Q: I currently lease a 14-year-old Thoroughbred/cross. We do fine on the trails, but when I take a dressage lesson, my horse becomes incredibly heavy on the forehand and sticks his head out. We are slowly working into a better frame but how can I keep him off the forehand?
A: Most horses to one degree or another tend to lean on their forehands. Assuming there are no soundness or extreme conformation impediments, it is through correct training that you will achieve the right balance with your horse. Learning to ride correctly is an ongoing process, so it is important for you to find a good instructor who can help you. Here are several exercises I suggest you practice that may help take your horse off of his forehand and put him in front of your leg and into a better balance.
Training exercises are subdivided into two categories, longitudinal and lateral. Longitudinal work is aimed at collecting and lengthening the horse's frame and stride, lateral work aims to make the horse supple in his neck and back, permitting him to be straight. These two categories of exercises complement each other in producing a well-balanced and obedient horse. First, I will give you two longitudinal exercises that are indispensable in balancing a horse and teaching him to stay in front of your leg.
Adjust the horse to your leg.
This exercise teaches your horse to respond promptly to the slight pressure of your calves applied just behind the girth with your stirrup leathers on the vertical. This is the basis for creating impulsion.
From halt, give a slight leg aid to walk forward. If there is no response from your horse, reinforce the calf pressure with your whip applied just behind the back edge of your boot until the response is lively and immediate--no compromises. Do this exercise as often as required until your horse's reaction to your leg is immediate in all upward transitions.
Learn to halt without pulling on your horse's mouth.
To learn this skill, begin by sitting deeply in the saddle with your spine vertical to the ground. Maintain both your calves in contact with your horse's belly--this keeps his hind legs in line behind his shoulders. Ride your horse lively forward at the walk and on contact. On contact means that you have a steady, even and elastic feeling between your hands and the horse's mouth that you try to maintain, keeping your elbows relaxed and just in front of your hips.
Now practice connecting the resistance you feel in your horse's neck and mouth to your steady, quiet hands by letting it flow from your hands through your arms to your spine and down into your pelvis. Move your tailbone (coccyx) forward while keeping your lower back flat and straight. Your crotch or pubic arc presses forward onto the pommel. As you connect the resistance in this way, your seat will become deeper and more secure.
As the horse feels your resisting-but-never-pulling hands, he backs off the bit slightly and that's when you give him an instant reward--your hands give slightly with the rein, making the contact soft--relaxing the joints of the ring fingers--but not losing it. Your hands never pull, only resist--closing the joints of the ring fingers. The negative force of resistance is recycled by your well-designed seat into a collecting aid for your horse and strengthens your position. When your horse has learned to halt well, you can apply the same technique for a fraction of a second and repeat it to obtain a shift of the horse's weight back towards his hindquarters. This is another way to describe the aid we call a half halt--the single most important influence in making the horse obedient and balanced.
Here are two elementary lateral exercises that teach your horse to move away from your leg or leg yield.
First is the quarter turn on the forehand. On the left rein, for example, ride at the walk on the inside track or quarterline. You will ask your horse to make a quarter circle with his haunches moving counterclockwise around his left shoulder. His neck is slightly bent to the left, enabling you to see the corner of his left eye. Keep your seat and upper body quiet, sitting a little bit heavier on the left seat bone. Use your left (inside) leg four to six inches—not more—behind its normal position just behind the girth. Your right (outside) leg never leaves the horse's side and is ready to drive the horse forward if he tries to step backward. Apply your active, left leg with a palpitating pressure. Give or stop pressure with your leg, when you feel the dip under your left seat bone produced by the crossing of the horse's left hind leg. Ask for the next step in the same way--apply your active leg and stop when you feel a response. Ask for only one or two steps and then move forward without hesitation, maintaining the rhythm of the walk. Encourage your horse to move a few inches forward with his left front foot while his left hind leg crosses over and in front of its right hind leg.
Once your horse is comfortable doing a quarter turn on the forehand, you can introduce him to leg yielding on the diagonal. Begin this exercise at the walk. Start on the left rein first. Turn left off the track from the short side onto the first quarterline. Ride him straight and well forward, then flex him slightly to the left (inside) so you just can see the corner of his eye. Use your active left leg as you did in the previous exercise, applying it, then stopping when you feel him move away from it. He will move away from your leg--forward and sideways--from the quarterline to the second track (about one meter from the wall) along a diagonal line of between 35 to 40 degrees--just enough angle to induce the horse to cross his inside front and hind legs over the outside legs. His body remains parallel to the long sides of your training area.
When you reach the second track, ride your horse straight for two or three strides, then change the flexion and leg yield back to the quarterline. When you can keep a steady rhythm during this exercise at walk in both directions, then try it at trot.
You also can combine the leg yield with transitions between walk and trot. For example, starting on the right rein at a walk, turn right down the quarterline. Leg yield from the quarterline to the second track. Make a transition to trot when reaching the second track, trot a few steps, come back to walk, leg yield back to the quarterline and trot there. Repeat this pattern with as much precision and promptness in the transitions as possible.
You will be able to keep your horse balanced and off his forehand only as well as you can keep him in front of your leg in performing these basic exercises. Your horse and your instructor will be the best judges of your improvement.
Raul de Leon has conducted dressage and jumping clinics in six countries sponsored by the FEI and the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Solidarity Program. He is director of the Long Island International Equestrian Institute and served for six years as co-director of the Institute for Instructors at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, with his former student, Olympic eventing gold medalist Tad Coffin.