How to fix a horse who lacks forward

Riding Training   31st July 2023     16 Comments

One of the most frequent issues people ask us about is why their horse won’t go forward when they try to school them in the arena. So in this post I’m going to focus on one of the main reasons why that happens and give you some ways to actually fix it. 

Now, as soon as they even hear the word ‘schooling’, a lot of riders make the unfortunate mistake of thinking it’s all about getting their horse into an outline. So they take their horse into the arena, shorten their reins to get him to soften and then set off in trot hoping that he’s going to keep his neck round and look like a ‘proper’ dressage horse.  

But as you’ve maybe already discovered if you’ve tried that approach, a lot of horses will just stop pushing as soon as you get them round and then have about as much impulsion as a slug! So then you try driving them more with your legs and seat – which is exhausting for you and still doesn’t seem to have much effect anyway. 

After a few sessions like that maybe you decide you’ll just go hacking instead because your horse is lovely and forwards out and about and both of you have a lot more fun. But, of course, that’s not actually going to do anything to actually develop your horse or improve your dressage scores… 

In our world, the way we fix all this (after checking that there isn’t any health or soundness reason that’s preventing our horse from going forward with enthusiasm) is by following these steps:

  • Stop doing things that interfere with your horse’s desire to push with his hind legs
  • Ensure there’s a clear understanding of your ‘forward’ request
  • Use horse-friendly aids to steer and slow down or stop

So let’s look at these in a bit more detail:

Step 1: Stop doing anything that interferes with your horse’s natural desire to push. 

It’s not that getting your horse ‘round’ and on the bit isn’t important. The problem is that just shortening your reins and driving forward with your legs and seat like most mainstream teachers try to get you to do turns the bit into a physical barrier. 

In your horse’s mind, it’s as if you’re expecting him to push actively forward while his nose is crammed up against a closed door. No horse is going to do that for long and so, not surprisingly, if they can’t find a way to get out of the situation they’ll pretty soon stop wanting to push much at all.  

So what we recommend you do instead is follow the back and forth movement of your horse’s mouth so that he’s got no reason to hesitate or hold back when you ask him to ‘go. What we’ve found by doing it this way is that our horses instantly become much more enthusiastic and willing to go and our clients say the same things too. 

Once your horse is more confident that you won’t try to drive him forward and block him with the bit or bridle at the same time, you can then teach him to flex at the poll in a much more gentle and effective way by following a step by step process of education that we explain in depth inside our Schooling Made Simple coaching and training programme. 

Step 2: Check your horse has a clear understanding of your ‘forward’ aids

Many riders assume that their horses ‘should’ just go forward when they use their legs and, if that doesn’t work, they assume they just need to kick a bit harder. But have you ever wondered why your legs work when they do work and why they don’t work when they don’t get a response? 

The fact is that horses aren’t born knowing what your leg aids mean, so there are no magic buttons on a horse’s flanks that you can just push to get them to go.  At some point in a riding horse’s life, someone has to explain how you want them to respond to your legs when you use them. 

If you’ve been lucky enough to ride a horse with a really consistent desire to go forward when you ask (assuming that’s not just because they are upset or afraid and trying to run away from something…) then you’re benefiting from the good work that someone else already did at an earlier stage in your horse’s training.

Now, it’s true of course that different horses have different temperaments and also that when you ride outdoors on a hack or on the trails most horses will naturally prick up their ears and have a higher level of energy simply because there’s more mental stimulation out in the countryside (as well as more places for ‘invisible monsters’ to hide). 

But you can also cultivate a better response and a higher level of activity even when riding indoors by making sure the ‘front door’ is open (see step 1) and then teaching your horse to understand exactly what you want them to do when you use your legs. The process is actually very simple but it’s frequently misunderstood or overlooked. 

To make it work you’ll need some reliable means of causing your horse to go forward when you ask, like a stick or schooling whip. If your horse has been very desensitised to the wave or touch of a stick, then you can tie a little strip of plastic to the end of one so it makes a bit more of a noise when you wave it. But do be careful if you try that, though, as you might well get a much bigger response than you expected!

And it’s really important to understand that a stick is NOT used to punish your horse for not going forward. On the contrary, as we explain in detail inside our programme, a stick works best when you can use it to create reliable forward movement without even touching your horse. 

Once you have that, it becomes easy to associate a very gentle action of your legs at the same time as the forward movement begins. Pretty soon your horse will connect the two ideas and start to move forward when you ask with your legs alone without the aid from the stick being necessary. 

Step 3: Use horse-friendly aids to steer and slow down or stop

Once your horse is responding to your leg aids and giving you forward activity whenever you want it, the next thing you need is a way to direct that energy he’s just given you without destroying it. This is crucial because, as we said earlier, ‘blocking’ his energy will only discourage him from offering it again.

Most struggling riders have been taught to think of their legs and seat as ‘driving aids’ while the hands are used as ‘restraining aids’. But that means what they’re really doing is setting up a situation where their legs and their hands are giving contradictory messages, so their horse has to ignore one or the other.  

This idea actually originated in 19th century military riding schools around the time when steam engines had just been invented and the aids were thought of just like the controls for a locomotive – the riders legs are used to create steam in the boiler and the hands are used to ‘regulate’ the steam. 

While this image was easy to understand and was fine for the cavalry (where the horses are so full of adrenaline that almost nothing will stop them…!) it doesn’t work so well if your horse isn’t on a battlefield and willing to push through the barrier that the bit creates. Fortunately, it’s not the only way to do things… 

Instead of driving your horse forward into a bridle that restrains or opposes their forward motion,  horses will respond much better if you give them the  freedom with their head and neck that they need in order to move and then gently influence their balance to control their direction and speed. And that means acting subtly either upwards or sideways with your hands but never backwards. Not even a little bit… 

When we first show people how to ride this way and they find out how well and how easily their horses respond to these changes of balance, one of the most frequent things they say to us is “That’s amazing! I so wish I’d learned this when I first started riding all those years ago…”. 

Trapped by mantras…

I remember once watching a clinic where some riders were being taught by a prestigious German dressage teacher. At the end of the lesson, one of the riders was struggling to bring her horse to a halt and the teacher kept repeating the usual mantra – “Resist with your reins but don’t pull”. 

No doubt feeling very self-conscious with all the spectators watching, the poor rider went round and round the arena several times, doing her very best to ‘resist but not pull’ while her horse leant on the bit and rumbled on like an out of control wheelbarrow rolling down a hill. 

Finally, the teacher ran out of patience and stepped out directly into their path the next time they approached. Surprised by this sudden appearance of a figure right in front of him, her horse immediately lifted his neck to see what was going on, changed his balance as a result of that and, as if by magic, brought himself to a perfect halt. 

“That’s it, well done!” said the teacher, while the rider went home from their lesson none the wiser as to how she could achieve the same result on her own…


PS: What’s your experience of ‘forward’ (or lack of it…)? Scroll down and leave me a comment and we’ll be back with more tips soon.


16 responses to “How to fix a horse who lacks forward”

  1. john walker says:

    My horse is a tb but very quiet and laid back , when we first start out in the arena he is like riding a wheelbarrow of wet cement and it takes a fair bit of work to get him motivated . He does get going after a series of exercises but after reading your article I realise I’m one of those riders that kick kick kick. Interesting though if I just carry a whip and not using it he gets going quicker. Thanks for your article they really resonate with me.

  2. Jules says:

    Another great blog Derek.
    I have only just created a makeshift school in the new grazing I have been lucky enough to secure. Not ideal but it is so much better than what I had ” nothing “.

    Before I set up poles etc as this is what I need to work on with LuLu due to her having underdeveloped hamstrings, I thought I would just introduce LuLu to this new designated area.

    Wow, you would have thought I had removed her from her field and plonked her in a scary venue, destination.
    We were quite happy riding towards the arena that really only I could tell it was an arena, when all of a sudden maybe two feet into my new makeshift school and her brakes went on. It soo surprised me because I had not ridden her indoors, I hadn’t ridden her into a fenced off area but something just switched in her head.
    I sat for a few seconds to watch and feel and all I could feel was that LuLu did not want to go forward. Not a problem, I will entice her to maybe go to the left or the right. Big fat no, she decided the only way we were going was backwards!!
    I won’t bore you with what, how, when we were able to get some semblance of moving in the forward direction but what I will use next time is your step by step guide, once I understand what you mean by “working with the horses backward and forward movement of the mouth.”
    Thanks again for another interesting article

    • Derek Clark says:

      Hi Jules,
      If you watch your horse moving without reins or any restrictions you’ll see that the head ‘nods’ back and forth, especially in walk and canter. It doesn’t show up much unless they are pretty active, though.
      Thanks for your comment

  3. Lesley Woolf says:

    When I first had my horse he used to run some people misconstrue this as forwarded he would love to go flat and fast now after 2 years he’s starting to carry himself I’m still not cantering in the school encase of balance issues

  4. Karin van Soelen says:

    First of all: thank you for sharing this. Everyone is telling you how to ride but nobody tells you what to do when your horse is not forward. They think every horse is so sensible that they fly or they think the horse is correcty trained already. I hope i trained my horse correcty but i did not get her forward for 5 years! She made herself long, did not collect and i had no answer for that. After a long surch i foundation out that she had problems with her appendix. After we solvet that problemen she collects more and i am able to get her more forward. But she learned not to go for my legs because of her appendix problems. So now i have to learn her and myself! to do it different. So thank you for these tips!!!! She is developing better already but i need tips like this and nobody ever explained it like you do. So thank you!!!!!!!!

    • Derek Clark says:

      Hi Karin,
      Gut pain of any kind will interfere a lot with forward so she’s a lucky girl that you investigated and found the cause of the problem! Now you can teach her what she needs to know about the leg aids 🙂
      Thanks for commenting

  5. Hilary Stearn says:

    I recall that when I first went through the programme, I sent you several videos of Diamond NOT going forward and me keeping my hands high and doing everything possible with my body and legs to get him going. Finally, several years further on he has, after three years been given a clean bill of health by his Chiro Vet – yes, it has taken that long to free his poll, base of spine and pelvis up and get them stable and also having been given a lesson of the stick by someone braver than me because I was managing to teach him to challenge me he now goes forward. In the lesson of the stick be did not actually play up. As soon as he understood that his jockey actually meant go forward and stop baulking he did BUT, said jockey (AKA teacher did comment that two strides after being asked to go forward and responding he stopped going forward again so the lesson took a bit more teaching!) Now, bless him he is much more willing but also makes it really clear that he would prefer minimal leg, lots of body intention and please it is only necessary to stroke his sides gently to indicate my meaning and don’t crash and bang because I will not listen. I am learning my lesson slowly. It has only taken him ten years to teach me to be much more subtle!

  6. Irmeli Meland says:

    As always, excellent advice and understanding. My horse was well trained before I got her, but it’s fascinating to see how she responds to the sideways movement of hands instead of backward pulling of the hit. Took to it very naturally as if saying, “ it’s been ok, but now it’s super!”

  7. Frank Thomson says:

    Thank you again for this simple and easy to understand session.
    From my earlier instructors one a Instructor from the Spanish Riding School and a deciple of his and a person who had a qualification from the School of Legerete in France I have a basic knowledge of this logical way of schooling but need to learn more.
    My horse is an OTT thoroughbred who had several issues when he finished racing including Gut issues and some body issues that we have now rectified. He and I have benefited from your Master Class and look forward to doing your next course. I have been riding and competing for over 50 years but never stop learning.
    Thank You Frank t

  8. Since we have learned a lot from the same teachers you won’t be surprised that I am in complete agreement with your analysis. An excellent summary.

    “Hands without legs – legs without hands.” Modern riding is an aberration.

    I find it helps a great deal when I teach, to explain that the action of the rider’s legs in walk should be alternate, not both together. Like Mark Rashid teaches, I get people to picture and feel the rib cage swinging from side to side and going with it – opening with one leg while chasing the ribs with the other, then swapping over. Most riders use their legs so badly, they confuse and block the horse in equal measure. They’re much better off doing nothing, or as close to nothing as they can manage.

    The best way to achieve this, I find, is to take the horse in hand and get the rider to let the horse show them how their body should blend to the motion the horse produces if they simply relax from the waist down, while holding their upper body comparatively still, with the weight of their torso balanced over neutral seat bones. (Unlike yourself, I believe, I use the method Mary Wanless teaches to help people work out what this is).

    It is often revelatory to the rider to feel that their horse can really move fast in a walk, once they get out of its way.

    Again, the stick is often a great help for this. (Held by me on the ground as I work the horse in hand).

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