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How to Get Your Horse Working Forwards, Not Faster

forwards not faster dressage


For your horse to progress through the levels of dressage training, it is essential that he is ‘in front of your leg’ and working forwards into the bridle.

Unfortunately, when some riders apply their leg aids, their horses mistakenly increase their tempo and move their legs faster. 

So, in this article, we will cover the difference between speed and impulsion, why your horse speeds up, and how you can encourage your horse to work more forwards without getting faster. 

Impulsion, not speed

Your horse needs to be working forwards with a level of energy and activity that is suitable for his training level. 

If you apply your leg aids and your horse increases in tempo and speeds up, then you’ve got a problem because as your horse’s legs move faster, he will become less balanced, putting more weight on his forehand.

Unfortunately, this can also lead to the following negatives. 

  • Tension.
  • Tightness.
  • Inconsistent tempo.
  • A short and tight neck.
  • Contact issues, such as opening the mouth, tilting the head, head-shaking, and/or coming against the bit.
  • You will have difficulty with the controls and struggle to bend and position your horse correctly for school movements.

A horse that responds this way cannot be described as being ‘in front of your leg’ because, instead, he is rushing away from it. 

The good news is that your horse is at least responding to the leg and going forwards, albeit in the wrong way. 

What do you want to happen? 

Your goal is to create impulsion without speed; apply your leg aids and ask for more energy without your horse increasing his tempo. (Tempo is the speed of the rhythm.)

You want to activate your horse’s hind legs underneath him. For them to step further under his center of gravity, to carry more weight, and to push more. 

Once you get this balance just right, you will experience the following results:

  • Increased controllable power – This will allow you to produce a range of variations within the paces, e.g., collection and extensions.
  • Increase thrust – This increased spring off the ground in trot and canter will give more expression to your horse’s paces.
  • A more pronounced rhythm to the paces – This, when combined with increased thrust, will produce cadence.
  • A willingness and eagerness to obey your aid – This enables you to use lighter aids and creates a more harmonious partnership.

Why does your horse speed up? 

Your horse may increase in tempo due to one or more of the following reasons. 

Reason 1 – Incorrectly fitting tack and/or physical issues 

If your horse is experiencing any pain or tightness from, for example, a pinching saddle, a muscle issue, or a previous injury, then rather than increasing in engagement and impulsion, he may instead display quicker, shorter and choppier strides to escape discomfort. 

For your horse to use his body fully and optimally, he needs to be able to work freely without any restriction to his movement. 

Reason 2 – Lack of suppleness 

For your horse to be able to step under and push more with his hindlegs, he must have full-body suppleness, but especially longitudinal suppleness. 

Longitudinal suppleness is suppleness over your horse’s topline, which is needed for your horse to stretch his hind legs further underneath his body. 

If your horse is tight through his back and over his topline, this prevents him from being able to engage and leads him to instead moving his legs faster. 

In contrast, if your horse has plenty of elasticity, he will generate bigger, rounder, higher strides, creating more impulsion and elevation.

Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Longitudinal Suppleness

Reason 3 – Lack of balance

If your horse is working downhill with the majority of his weight on his shoulders and forehand, any attempt you make to increase his energy and ride your horse more forwards will be futile. 

All that will happen is you will drive your horse’s forehand into the ground, causing him to move his legs even faster. 

For this reason, your horse must be in a reasonable balance to begin with, and if your horse loses balance during his work, this can cause him to increase in tempo.  

Related Read: How to Improve Your Horse’s Balance

Reason 4 – Tension 

When your horse is negatively tense and anxious, his muscles will be tight. 

In such a scenario, your horse does not have the full-body suppleness and looseness needed to work energetically forward while maintaining a consistent and suitable tempo. 

If your horse is particularly scared, he may be in “flight mode” and could interpret your leg aids as a signal to run! 

To work your horse forwards but not faster, he needs to be physically and mentally relaxed. 

Related Read: How to Reduce Tension and Get Your Horse to Relax

Reason 5 – Incorrectly established contact

A correct contact connects your horse’s hindlegs to the bit via energy transmitted through a supple and swinging back.

If you have a contact that is tight and restrictive, you will cause your horse to tighten through his topline and hollow, preventing this flow of energy.

On the opposite side of the coin, if you have long and loopy washing-line reins, you have no contact at all, and any energy you create with your legs will escape through the front door rather than be recycled back into your horse’s movement. 

And lastly, an incorrect contact leads to an incorrect (or non-existent) half-halt, which is our next reason for your horse speeding up. 

Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact

Reason 6 – Ineffective, incorrect, or no use of the half-halt 

One of the most common reasons for your horse’s legs’ increase in speed (as opposed to increasing impulsion and forward energy) is the lack of a correct half-halt. 

The half-halt is a crucial tool that allows you to capture and contain the energy your leg aids have created. 

It is your half-halt that communicates to your horse that you do not want him to go faster when you apply your leg aids. 

Related Read: How to Ride a Half-Halt

What not to do 

To prevent your horse from speeding up when you put your leg on, you must not pull back and hold onto your horse with the reins. 

If you keep a tight rein contact as you push your horse forward with your legs, you give your horse conflicting signals and can easily fall into the trap of cramming your horse between stronger leg and stronger rein aids. 

Keeping the handbrake on does nothing but create tension and tightness in your horse, which, as we’ve discussed, does not contribute to the solution you are looking for. It will also provide your horse with a less-than-pleasurable riding experience which will not produce a harmonious performance and may even build resistance in your horse over time. 

How to get your horse to work forwards, not faster

Here are four steps that you can follow to help encourage your horse to work with more impulsion without increasing in speed. 

Step 1 – Rule out physical issues

Your first step is to make sure that no physical issues are prohibiting your horse from being able to use his body fully. 

Check the fit of your saddle and tack, and ensure that your horse is physically well and sound. 

Step 2 – Relaxation

When riding your horse, your first goal is to establish relaxation, both mentally and physically.  

Without relaxation, your horse cannot be loose and supple in his body, and, as we’ve discussed, any tension will increase the likeliness of your horse changing tempo and increasing in speed. 

During your training, if you lose your horse’s relaxation at any point, you must return to this step and re-establish it before continuing. 

Step 3 – Rhythm, suppleness, and contact

Next, you need to have your horse working in a correct rhythm, through a supple and swinging back, into a soft and elastic contact. 

Basically, you need to establish the first three scales in the dressage scales of training. 

Asking for more energy before these scales are in place can cause problems. Your horse will not yet have the physical ability to manage a lot of impulsion and forward energy without stiffening or coming against your hand, leading to an increase in speed. 

Also, during these first three scales, your horse is developing an understanding of your driving aids and your restraining aids and how to work between them. This then leads to the development of your half-halt, which, as we’ve already stated, is an essential tool for working your horse more forwards but not faster. 

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Step 4 – Increase the impulsion (with the assistance of the half-halt)

After achieving step 3, you can slowly ask your horse for more forward energy and activity. At the same time, you need to maintain the rhythm and tempo, your horse’s relaxation and suppleness, and a soft elastic contact.

Essentially, you must contain the energy you create with your legs through your half-halts instead of letting the energy escape out the front door and turn into speed. 

Exercises to increase impulsion without speed

While following our four steps above, here are some exercises you can ride at home. 

Exercise 1 – Circles

Circles encourage your horse to step under with his inside hind leg and help you manage the tempo while improving your horse’s lateral suppleness. 

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Example 1 – Spirals

This exercise is excellent for horses that like to get a little bit too quick, as the spiral inwards can help you to gain control of the tempo. 

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle and establish a good working trot. 
  2. Gradually spiral the circle inwards to a 10-meter or 15-meter circle (depending on your horse’s current level of training). 
  3. After one circle revolution, spiral your horse back outward onto the 20-meter circle. 
  4. Repeat a few times before changing the rein. 

TIP: You can also ride this exercise in canter. 

Related Read: How to Ride Spiral Exercises

Example 2 – Figure of eight 

  1. At A, in working trot, ride a half 20-meter circle to the right.
  2. At X, ride a full 20-meter circle to the left. 
  3. At X, ride a half 20-meter circle to the right to finish at A.

TIP: You can also ride this exercise connecting two 15-meter circles or two 10-meter circles. 

Related Read: How to Ride a Figure of Eight

Exercise 2 – Transitions 

When ridden correctly, all transitions will help develop your horse’s engagement, suppleness, and responsiveness to your half-halt. 

Plus, if your horse begins to get a little too quick, you can ride a smooth downward transition to walk or halt, confirming your restraining aids and encouraging your horse to take more weight onto his hind legs.

Related Read: How to Progress With Transitions

Arguably, the best exercise for increasing energy without speed is to ride transitions within the paces. 

Example 1: Medium walk – free walk – medium walk

This example exercise is excellent for improving your horse’s longitudinal suppleness (suppleness over the back) and encouraging relaxation. 

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle and establish a good medium walk. 
  2. Allow the reins to slip through your fingers and for your horse to take the contact forward and down. Your horse should continue to stretch over his whole topline toward the bit while maintaining the activity and tempo of the steps. 
  3. After half a circle, use gentle half-halts and gradually shorten your reins, bringing your horse back into a medium walk. 
  4. Repeat the exercise several times before changing the rein. 

TIP: Ensure your horse continues to march forward in the walk and maintains an active tempo and regular rhythm. Do not let him fall behind your leg or speed up the walk steps into a jog. 

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Example 2: Working trot – medium trot – collected trot

This exercise will help to improve your horse’s suppleness, encourage more engagement, increase the activity of his hind legs, and improve your horse’s responsiveness to your leg, seat, and rein aids.  

  1. Ride a 20-meter circle and establish a good working trot.
  2. Ride your horse forward into a medium trot or lengthened strides. (Focus on your horse lengthening the trot strides while keeping the same tempo. Use your half-halts to re-balance your horse if he speeds up.) 
  3. After a few strides, use half-halts to shorten the trot gradually and then make four or five working/collected trot strides.
  4. Repeat the exercise several times before changing the rein.

TIP: You can also ride this exercise in canter. 

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Exercise 3 – Lateral movements

If you still struggle to apply your leg aids without your horse rushing off, riding lateral movements can be an excellent way of controlling the essential forward movement while preventing your horse from increasing in tempo. 

It’s much more difficult for your horse to speed up and rush when moving sideways, thereby preventing the energy from escaping and allowing you to contain it on your horse’s hind legs.

All lateral movements, when ridden correctly, will serve this purpose. 

Related Read: How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)

Example 1 – Leg-yield

The leg-yield is a great suppling exercise, helping to make your horse loose and free in his lateral and longitudinal movement. And since the leg-yield does not require collection, this makes it an ideal exercise for young and novice horses and those coming back into work.

  1. Establish a good working trot.
  2. Turn onto the centerline and leg-yield towards the outside track. 
  3. Once you reach the quarterline, ride your horse forwards for a few strides before continuing your leg-yield to the outside track. 
  4. Once you reach the outside track, ride your horse forwards and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.

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Example 2 – Shoulder-in, circle, and transition

You can combine lateral exercises with transitions and circles for additional benefits. 

  1. In trot, on the right rein, ride shoulder-in from K to E.
  2. At E, ride a 10-meter circle.
  3. Ride medium trot from E-H.
  4. At H, transition back to working trot.
  5. On the next long side of the arena, ride shoulder-in again from M and repeat the exercise before changing the rein.

Related Read: How to Ride Shoulder-In

After a few times, you will find that your horse will start stepping underneath himself automatically. The result should be a more collected, elevated, expressive, and cadenced pace with maximum energy and lift, with the circles, transitions, and shoulder-in helping to maintain a consistent tempo. 

In conclusion

Your horse should always be forward-thinking and reactive to your driving aids, but it becomes a problem when your horse interprets those aids as an instruction to increase in tempo and rushes forwards. 

For forward energy to be a useful tool, you must be able to contain and control it. Only then can it be re-directed into producing more power, thrust, and improving your horse’s paces. 

When riding, first make sure that your horse is relaxed, then establish those first three scales of rhythm, suppleness, and contact, before finally asking for more energy and containing it with your half-halt. 

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