Forward!

Lately the theme in many lessons at SRRS has been "go forward". Not the rushing, pulling or taking-off kind of forward but the relaxed, free, balanced and energetic kind of forward. There are many reasons behind why I teach you to go forward–depending on the horse, the student and the particular day–but it boils down to the fact that most problems that occur while riding can be solved by simply–you guessed itgoing forward.

Image source: This great article on the topic of "forward".

Image source: This great article on the topic of "forward".

Let's break it down and use some real examples: A few of our lesson horses...

OZZY
The problem: Ozzy oftentimes feels like she is dragging her feet, behind your leg, lazy, and leaning heavily on your hands. You get the feeling you are working way harder than she is. Maybe she even trips or breaks from the trot to the walk the second you aren't paying attention. What you're feeling is a horse that is carrying her weight on her forehand, instead of her hind-end, where all the energy and power comes from.
The solution: Send her forward! Not by nagging with your leg but by asking her once and then reinforcing your request with a meaningful "touch" of the dressage whip. An energetic, bouncy, forward trot will eliminate tripping, breaking and heaviness and require her to use her hind-end. She might protest at first by snorting or tossing her head but soon she will realize that moving her body correctly feels good. You'll feel her relax and her stride will have more suspension and rhythm, which is much more comfortable to ride–her trot will be "floaty" rather than jarring. Don't let the reins get too long with this one...she has a bad habit of pulling them out of your fingers and then falling on her forehand again. She is capable of working on a short rein, within the space you give her. Just take a break and let her stretch every so often–on YOUR terms, not when she decides it's time!

CALYPSO
The problem: Calypso has a very rhythmic, sweeping, beautiful trot and is not a spooky or hot horse when she is relaxed, but getting her to relax is a process at the beginning of each ride. She usually starts out with her head up, her back hollow, and a short, uneven, tense stride. She might even baulk off the rail occasionally in a half-cooked attempt to spook. She's also pretty good at ignoring your ques for a downward transition by bracing against your hands. It is tempting to think, "This tiny, sucked-back trot is pretty comfortable even if it's a little tense, I'll let her continue on like this if she wants to." Or if she is forward but not balanced or relaxed, "Oh, she's too energetic, I need to slow her down and hold her back or she might take off on me." But balancing on her mouth, holding her back, or riding her forward into a jammed hand just adds to the tension she is already carrying around.
The solution: What really works with this horse is to send her forward, either on the lunge-line (if she really feels like a ball of energy that is about to explode) or under saddle. A longer rein and lower hands, along with impulsion, will encourage her to stretch down into the contact, relax and raise her back. You will need to help regulate her tempo with your posting and with occasional half-halts, and keep your upper body straight and tall (don't lean forward!) so that she doesn't get ahead of herself or ahead of where you are capable of keeping up with her. But you also need to try to post with free-swinging, loose hips that accommodate the extra bounciness of your horse's trot as she opens up and lengthens her stride. She is an old pro and understands what the goal is, so when she is ridden this way it takes very little time for her to settle in to that beautiful ground-covering hunter trot. You will notice she is much more tuned-in to you, the little fake spooks will stop, and you will be able to do a downward transition by simply slowing your post and exhaling rather than pulling on her mouth. Bending around circles and turns will be much easier as well because now her tongue and jaw are relaxed and she is not over-sensitive to your leg aids.

GOOSE
The problem: Goose is not a spooky horse by nature but he gets distracted fairly easily during warm-up and likes to look around. He'll fake a spook here or there in order to get out of work. And he is finding that his mom gets totally distracted when he does this and sometimes even tells him to walk or stop after he spooks, which is of course the exact result he was hoping for! It will be a sad day for him when these little tricks no longer faze her! Ha! He is very athletic and he clearly enjoys a good work out, he just gets bored with going around in circles in the arena.
The solution: Forward, of course! You don't want him to have any extra energy or brain space for making up funny games so you have to send him forward and keep him guessing (transitions, circles, serpentines, etc.) Now, he is a huge horse with a huge stride...Keeping up with him when he is truly moving out can be intimidating and is physically tiring. But it is very important that you push yourself, and it will get easier as you get stronger and more used to what "forward" feels like. Tell yourself: He needs to hold himself up, and I need to hold myself up. I am not a passenger, along for the ride. I am the pilot and I determine every single step. Every ounce of energy Goose puts out gets allocated and used how I say. Imagine you are asking for energy from the hind-end and then "recycling" that energy with your core and hands back into the horse, with half-halts (I know, his true trot is big, and you are still perfecting your position and balance, but luckily he is excellent at responding to half-halts so you don't have to worry– a slower speed is only a half-halt away at any moment.) When the energy is cyclical, there isn't any stray energy to spare for spooking or distraction. The result is a horse that feels so tuned-in to you that you are like one body instead of two. It's a great feeling that makes you want to whoop with joy!

Hopefully these examples help you understand why I say things like "bigger trot!" and "keep going, don't let her die!" and "more forward" in your lessons, sometimes exactly when going forward is the last thing you feel like doing (like right after your horse spooks). Forward-thinking riders have fewer of these common problems with their horses and are able to achieve relaxation in their horses sooner. They look and feel comfortable and confident on their horses because they are used to working with impulsion and energy, and they know how to use that energy constructively rather than letting it go rampant and result in spooking or evasions. So...Go forward! :)