What is ‘Forwards’?
We all know it’s important for the horse to be thinking and moving forwards. It gets shouted often, referred to on dressage sheets frequently and generally discussed as one of the Holy Grails of training, but what does it mean? And more importantly what does it mean to you?
To have travelled ‘forwards’ just means you started from ‘here’ and got to ‘there’ and unless you are going backwards or sideways you must be going forwards right? Pretty much anyone can get from here to there… eventually, so there must be something about the ‘how’ that warrants a look when related to training your horse.
I find the word ‘forwards’ is used almost obsessively by many trainers and in some ways, rightly so. Problems can arise however when the ‘getting from here to there’ element is valued over elements such as balance, suppleness and joint mobility. Racing Thoroughbreds get from one point to another very efficiently but not much about how they do it resembles dressage.
Generally speaking in training it’s not useful to value one singular element over another, which can often become the case when one is felt to be the horse’s most obvious weakness. An obsession with a lack of forwards can give way to incessant driving of the horse with aids that can never cease. At this point it’s useful to know that all elements are related, one always being affected by another to some degree. So when you are struggling with one particular element and finding it isn’t improving it’s useful to have a look at the others and how they might be affecting things.
Horses that lack ‘forwards’ are almost always suffering from stiffness and asymmetry. Continuing to kick or drive such a horse forwards with little regard for these issues often results in an attempt by the horse to comply by simply moving his legs faster with a stiff back, accompanied by an obvious increase in tempo. Alternatively he may become more reluctant and shut down, bracing his body against the request for increased activity from a stiff hind leg.
So, ‘Forwards’ becomes nothing more than ‘faster’ when joints are stiff and postural muscles are disengaged. In the absence of balance, hind leg articulation and suppleness this kind of ‘forwards’ at best, has very little value to the horse in terms of gymnastic development and at worst breaks the him down over time.
Many riders struggle with showing enough change in the ‘medium’ elements of their earlier dressage tests because the training has focussed on the ‘getting from here to there’ element of forwards in the earlier stages and missed the elements required for collection, or being able to remain on one place. And here’s the thing…
Horses who are lacking in forwards often need to slow down first. I think this is one of the most counter intuitive things in riding and something I so often see misunderstood. I can’t remember how many times I have asked a rider to slow down on their “lazy” horse who “won’t go forwards” (usually to their horror) only to find that they actually can’t! It always gives me a chuckle. They find that they don’t have a downwards transition readily available and can’t slow the trot to a sittable jog, yet they complain that their horse is not ‘forwards’ Hmm… It’s got to be one or the other right? So which is it? If you have ‘forwards’ issues, please go and see how slowly you can trot. <Evil trainer grin> 😁
So this is where you need to put your thinking cap on because if you aren’t able to slow down with some ease, maintaining rhythmical steps you can count then you must be going too “forwards” so asking the horse to go more forwards can’t really be the answer.
Faster isn’t ‘forwards’ simply because fast has more thrust than carry. True ‘forwards’ requires both elements. The element that is the ‘carrying phase’ of the hind leg needs to be in place from which the horse can then thrust. If you only obsess about the thrust part you will never train ‘carry’ and it is this element and associated functional issues that is often overlooked.
Ensuring that the horse is stepping forwards and covering ground in a lively fashion is of course the goal to seek but each horse has a personal ‘speed’ at which he is able to maintain balance and confidence more naturally. This may not feel like “forwards” enough yet for your end goal but it’s a place where his joints and muscles can remain supple and available to him. If you push him out of this natural rhythm too early in the manic pursuit of FORWARDS he will lose his ability to find and maintain the balance and articulation of joints required for the much needed carrying phase of the stride.
Free forwards travel is a minimum requirement in training so if you find yourself feeling as if you have to create this with continuous ceaseless aiding then you may want to check on other elements that might not seem obviously related to the problem of getting from here to there. 😊
Forwards comes from training balance to which we add activity. 😊