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How to Ride Your Horse From “Back to Front”

ride from back to front dressage

You might have heard the expression, “ride your horse from back to front,” possibly from your instructor. But what does that even mean?

In this article, we explain how to correctly ride your horse from back to front and why that’s so important for correct dressage training.

The energy circle

In order to understand why and how to ride your horse from back to front, you must first understand the energy circle.

When riding, there should be a constant circle of energy that should flow from;

  1. the active hind legs
  2. over the swinging back
  3. arriving in the mouth
  4. traveling along the reins to the rider’s hands, where it may be modified to create movements, transitions, half-halts etc,
  5. through the rider’s supple body and adhesive seat to the rider’s driving aids (legs)
  6. into the activity of the hind legs

And so on, round and round.

energy circle how to dressage diagram

The circle of energy always starts from the horse’s hindquarters (the back end of the horse) and travels along the horse’s supple and swinging back to the contact (the front end of the horse), hence the term, riding from back to front.

“Forward-thinking” hands

One of the most common faults that prevent a rider from riding their horse from back to front is that they don’t have “forward-thinking” hands. Instead, they have “backward-thinking” hands.

Backward-thinking hands are always pulling back as though the rider constantly has the handbrake on. The rider may try to create activity from the horse’s hind legs but the horse will always feel as though he’s been ridden into a brick wall between increasingly stronger leg and rein aids.

Another cause of backward-thinking hands is when the rider tries to “fiddle” their horse into an “outline.” This will only cause the horse discomfort and encourage him to duck behind the contact.

Instead, the hands should always be forward-thinking, meaning that whilst the contact with the horse should always remain elastic, you should ride with a feeling of pushing the horse to the bit, and not pulling back.

The outline and the contact with the rider’s hand come from the impulsion and the horse’s willingness to work forward and over his back. Your contact should never exceed the amount of energy being generated by the horse’s hind legs. Your hand should receive only what your leg puts into it.

When the hand is too strong, the cycle is blocked. However, if the contact is not consistent, the energy passes out of the cycle without being harnessed and recycled back into the hind legs.

Why ride from back to front?

The principle of riding from back to front works on the premise that the horse’s “engine” is located in his hindquarters. By engaging the hindquarters correctly, you put the horse into a more uphill frame, lightening his forehand and freeing his shoulders to create more expression in his steps and produce a better balance.

Obviously, the horse working at prelim or training level won’t demonstrate the same degree of uphill carriage as that of a horse that’s working at Grand Prix level. However, even though a young or inexperienced horse is not yet collected or working in an advanced frame, he should still be working freely forward from back to front; that is, with energy generated from his hind legs flowing over his back to seek the rider’s contact.

When a horse is working from back to front they are often described as being “between the leg and the hand.”

Once you have achieved this connection, your horse will be far more maneuverable. You will be able to steer him with ease, assist him in maintaining his balance, collect and extend his paces, and position him for lateral work.

The wrong way around!

Many riders make the rookie error of riding their horses from front to back. Basically, this means that the rider is riding more from the hand than from the leg.

For example, if the rider wanted to collect their horse, they would simply pull back on the reins to artificially shorten the horse’s stride and frame.

Related Read: How to Collect Your Horse

All this way of riding achieves is to make the horse hollow through his back whilst destroying his forward-thought and creating tension.

That immediately prevents the horse from using his hindquarters to push himself forward and upward and puts him onto his forehand. When the quarters are not engaged, the horse cannot balance himself through the transitions and around turns, and the picture is not one of harmony and fluency.

How to ride the horse from back to front

In broad terms, to ride your horse from back to front;

  1. you should be aiding your horse with your legs sufficiently that he moves enthusiastically forward with energy and a suitable (brisk but not quick) tempo,
  2. as you do that, you need to recieve the power that you’ve created in your hands with a secure elastic contact (no looping reins) that provides a steady weight.

The energy needs to flow over your horse’s back from the horse’s hind legs to your contact. For this to happen, you need to make sure that you are following your horse’s movement with an independent seat. If you grip with your knees, land heavily in the saddle, or go against the horse’s movement, you could block that all-important flow of energy over the horse’s topline.

Useful exercises

Here are a few useful exercises that you can use to encourage your horse to work from back to front and to test your connection.

Exercise 1 – Transitions

Riding transitions is an excellent way of checking whether your horse is working from back to front.

Related Read: How to “Connect” Your Horse Through the Use of Transitions

Start by riding a walk-trot transition. To do that, use your legs to ask the horse to go from a walk into a trot. 

The horse should respond sharply to your leg aid, moving forward immediately. You should feel your seat lifted as the horse becomes engaged and steps right underneath his body, moving toward your hand as he makes the transition into a trot.

The horse’s frame should remain rounded with the nose on or slightly in front of the vertical. The horse seeks your hand, taking the bit forward with an elastic contact.

When you ride a downward transition from trot to walk, the horse should keep working forward, stepping underneath his body and eagerly moving forward into the new pace.

Throughout all transitions, the horse should continue to work into an elastic contact.

How it should feel

You should feel that there is support behind your back and seat. That feeling is created by the horse’s power flowing through him and his rider from behind, effectively connecting the horse from back to front.

How it should NOT feel!

There are a few signs that you need to be aware of that mean your horse is not working from back to front, including:

  • You need to kick the horse at every stride to keep him going, in which case, he is behind the leg.
  • The horse hollows through his back
  • The horse comes against your hand
  • The horse snatches at the bit and pulls you downward or out of your saddle
  • The horse transitions using his shoulders rather than pushing from his hindlegs.

Basically, it should feel that the horse is willingly taking you forward, never that you are having to push and shove to keep the horse going or that you have to hold on for dear life!

Exercise 2 – Long and low

This exercise can be ridden in trot or canter. However, young or inexperienced horses will probably find the exercise easier to manage in trot.

Step 1

Start by riding the horse forward in an active working rising trot. 

Step 2

Take up a large circle.

Ride a few steps of medium trot or lengthened strides, and then make a transition back to working trot.

The horse must be working willingly forward, reacting immediately to your forward aid.

Step 3

On the circle, gradually allow the horse to take the reins forward.

If the horse is working correctly from back to front he will stretch his head and neck down to follow the contact without losing impulsion.

If the horse is not working from back to front, he will simply stick his head up in the air.

Note that you should not give the contact away completely. Even though your reins will be considerably longer you must still maintain a contact with the horse’s mouth.

Step 4

The result you’re after is that the horse’s stride lengthens, and his back comes up underneath your seat.

You should feel as though you are sitting on a huge elastic band that is swinging along underneath you with no extra effort from you to keep the horse going. 

Step 5

Gradually, retake the reins, being very careful not to slow the tempo of the rhythm or kill the energy you have created. 

The horse should continue to work forward into the contact, although his frame will shorten.

Continue to ride forward, using half-halts to bring the horse’s hindquarters more underneath him and to lift the forehand.

In conclusion

When you school your horse, always think of riding him from “back to front.” That means that you are creating energy in the horse’s hindquarters and receiving that power in an elastic contact.

The horse should work freely and willingly forward through his back to seek your hand.

Use half-halts and transitions to encourage the hind legs to come more underneath the horse so that his forehand becomes lighter and more mobile.

Never try to pull the horse’s head into a “shape!” Riding in that way, from “front to back,” only causes the horse to hollow through his back and come against the contact, artificially shortening the stride and disrupting the rhythm.

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