Forward energy is an important, if not the most important, aspect of training a horse. Without energy you have nothing to guide. Our legs communicate movement to the horse. Movement can be directed forward, lateral, gait changes, directional changes, extension and collection. There are many subtle aids used by the riders legs. If you use your leg without conscious care the horse will not become educated to the different requests you may be trying to communicate.
Recently while observing a student I was reminded of how often riders are unaware of what their leg is saying to the horse. So many times I see riders pushing, kicking, spurring even hitting horses to move forward. The horse is responding by moving, but he/she does it without energy and quickly slows down to a crawl. 9 out of 10 times this problem is created by the rider. The one time it is not, could be the result of discomfort in the horse. Before you begin you want to be certain all tack is a proper fit and comfortable for the horse. Observe the horse for any physical difficulties the horse might have, i.e., arthritis, back pain, hoof pain, etc. Mares can be very sensitive during their cycles and become resentful of you pushing on their sides. Any discomfort can causes bracing instead of giving to pressure, (horses in nature always brace against pressure to protect themselves). If all is well, and you are working with a healthy, sound horse it is most likely a rider created problem. This could mean the rider has over used their leg aids by constantly (and sometimes unconsciously), pushing or kicking with every stride. The once sensitive horse has become dull to this, perhaps in order not to go insane from the constant nagging! You can just imagine if you were standing next to a friend who kept nudging you with her elbow while you are in conversation it might drive you to either throttle her or shut her out. Since we don’t want to hurt our friends we would just ignore it. Well, horses do not wish to hurt us either. They can either buck us off or they can shut down and ignore us. I do respect that horses have the right to an opinion. If your horse is not responding properly it’s a clue to listen to the horse.
Pushing constantly is also a lot of work for the rider, push, push, push-exhausting! I recently had one student tell me her former trainer told her she just wasn’t strong enough. She had been told to keep strong pressure with her heel on the horse’s side at all times. The horse had no other choice but to shut down.
What is a forward horse? This is not about speed but more about mental energy. One wants to have the feeling that with just a “whisper” of an aid the horse would move to the next level of movement. It’s the feeling that the horse “wants” to go somewhere. It’s similar to how it feels when a horse is exploring a new trail. Speed or fast is what you get when the horse is heading home. That is not the kind of energy we are looking to create. Energy feels soft yet filled with life. So, it’s not about speed. Pushing a horse too much can cause the horse to lose his rhythm tempo and ultimately compromise balance.
If your horse has become dull to the idea of moving forward the positive thing is this can be rectified. The first step is exam your leg aids. In most cases if this isn’t the whole cause it’s a part of it. I like to think of the leg as a soft wet towel gently draped against the horse’s sides. If it is soft and relaxed you will feel the horse breathing with his sides expanding. The horse will not become dull to this type of leg, there is no pressure.He feels the life and energy of the leg and instead of a nuisance it simply feels like part of the his body.
So, to create movement one wants to ask gently with a very gentle squeeze of the calf muscle at the same time taking a light inhale . If the horse does not respond quickly add a strong squeeze. If this does not bring movement one must lightly tap, not kick, the horse with the heel or carry a dressage whip and gently tap behind your leg, (not on the hindquarters). The dressage whip is a tool used as an extension of your leg. It can create a different sensation to alert the horse to notice the leg pressure. It must never be used to hurt the horse. Its function is to reinforce what the leg is conveying to the horse so it is of the utmost importance to always use your leg before you resort to the extension of the whip. Blunt spurs can be used as well with a gentle bump, but one must have complete control and awareness of your leg. A spur also must never be used to hurt the horse. A mistake with a spur is much easier to make. If you do not have good control of your leg you should not use a spur. Be prepared for the horse to take a quick step forward. Once you clarify with a whip or spur you must never get in his way to move forward, even if it’s quickly. Make certain your reins are giving with no pressure and get out of his way! Once the horse moves completely soften your leg, allow it be that towel again and allow the horse to move.
Now, concentrate on the horse’s movement. Feel the first stride the horse changes tempo and begins to slow down. On that very first stride quickly squeeze gently and follow through with the steps above until he moves forward. The key here is to stop the second he moves forward and react the second he slows. I like to think of asking in 3 progressive stages of pressure. Ask, Clarify, and Do it! The rider must be consistent 100% of the time. If you “forget” what your leg is doing and you go back to pushing, kicking, etc., the horse will be confused and not progress. Horses are conditioned response animals. It is important to put the same condition on the horse in order to receive the same response and ultimately a habit to respond to leg pressure with the lightest touch.
The other problem that can and does create a horse with dulled senses is boredom. If you only ride your horse in the arena or do the same thing daily your horse will shut down. Groundhog Day! (A fun movie where the character keeps reliving the same day over and over again.) Remember, riding in the arena is your idea — heck, riding at all is your idea. I do not know of any horse that will raise his hoof when you ask the pastured horses who wants to go to work! Ride your horse outside the ring as much as possible. Trails are interesting and create the desire to move forward creating a positive happy horse. You can work on many aspects of training while trail riding. If trails are not available ride in your pastures or create a totally different routine for your horse. Keeping your horse mentally stimulated will encourage a forward thinking horse.
In the end it is the rider’s commitment to using proper legs aids consistently. It takes self-discipline and a few weeks to create a habit. If you’re going to create a habit why not make it a good one! Your efforts with be rewarded with a light responsive and happy horse.