Training your horse to move forward willing and dependably is the most important element to having a responsive and well-behaved horse. Most behavior problems begin with your horse’s resistance to the forward aids – your legs and seat. Severe resistance to the forward aids can result in bucking, rearing, shying, balking, and being unwilling to leave other horses or leave the barn. These are serious issues, but the cure is to go back to square one – your horse’s response to the go forward aids.
Going forward dependably is also a safety issue. If there is a scary monster in the bushes, your horse still has to listen to your go forward command to get past it. He might not like it, he might be tense and wild eyed, but if he continues to obey the forward aids, you can still make it past the obstacle. Going forward when asked is not a suggestion, or a guideline. It’s a hard and fast rule. It effects how your horse steers as well. Like a sail boat, you can’t steer a horse if he’s not in motion. I like to turn my horse’s head slightly away from the monster in the bushes, but continue it a straight line until we’re in the clear.
If you have trained a young horse, or started him under saddle, you have experienced that the green horse is so difficult to ride because his gas pedal is sticky. He goes forward, then the motor cuts out, then he doesn’t steer. Repeat. It’s rarely a problem that you cannot slow down or stop your young horse, he gets that pretty quickly. An experienced rider can get the horse moving forward with their aids, their energy and their mind. Everything about their attitude in the saddle says let’s go forward with consistency without blocking the way forward with hands or a body that cannot follow the forward motion smoothly. After many rides, the young horse learns that it’s fun to go forward in harmony with a rider, and through repetition and reward, and perhaps backed up with a crop on occasion, he learns that going forward is a way of life. Only then can you start bending and flexing, and introduce side way movements, because there is forward energy and motion to work with.
Every successful training moment that you make it past the barking dog, the plastic bag, and the parked car, builds your horse’s confidence in you. You are in charge and if you say go – it is safe. He learns to trust your leadership until finally; there is no resistance to anything. You are a team that can go anywhere! That is what we call a well-broke or fully trained horse. It does take time to get there – but it is so worth it.
It’s a good idea to revisit your horse’s response to the forward aids in the arena throughout his lifetime. I like to get on a big circle and go from trot to walk to trot to walk. Those transitions reinforce the go forward command, and sharpen his response with immediate compliance. Then I do the same thing with trot to canter to trot to canter – reviewing the response to the canter aid. Then really mix it up with a halt to trot to canter to walk to trot and back to halt. Gas pedal, steering wheel and brakes all functioning properly? Then you’re ready to go hit the trail again.