Equitation is hard enough to master as it is, but what many beginners don’t always recognise is that we also have a whole new language for them to learn. Words as simple as mane, withers, girth, to words that always get a snigger, such as lunging, numnah or sausage boot.
That’s before you even get to the ridden terminology. These terms are further complicated by the fact that they are open to interpretation. As an instructor, it’s useful to clarify your meaning of a term to a new client. As a client, it’s important to ask your instructor to explain anything you don’t completely understand.
One term which I find has multiple meanings and causes all sorts of confusion is this, “forwards”.
In the normal world forwards refers to the direction of movement. However, to equestrians it has multiple meanings, depending on the horse’s level or training and the rider’s ability, understanding, and discipline.
Let’s discuss the different aspects of the word forwards.
A horse who is forwards, is responsive to the aids. For example, when you apply the leg and seat aids the horse moves off. That doesn’t mean you ask three or four times and they eventually shuffle off. One ask and it’s done.
A horse who is forwards moves with energy and purposefully. They should still have a good quality gait – be consistent in the rhythm, have a steady tempo, be working into a contact, and be working from behind with impulsion. The strides should be active, of a good length and cadence. The back should swing and the horse shouldn’t look tense.
A forward going horse should feel like they’re taking you forwards – towards a jump, for example – but that they aren’t running away with you.
Very often, riders confuse the idea of a horse being forwards with them being fast.
Unfortunately, many forward going horses have the tendency to rush, both on the flat and over jumps. You can also think of them as hot horses.
Confusing the two concepts means that if you are riding a lazy horse and trying to get them “more forwards” invariably they end up still needing a lot of leg aids and rush around, still not moving purposefully or with a good length of stride. If you have a lazy horse and want to make them more forward going then rather than chivvying your horse around the arena use a variety of exercises to retrain their brain.
If the horse doesn’t respond to your leg aids then you can use transitions to get the horse focused on the rider and the aids. Transitions in quick succession sharpen the horse’s mind, keeps them focused on the work and teaches them to react to the leg and seat aids.
The transitions also teach the horse to use their hindquarters and to step up towards the contact. This improves the activity of the hindquarters which, together with suppling work, improves the stride length and cadence of the horse. Which means that they will find it easier and more effortless to move, and so they work more economically and purposefully.
Providing varied work will keep the horse mentally focused, so they will concentrate on the rider more and have more of a desire to please their rider. Which means that they usually respond to the aids more and have more energy in their work.
Only when the horse learns to react to the first leg aids (which can then become lighter), and move more effortlessly, as well as being mentally switched on to their work, will they become more forward going.