be the most reasonable thing to do, your horse will likely be able to pull longer than you can and maybe even harder. So avoid the pulling match and look for a way to solve the balance problem instead.
Let the reins out.
Although grabbing the reins won't work, you will soon realize that a complete release of the contact won't help either. If the horse is already on the forehand, and the reins are lengthened, the horse will also lengthen in the body and then become "strung out" - a case where the hind end does not engage and the hind legs do not have the opportunity to step under the horse's body. Some horses might also stumble or fall if the rider drops the reins, especially if they are used to having someone literally holding them up.
Now, let's look at one way you can help your horse gain better balance without making a fuss. I call it an "interruption" because it helps me remember that all I want to do is stop what is happening, but not long enough to lose momentum and energy.
3 Steps to "Interrupt"
First off, don't change anything much. So avoid lengthening/shortening/speeding/slowing down. Instead, focus on improving the horse's balance using an interruption. Just like you might need to interrupt someone to get their attention, do the same with your horse. Just do it physically, through your body while you ride.
1. Do a "Full" Half-Halt
In other words, do a downward transition. If you are at trot and your horse pulls you down to the ground, lean back, sit into the saddle and make your half-halt strong and long enough to get the horse walking. If you are at canter, bring the horse to a trot.
Develop control over the horse's legs - stop them for just a moment and help the hind legs come underneath the body.
The idea here is to get the horse to use the downward transition to shift back the overall balance in the body. You want to shift your weight as well as the horse's toward the hind end. In rhythm with the stride, lean back (just slightly), half-halt through your body and hands, and interrupt your horse's stride.
But don't stop there and rest.
2. Set up better balance.
As soon as you get the downward transition, you may need to "fix" a few things. Check the horse's bend. Check that you have an outside neck rein. Allow the horse to round over the topline so that he can work toward a better contact. Make sure he is moving straight - as in, develop a shoulder-fore if necessary.
But don't stop there either!
3. Then, go right back to the original program.
This step is critical if you want your horse to begin to understand what he needs to do, and to help him find his happy place while being ridden. As soon as possible, go right back to what you were doing. If you were originally cantering around a 20-meter circle, then transition back to the canter and continue on the circle.
Do not change the program.
The only point of this technique is to interrupt the pull-down (whether caused by the horse or the rider). By transitioning down a gait, you help the horse shift his weight back and get his hind legs underneath him. But then you must go again! If not, you will end up disengaging the hind end and causing the energy to fizzle out. Stopping energy flow is never the solution to any problem.
But controlling the energy and directing it where we want is exactly what riding is all about.
If your horse lightens on the reins, you know you are on the right track,
If you feel a better uphill balance, you know that you're helping your horse develop his strength and balance.
If you discover that your horse suddenly begins to offer you the lighter contact and uphill balance while doing the movement you were working on, you know that this was exactly what you needed to do.
Just ride on, then thank your horse for his efforts.
What do you do to prevent a heavy forehand or too much pulling?
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Read more here:
Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: The inside rein plays into the picture when it pulls during the lifting of the hind leg stride. The rein pressure puts a stop into the energy of the hind leg as it reaches underneath the body.
Why You Must Shoulder-Fore On the Rail and How To Do It: If you watch a horse go up a rail from behind, you will clearly see the front end traveling on a line closer to the rail, while the hind end drifts somewhat off the rail. Here is a way to straighten the horse.
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.
How The “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.
“Go and No”: The Connection Between Forward and Half-Halt in Horse Riding: How to develop the two seemingly opposite aids.