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What is a Backward Thinking Horse?

What is a Backward Thinking Horse how to dressage


Some people complain that their horses are ‘backward thinking’. This term is usually used to describe a horse that does not work willingly forward from the rider’s leg.

It is difficult to progress such horses in their dressage training as they lack the activity of the hind legs and the lively impulsion that is required to achieve genuine suppleness through the back, acceptance of the contact, engagement, and an uphill balance.

A horse that is behind the rider’s leg will never gain high marks in a dressage test.

So, is your horse really backward thinking, or is your training to blame?

Is your horse backward thinking?

Arguably, no horse is born ‘backward thinking’. More often than not this is the result of a horse/rider chemistry that has gone wrong!

Horses are naturally curious, but also remarkably adaptable, trusting and tolerant to living relatively domesticated lives with us.

Like other species, and despite their size, they are very receptive to human behavioral traits and are very tolerant of them.

However, they do not share the human rationale and are not able to reason ‘why’ and ‘how’, rather they see every aspect of life as if it were a still photo.

If their adaptable natures are abused, naturally the instincts of fright, flight, and fight take over.

Some reminders to us when training horses include:

  • learning requires adaptation to new environments
  • appreciate how adaptable and generous by nature they are
  • a thoughtful training approach involves using stimuli or aids to which the horse learns the appropriate responses, i.e. forwards, slower, turn, or stop
  • repetition is the key to overcoming the flight, fright and fight responses
  • conditioning to a stimulus or aid requires reinforcement until the positive, desired response appears
  • horses are receptive to negative stimuli, that is, release the pressure of an aid when the horse responds as desired
  • consistency and timing is crucial when giving reward and if necessary, reprimand

If a horse is ‘backward’ thinking, this usually means that when ridden, the horse does not go forwards from the riders’ ‘go’ aids, or subsequently allow the rider to exert any positive influence in order to improve the way of going.

This is most apparent to the rider if they have plans to take part in a competition where the horse is expected to receive the aids of the rider in a positive, harmonious and submissive manner, enabling frequent and seamless changes of pace, and tempo within the pace.

Correcting a backward thinking horse

To correct such a conflict, the rider should always look to themselves to find a solution.

Very often the character and temperament have been misinterpreted, causing the aids to be administered in the wrong moments, such as, before the horse has found an appropriate rhythm or degree of balance.

Sometimes, riders misinterpret how confident their horse is in certain movements and increase the level of difficulty far too soon, usually resulting in the horse being unconditioned physically and mentally to learning a new movement.

Once a horse has learned to avoid compliance, a cycle of antagonism starts, and both horse and rider show tension together that prevent a harmonious working partnership.

Very often the ways to correct this working partnership include:

  • changing the environment and exercises – working in a field instead of an arena; using poles and/or hills to work other muscle groups
  • using easier and more familiar exercises
  • changing the rider; a new rider will use different sensitivities of aids and may build a more workable relationship
  • checking that equipment fits properly
  • making a physical assessment to check the absence of foot soreness, back soreness and sharp outer edges of teeth

A combination of all these tactics can help to encourage a backward thinking horse to work with more enthusiasm.

If that doesn’t work…

Some horses are naturally less enthusiastic about certain types of work than others.

If you have a horse that is inclined to be backward thinking, it can present a real handicap to the progression of your dressage training.

If all your efforts to galvanize your horse into action fail, it could simply be that your horse does not enjoy his job. It may be worth avoiding schooling him for a while, and perhaps take him jumping or for some exciting hacks instead. After a busy season, a total holiday might be in order.

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