It’s a common issue for most of us—we have a horse that is slow to react to the aids, is heavy in the hands, or evades rather than responds.
Surely we are reticent to revert to our naughty-pony days of constant kicking to gain his attention and get him to step up. But if we are not to incessantly drum our heels, what is the best, most fair, and most effective alternative? Grand Prix dressage rider Uta Gräf articulates how to get the horse in front of the leg in her book Uta Gräf’s Effortless Dressage Program, written with Friederike Heidenhof:
There are certain things that are hard to express in words. Generations of riding instructors search for the right expression to describe something that can only be actually felt while riding, namely, the state of having the horse in front of you. It should be clear that this expression has nothing to do with the location of the bodies of horse and rider. Ideally, it feels as if the rider is sitting a little farther back on the horse, directly on active hindquarters. The rider is always carried along in the movement. Driving aids cause an immediate forward impulsion and the rider is never behind the movement. The horse is active and straight, in balance, through, swinging well, and relaxed in good contact. Similar expressions include: “The horse is on or in front of the leg.” Or, “The horse pushes forward to the bit and to both hands.” The hardest thing about learning to ride is that you rarely get the chance to feel such an ideal state on a well-trained horse. When you know how it feels to have the horse in front of you, you can get it from less well-trained horses more easily.
It isn’t only important in dressage to have the horse in front of you. It is indispensable in jumping. If the horse gets behind the aids on a course, he isn’t pulling to the jump and will jump insecurely, if at all. Martin Plewa says: “Many riders have a hard time having the horse in front of them in jumping. But if he isn’t, the jump will be worse, and the tempo won’t be regular but too fast. That frequently results in resistance, because the rider must correct with the hand too often.” It is also more pleasant for pleasure riders when their horse is trained to be in front of the leg, and responding to the aids to go to the hand instead of trying to escape and go sideways to evade the driving aids. When riding out, I feel much more secure when I have my horse in front of me. If my horse leaps about, I don’t get so easily behind the movement and can maintain the poll position better. It is easier to keep my horse from bucking or bolting. Having your horse in front of you is fundamental for every stage of training and every riding style in order to be closer to effortless riding. It is also healthier for the horse because he doesn’t go for miles on the forehand. So how do I do it?
Practical Exercises to Get the Horse in Front of the Rider
- Improve sensitivity to the leg and the move off to the trot with transitions and changes of tempo.
- Include changes of tempo in your exercise: for example, in shoulder fore, in serpentines, on the circle.
- Don’t overwhelm the horse. Take breaks so that he can regenerate strength. Ideally, let the horse chew the reins out of the hand.
- When “swing,” activity, and reach to the hand are lost during an exercise (e.g. shoulder-in), stop the exercise, ride the horse again with more forward energy on a curved line and continue with the exercise when the horse swings actively from behind again. In no case should you squeeze or clamp.
- If swing and fluidity of motion are lost with increasing collection, choose a freer tempo again. Consider cantering forward in a light seat.
- Consciously ride to the hand, especially with increased speed. The horse should softly stretch his neck while keeping the poll relatively high with the forehead in front of the vertical.
- Develop a seat that is independent of the hand (and doesn’t disturb the horse) that enables you to sit and ride the active, impulsive energy to the hand.