This is a tough one. I bet we've all been stuck with on-the-forehand at some point during our riding career (probably longer than we'd like to admit).
So how do you transform on-the-forehand to (more) on-the-hind-end?
Learning the feeling of movement from the hind end takes time, and lots of practice. Because it's based on feel, it's more difficult to "find" than a simpler riding skill, like an open rein, or the outside leg back. Not only do we need to learn the feel, but there are seemingly never-ending levels of feel as we progress through our learning stages.
But let's start at the beginning. Let's assume we're working in the trot, but really, it's the same at all gaits.
One of the most common mistakes we all make when we first want to access the horse's hind end is to let the horse go faster. So we squeeze with the legs and the horse speeds up. Faster means stronger, and stronger means hind end, right?
The thing is, that the faster the legs go, the more the horse falls to the forehand. By sending all the energy to the front, the horse has to actually brace with the front legs (to avoid literally falling forward). Sometimes, the head goes up, the base of the neck drops and the back hollows. Sometimes, the horse trips or has a mystery lameness. But not all the time. Some horses can stay somewhat flat or round "looking" and still truck along with most of their weight on the forehand.
"Catch" The Energy
Sometimes, people call this "recycle" the energy but I find the term "catch" can be clearer when you begin with this concept. Pick a rein length that you feel is reasonable for your horse's level of education and keep it the same length while you ask for more movement. If the horse throws the head, reaches down, changes gait or runs faster, we must keep the hands steady and not-let-go-but-not-pull.
So we create the energy with our legs, but we must catch the energy with our reins.
Because if we let the energy "out the front end," we invariably have created the conditions for on-the-forehand.
So we catch but we don't pull. We also don't hold the energy for very long.
- use legs for energy
- catch the energy so the horse doesn't just speed up
It's not a release like letting your reins slip out of your fingers or straightening your arms in effort to give more rein. It's more a release of your joints - your shoulders, elbows, wrists - enough that there is a small space forward that you invite your horse into, after the "catch" part. In terms of space, you might only let out half an inch of rein. The rest of the release comes from your body. (*Note: You can do this on long reins or short reins.)
The idea is to allow freedom of movement, allow the hind legs to reach further underneath the body, and ideally, have a soft, light connection with the horse that allows you to direct the energy lightly, softly and promptly.
What Does It Feel Like?
You might have to really tune in to your horse to be able to feel the hind end at first. This is likely because we are always so fixated on the front end. But if you work at it, and maybe get someone to help you from the ground, you will be able to identify what movement initiated from the hind end feels like.
Here are some thoughts:
- You might initially feel a really powerful surge behind the saddle. Sometimes, it might turn into a small buck. This is good because it's the horse trying to "come under" but doesn't yet know exactly how much. Don't reprimand the buck or the lurch. Just ride it through and thank your horse by doing your best to stay balanced and gentle in the aids.
- The horse might breathe harder, deeper and/or louder. He might snort once or twice. This is also a sign that you are on track, because it is much, much harder for the horse to carry his weight rather than to let it run through onto his front legs. Again, give thanks and ride on.
- The horse might miraculously feel straighter. If the horse usually leans on one shoulder or another, and suddenly, that all disappears - you're on the right track.
- The horse might also stop pulling on your hands, or leaning forward and down with the neck. That too is a result of lack of hind end power, so once you really achieve energy from the hind end, the quality of your contact will likely improve dramatically.
- Head bobbing/tossing might disappear. Same reasons as above.
- Tripping and mystery lamenesses might also improve.
- If you notice that your horse is moving with better expression (ears forward, looking ahead), more freedom in the gait, and seems generally more confident, you're on the right track.
The thing is, getting the horse off the forehand is something that takes time to learn, and then time to teach the horse. It's not something you can make happen in one day. Many horses don't even know they can move in this manner until they are given the opportunity. But you can make small steps of improvement. Occasional success will become more regular and one day, you'll notice that the horse is mostly initiating movement from the hind end - just because.
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Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.
Can You Recognize the Sewing-Machine Trot? It is easy to get fooled into thinking that the sewing-machine trot is a good trot.
Frame, Round or Collection? Do you know the difference, and in a pinch, would you be able to identify it in a moving horse?