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How (And Why) To Get Your Horse Thinking Forwards

forward thinking horse dressage

You’ve probably heard many riding coaches shouting to their students, instructing them to ride their horses more forwards. Although that’s good advice, the term “forwards” can often be misinterpreted. 

Rather than constantly having to push your horse to keep him moving (working your own leg muscles more than your horse), you ideally want your horse to stay in gear and be self-going, or as it’s more commonly known, “forward-thinking.” 

So, in this article, we will clarify what a forward-thinking horse is and why this quality is necessary for dressage. We will also look at what makes a horse backward-thinking before helping you create forwardness in your own horse. 

What is a forward-thinking horse?

Throughout all of your training, your horse should have a forward thought, which means that he should always be ready to take a step forward willingly and naturally when asked to do so. 

A forward thought should be present in all dressage movements, including downward transitions, the halt, and even the rein-back. 

Although the rein-back is a rearward movement that requires you to ask your horse to move backward, your horse should still perform it with a forward thought. That is, your horse being ready and willing to step under and push forwards with his hindlegs immediately when asked. 

Related Read: How to Train and Ride the Rein-Back for Dressage

A forward-thinking horse also has the desire to stay within a pace without the need for constant leg aids from his rider. For example, when in trot, your horse will remain in that pace until instructed otherwise; he does not stop because your leg aids have stopped aiding him every stride. 

IMPORTANT: Forward does not equal fast

One of the biggest misconceptions is that forwardness refers to speed, which leads novice riders to kick on and make their horses go faster. Sadly, all this does is push your horse out of a suitable rhythm and tempo, often causing him to lose his balance, fall onto the forehand, get tense and tight through his back, and/or come against the contact.

Another common misconception is that a fast-moving “hot” horse is also a forward horse; this is incorrect. A horse moving at speed can still be “behind the rider’s leg,” thus, not working forwards from the leg but rushing away from it. 

Forwardness has nothing to do with speed. Instead, forward is an attitude of mind.  

Why is it important to have your horse thinking forwards?

To explain the importance of having a forward-thinking horse, we first need to recap the energy circle. 

During training, there should be a constant flow of energy that flows from:

  1. your horse’s active hind legs,
  2. over his supple and swinging back,
  3. arriving in your horse’s mouth as he seeks the bit,
  4. traveling along the reins to your hands, where it may be modified to create movements, transitions, half-halts, etc.
  5. through your supple body and seat to
  6. your driving aids (legs)…

…and then back into the activity of your horse’s hind legs. And so on, round and round.

energy circle how to dressage diagram

As this demonstrates, your horse’s hind legs must actively step under and push energy upwards and forward toward the bit. It’s the energy from the hind legs allows us to connect our horses and create the energy circle. 

If there is not enough energy positively generated from your horse’s hind legs, then it will not reach the contact and, therefore, it cannot be recycled and redirected, and the energy circle will not flow. 

If your horse is not forward-thinking, he will lack the desire to work with a lively impulsion towards the bit — resulting in your horse being behind the leg, lacking engagement, unable to show genuine suppleness and swing over his back, and incapable of establishing a correct elastic contact and uphill balance. 

Similarly, if your horse requires constant aiding to keep him moving forward and to maintain that circle of energy, he will stall every time you take your leg off. In this case, you cannot improve his way of going because your legs are too busy keeping his motor running. 

When your horse is forward-thinking, he will keep the energy circle flowing somewhat on his own, constantly working from active hind legs towards the bit. Even during downward transitions, the halt, and the rein-back, the energy will still flow forward from his hind legs, over his back, and into the contact. 

What is a backward-thinking horse?

This term describes a horse that does not work willingly forward from your leg. Instead, he will ignore your forward driving aids and show little interest in responding. 

In extreme cases, your horse may display resistance to going forward by pinning his ears back, swishing his tail, walking backward, or even bucking, kicking out, and rearing in protest. 

If your horse is backward-thinking, you will be unable to exert any positive influence to improve his way of going. Therefore, while remaining a backward thinker, your horse will never gain high marks in a dressage test and will find it difficult to progress. 

What causes your horse to be backward thinking?

Arguably, no horse is born ‘backward thinking.’

Remember that horses are prey animals, so their natural instinct is to go forwards. If your horse resists going forwards, then, more often than not, it is a result of one or more of the possible causes. 

Possible cause 1 – Pain and/or discomfort when moving forward

If your horse experiences a negative sensation, such as pain, when he responds to your forward aids, this will turn him into a backward-thinker instead of a forward-thinker. 

Common sources of pain seen in backward-thinking horses include (but are not limited to) the following: 

  • Incorrectly fitted saddle and tack
  • Back soreness
  • Kissing spines
  • Dental problems
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Musculoskeletal issues

Possible cause 2 – Mixed signals 

If you are a novice rider who has yet to develop an independent seat and balance in the saddle, you can accidentally give your horse mixed signals. 

For example, you may ask your horse to trot but then lose balance and inadvertently yank on the reins. Likewise, during the canter, you may unknowingly use the reins to help you balance, putting extra pressure on the bit. 

Similarly, you may continually grip with your thighs, preventing your horse from moving his shoulders fully and being able to travel freely forward. 

Constant application, incorrect use, and/or poor timing of the restraining aids can give your horse mixed signals, preventing him from thinking forwards.

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Possible cause 3 – Incorrect training

Many riders inadvertently teach their horse’s to be unresponsive to their legs and driving aids. 

If you persist in applying multiple leg aids or squeezing your horse until you are blue in the face in an effort to persuade him to walk on, you are effectively teaching your horse that these are the aids to move forward.

Overuse of the leg, such as constant nagging to keep trotting, quickly makes your horse dead to the aid, and he will stop responding to it. 

Possible cause 4 – Over-training

In the same way that too many hard sessions at the gym can leave you feeling sore and fatigued, the same is true for your horse. 

If your horse has a full-on training schedule with back-to-back competitions, he may become physically stiff and mentally tired. In this state, he will not feel enthusiastic about his work and will find it difficult to maintain his eagerness to keep working forwards. 

Related Read: How to Structure a Dressage Training Plan for Your Horse

Possible cause 5 – Boredom

Like humans, horses also enjoy a bit of variety. 

If you ride around the same arena every single day, repeating the same exercises over and over, your horse is going to mentally switch off. 

Related Read: How to Refresh a Horse That has Become Stale in his Training

Possible cause 5 – Your horse’s daily life

Although many may overlook this possible cause, meeting the natural daily needs of your horse can go a long way to improving his attitude during work. 

This encompasses more than just ensuring your horse receives forage and water, but facilitating adequate turnout, a suitable environment and routine, and time with other horses. 

If your horse is happy in his day-to-day life, he’s more likely to be enthusiastic about his work. 

Related Read: How to Recognize an Unhappy Dressage Horse

How to create a forward-thinking horse

Once you have ruled out all the above possible causes for what can make your horse backward-thinking, we can now turn our attention to training him to be forward-thinking. 

As mentioned, forwardness does not equal speed, and you want to avoid falling into the trap of simply making your horse go faster. 

Instead, you want your horse’s hind legs to step under his center of gravity and push upwards and forward, allowing the energy to flow over his back as he stretches forward to the contact. And you want your horse ready to do this willingly, without any tension or resistance, and to the lightest of aids.

For this, we need four qualities.  

  1. Suppleness
  2. Balance
  3. Correct aiding
  4. Responsiveness 

Let’s discuss why each quality is important for a forward-thinking horse.

1 – The importance of suppleness

For your horse to use his hind legs in the desired way, he must possess a certain level of suppleness. 

  • To bring his hind legs forward and under, your horse must have suppleness over his back and topline, known as longitudinal suppleness. 
  • To absorb the weight and flex his hind legs, your horse must have supple and mobile joints, known as suppleness of the joints.
  • To accept your leg aids and respond to them quickly, willingly, and without tension, your horse must have mental suppleness. 

If your horse is tense and tight in any of these areas, when you apply your driving aids, your horse will opt to speed up and move his legs faster since he will be limited in his ability to step under and push. 

Therefore, you need to maintain your horse’s relaxation so he can accept your leg aids willingly through a supple swinging back and respond to them with his whole body.  

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2 – The importance of balance

Balance is very important to your horse. In the wild, should he lose his balance when fleeing from a predator, he could fall and become lunch! Therefore, he has an innate instinct to stay in balance. 

If you drive your horse past his point of balance in an effort to make him more forward, this loss of balance can cause him to become tense, to rush, and to fall onto his forehand. 

Young and novice horses at the beginning of their training have less balance. Therefore, you must consciously manage the tempo of the pace and the amount of forwardness and power you ask for. 

Never push your horse for more than what his balance can cope with. 

Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance

3 – The importance of correct aiding

Your horse must learn to;

  1. move forwards when asked to do so, 
  2. and to stay forward, maintaining the pace without constant input from you. 

To do this, follow these three simple steps. 

Step 1

Use a leg aid to send your horse forward. 

Do not keep nudging him with your legs if you get no response. Instead, back up your aid with a tap from your schooling whip behind your inside leg.

Step 2

As soon as your horse responds to your leg (and whip) aid, stop aiding. The removal of your aid is your horse’s reward for responding correctly.   

Sit quietly and allow your horse to move freely forwards, receiving the energy in an elastic contact.  

Step 3 

If your horse stops going forward or loses activity, give him one big leg aid. 

Again, as soon as he responds, stop the aid. 

After a few times, your horse should get the idea and maintain his pace without you having to nag him constantly. 

Once your horse becomes “self-going,” traveling forward under his own steam, you are free to use your aids to improve your horse’s balance, increase the quality of his paces, and position him correctly for school movements. 

4 – The importance of responsiveness

As mentioned, to be forward-thinking, your horse must be attentive to your aids and ready to respond instantly by stepping forward actively with his hind legs. 

Riding regular quality transitions is one of the best ways to improve your horse’s responsiveness to your aids. 

You can ride:

  • Transitions from pace to pace. (Such as walk – trot, trot – canter, walk – halt.) 
  • Transitions between the paces. (Such as working trot – medium trot, medium walk – free walk.) 
  • Transitions that skip a pace. (Such as walk – canter, trot – halt.)

Whether you are riding upward or downward transitions, the focus should be on your horse’s hind legs stepping under into the transition, thus going forwards into the transition. 

  • Upward transitions require your horse’s hind legs to step under and push. 
  • Downward transitions require your horse’s hind legs to step under and take weight. 

As per the previous point on aiding, you should ask your horse to transition into the new pace, and then your horse should maintain that pace without you having to keep aiding him. 

Related Read: How to Keep Your Horse Attentive to Your Aids

Putting it all together

Through the use of transitions, clear and deliberate driving aids, along with conscious management of your horse’s balance, relaxation, and full-body suppleness, you can create a forward-thinking self-going horse.

In conclusion

If you have a horse inclined to be backward thinking, it can present a real handicap to the progression of your dressage training. Your horse will lack the activity and the lively impulsion required to achieve genuine suppleness through the back, acceptance of the contact, engagement, and an uphill balance.

More often than not, your horse’s backward thought has been created through a physical and/or training issue that has killed his desire to travel forward. 

To re-train your horse to be forward-thinking, you must first rule out physical pain and discomfort before taking a holistic approach with your training, looking at your horse’s suppleness, balance, the use of your aids, and your horse’s responsiveness to them. 

Your end goal is to have a horse with a constant desire to move forward without tension, to willingly step under and engage his hindlegs when asked to do so, transmitting the energy created through a supple and relaxed back forward to the contact. 

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