The horses we choose today for our sport of dressage are inherently balanced and athletic. Most of them enjoy going energetically forward. As riders and trainers we must retain this energy while, at the same time, developing the overall balance and strength of our horses as they progress through their training. One of the ways of accomplishing this is using a simple turn on the forehand.
To perform a turn on the forehand:
1. Start at the walk with the horse yielding nicely to the bridle.
2. Gradually shorten the strides until he is almost to the halt.
3. At this point, ask for a slight bend in his body (your inner leg at the girth and your outer leg a little back, your horse’s neck slightly flexed to the inside).
4. Use sufficient pressure in the reins to maintain roundness of his topline.
5. Your inner leg moves back to ask your horse’s inner hind leg to step under his body. The horse can now pivot around his inner front leg (which steps ever so slightly forward) and move his quarters around his front end.
6. The inner rein gently leads (but never pulls), balanced by the outer rein to avoid over-bending.
An important aspect of this exercise is establishing control of the horse’s inner shoulder from your inner leg. When taking the horse forward to return to the walk, you must be sufficiently active with your inner leg at the girth to ensure the horse’s center of balance does not tip to the inside. In other words, you should ask for a slight leg yield off your inner leg when returning to a forward feeling walk.
At the onset, a young horse might find this awkward, but with time and patience he will be able to step seamlessly into the turn and out of it.
So what does this accomplish in the overall training scheme?
First, this exercise creates a rider awareness of the horse’s center of balance, at a pace when the correction can be made through leg aids rather than with the reins. This will carry over to the trot and canter as the horse learns that an inner leg aid is a positioning aid, not a going-forward request. Also, downward transitions become better balanced since the horse will accept support from your inner leg and not tip to the forehand and/or lean on the inside rein. Canter departs will improve because preparation is clearer and the shoulder is free to rise up to the first canter stride.
As an added bonus, a quarter turn on the forehand alternated with a quarter turn on the haunches (three to four repetitions) is a great approach to teaching a walk pirouette.
Mary Grace Davidson is a USDF “S” judge and a bronze and silver medalist. She has officiated at major shows throughout the U.S. and Canada, including many USDF regional championships. She is based in Walnut Creek, California.