If you've been reading my blog for even a tiny amount of time, you may have picked up that one of my biggest struggles with Tristan is to get and keep him forward. He is a naturally behind the leg horse who feels quite firmly that unless there is a mountain lion behind him, he should be saving his energy for the moment when that mountain lion appears. (Corollary: unless there is an actual mountain lion actually chasing him, then yawn. No spooker at shadows is he!)
So, forward. There are all sorts of classical definitions but at its heart "forward" means that the horse is willing and engaged and holds in himself the energy to do what is asked of him.
How can you tell if he's forward?
If you're like me, and you a) have a naturally lazy horse and b) actually like having a more laid back horse because you prefer not to get run off with, it can be tricky. You get used to a certain rhythm and speed and even a tiny deviation upward from that feels way forward! Even if it's not.
(Important caveat: forward is not synonymous with fast. Light-footed, speedy horses can be behind the leg as well. You'll see why in a moment, hopefully.)
Here are a few ways that I've been taught, over the years, to help figure out forward and that have all proven useful to me.
- Can I take my leg off my horse - completely, 100% off, daylight seen between my leg and the saddle - for a significant period of time, say an entire long side, and still have him move out with the same rhythm and energy?
- Can I feel the seeds of each gait within the other - ie, do I feel like I could transition from walk to trot, from trot to canter, and back down again without significant setup, kicking, sourness, etc? Once you think about it this way, think about feeling the trot or canter that could develop from your walk, it's actually a startlingly neat thing to have in your head.
- Is my horse willing to work with me - does he feel energized and ready for what's next, is he with me, do I have possibilities at my fingertips and is he at least open and accessible to my aids, if not always spot on?
- How am I using my leg? Am I nagging, or keeping it completely off? No extreme is good. You should be able to keep a good firm leg on without constantly kicking OR being afraid your horse will blow up. That firm leg should feel like part of a solid foundation.
- Is it easy to post - is the horse's movement and energy pushing me up and through so that it takes less effort to move my own body, as if I were sort of riding the wave of my horse's energy? Is it easier to sit deep in the canter if I keep my hips open - can I follow a steady, even rhythm, or conversely, keep that rhythm without major course corrections?
- If you're watching from the ground: what's the overstep like? Is your horse at least touching his hind hoofs to the edge of the front hoofprints? Does that overstep increase as your horse warms up? Have a mental gauge of your horse's average overstep: your goal in working is to increase suppleness to increase that overstep, but unless you keep those feet moving you'll get nowhere.
Anyone else have any tips, tricks, or questions they ask themselves to help figure out whether they're really forward?