Is It Me Or Is It My Horse?

Another of our Real Life Rider series, where our rider wrote to say she is currently training her 3-year-old Warmblood and is having difficulty with getting her ‘forward’.  The horse is always behind the leg and when she loses the forward he becomes crooked and starts to rear and protest.

A rider may struggle to properly apply and coordinate their aids without fully knowing or understanding that they may be the root cause of the horses lack of forwardness. As a rider you should constantly ask and answer a persistent question when you don’t get the response as you intended.

Whether you are training at the very highest level or a beginner ask yourself …Is it me or is it my horse?


This basic question never goes away, even for the most experienced rider. To answer this ever present question you should automatically run through a check list related to your basic position.

So, in sequential order … check out the following

1. Relaxation
Are YOU relaxed? Are there any muscle groups subconsciously tense? – gripping thigh, tension through shoulders, tense fingers, rigid jawline, rock hard arms, solid back?

2. Balance
Can you let go of the reins and ride without reliance on your hand? Is your seat crooked? Are you leaning left or right, forward or backwards? Is your position correct?

3. Following the horse’s motion
Do you :

  • employ a following seat?
  • move with the horse in walk or rely on the horse’s motion to move you?
  • allow with your hips in the trot?
  • do the circular backward hip rotation in canter?

4. Appling the aids
How effective are your aids? Does your horse immediately respond? Are they crisp, clear and true? or are you having a numbing effect on your horse?

5. Coordinating the aids
Are you clear and do you fully understand and employ your aids correctly? or are you creating confusion with your aids?

6. Influencing the horse
Do you fully understand the influence your body is having on your horse’s way of going? Are you able to influence the paces, so can you lengthen and shorten the stride? are you able to straighten a horse that is going off line? Can you develop more impulsion? Do you know how to relax your horse?

The Very Simple Things Matter

We are examining why a 3-year-old horse is reluctant to move forward. Now clearly we need to make considerations for the age of the horse, but I have focussed this post of the lack of forwardness and not what to expect from a young horse.

How ‘forward’ your horse feels on a given day depends on your riding skills yes, but also on the horse’s temperament, when last worked, any muscle soreness and many more influences and believe me … the very simple things can matter.  e.g. your ride starts in the stable and if you hurry and hustle your horse as you groom and tack up, you will create tension before you even reach the arena!  Your horse will not have a relaxed, forward feel when you mount. So, even though you applied correct aids, there can be many reasons why you did not get free forward motion, in the direction, at the speed, or with the rhythm you anticipated.

We need to constantly appraise whether we are doing something that may have blocked a free forward motion. Here is a checklist of some common ways riders restrict forward motion that can help you evaluate whether it is ‘you’ or ‘your horse’:

Are you blocking your horse with your seat?

Your seat must follow the horse’s motion in a rhythmical way in order to allow the horse to move forward. If you say ‘go’ with your leg aids but your seat does not immediately follow the forward swing of the horse’s hips as he picks up a hind foot, you WILL restrict forward motion – guaranteed!

1. Bouncing in the saddle

2. Pumping with your upper body? – Yes! You have seen them haven’t you? even at the highest level!!!!! Check out some of the Olympic riders!

3. Too much head and neck motion? The tension has to come out somewhere!

4. Flying elbows.

5. Flapping legs

All of the above?

These are common symptoms of tense hips that are not correctly following the horse’s motion. You may also be cheating by collapsing at the belly button to absorb the motion or pumping with your upper body at the canter.  Ok, now you have recognised yourself bouncing, pumping, head bobbing, elbowing and leg flapping! Do you think you should take up what comes naturally? – Kick boxing! or is there something we can do about it?

What to do …

Work on thinking tall and elegant and transferring the rocking to the pelvis instead of the upper body. The goal is to follow the horse’s motion by opening and closing the hips while maintaining a steady, relaxed upper body.

Are you blocking your horse with your leg?

If you use constant leg pressure to hold your position on the horse, or squeeze and hold with your legs, some horses feel this as a restriction of movement rather than as an encouragement to go forward, the horse may have been trained to stop from the leg! Sensitive horses may try to run away from it. Either way – not correct.

Riders can tend to grip with the knee and thigh or turn their toes out and hang on with their calves.  Of you try to enforce these incorrect leg aids with a touch of the whip, the horse may kick out, buck or balk as a way of saying, “Not fair! Mixed message!”

NOTE: A squeeze and release with the leg urges the horse forward rhythmically. A softly supporting leg can steady a flighty horse. A gripping leg always restricts forward movement.

Are you blocking your horse with the reins?

This is an obvious block—saying ‘go’ with the leg and ‘stop’ at the same time (Half halting continuously!) that just confuses the horse.

Less obvious is the more advanced rider who has tension in their hands. This will feel backwards to the horse and he will respond accordingly. That’s if you have a generous horse. If not you will get a reaction you may not wish for.  Do not allow tight fingers, tense forearms or locked elbows – your horse’s forward motion WILL be blocked!

So when the question of “is it the horse or is it me?” comes up, ask yourself how far along you are in mastering the six point check list above, if you are not yet able to influence a horse consistently (level 6), the default answer to the question is generally that the communication breakdown is on the rider’s side, not the horse’s side.

That’s YOU not your HORSE!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster


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