Q: I have noticed some riders ride different versions of turn on the forehand. Some ride it with a lot of bend, others with no bend. Some ask the horse to describe a large circle with his forehand, others remain on the spot. Does it have a different effect? Which version is most beneficial? —Name withheld by request
A: This is a wonderful question for me as I use the turn on the forehand a lot. I think what you are observing are variations of the exercise more than different versions. Turns on the forehand are basically lateral movements. We teach them because they promote suppleness and obedience. A certain degree of obedience and submission is necessary to perform this exercise. A larger circle of the front feet and more bend throughout the body are easier than a smaller circle and less bend throughout the body with the front feet staying more on the spot.
The smaller diameter of the forehand turn with less bend requires that the horse has learned how to stay in a frame and, that he is reliably obedient to the driving aids and submissive to the rein aids. He has learned to respond to a complex combination of aids. He can:
1. Go forward and move his front legs and shoulders up and down pretty much on the spot. While doing this maneuver on his forehand, he can…
2. Obey the rider’s inside rein and upper leg so that he is bending his spine around the inside thigh and, at the same time, he can…
3. Obey the rider’s lower inside leg, which tells the hind legs to cross, and he can also…
4. Obey the rider’s outside rein, which will limit the degree of bend in his body. We are talking about collection here.
I would offer that the smaller turn on the forehand is being done by a horse who is more advanced in his training. Since progress can be measured by the degree of collection a horse is capable of, the turn on the forehand is a good indicator of where the horse is in his education. Training the turn on the forehand helps horses understand the bending and the straightening aids. I find it the crucible of their dressage education. A more advanced horse will exemplify the concepts of the training scale: a clear walk rhythm, relaxation, a supple connection to the outside rein and a willingness to be straightened.
Referring to the easier variation of the turn on the forehand, in which the front legs describe a larger circle and the horse is allowed some bend to the inside, that horse could be at an earlier stage of his education. Very soon in his career, a dressage horse will have to perform movements on two tracks, or lateral movements. Crossing the front and back legs can be confusing to the horse. I teach lateral exercises in the walk so the horse learns the response to the aids without losing his balance.
All trainers have a system they have developed that asks the horse to obey simple aids: the leg aids, which mean “go,” and the rein aids, which mean “stop” or “turn.” Eventually, it is necessary to combine these aids in a way that produces a more complex crossing of the legs and bending of the body. Once the horse is comfortable with the driving and turning aids in trot and canter, I start asking for the turn on the forehand in the walk. I ride a 10-meter circle and ask the hind legs to cross to the outside. In the beginning, I hold the horse’s head to the inside with the inside rein. I use the whip gently on the flank to get the hindquarters to move away from pressure. I combine that with a cluck of my tongue, and soon the horse will move away from a very light pressure on his side.
In the early stages, I don’t care how much the horse bends his neck because I want him to concentrate on obedience to the leg aid. Once he obeys the leg aid consistently, I start to add the outside rein to limit the degree of bend throughout the whole length of the body. When the horse can comfortably move around my inside leg, I start to ask for even more straightness laterally. That creates more crossing of the hind legs and therefore has a greater suppling effect on the loin muscles.
When the straightness becomes too difficult, I relax the outside rein a bit. When teaching the turn on the forehand, I do it continually until the horse finds his balance and is confident in the exercise. Gradually, I reduce the diameter of the circle so that the front legs stay more on the spot and I limit the degree of bend. When the horse accepts making the circle smaller, he has started to understand a lot more about accepting the aids, which will produce collection. As with everything new, patient repetition is the key. Of course, you have to do the exercise on both sides, and one side will always be better than the other. When a horse can be adjusted from a big circle to a smaller one, I feel an important plateau has been reached. The horse and I have reached a higher level of cooperation and respect.
Kamila Dupont has been a Grand Prix level dressage trainer in California since 1984. She has been on the USEF long list for the Olympics and the short list for the Pan Am Games. She lived in Germany for many years, where she competed as an American in international competitions. She returned to California in 2006 and continues to fulfill her career goal of helping riders understand the magic of dressage.