Is putting all your focus on working your horse from behind really the best way to ride?
If you’re like many riders who’ve come to us for help, you’ve probably been taught to think that riding your horse from the back to the front is the ‘correct’ way to do things. And if you hold on to that belief then, of course, doing anything to directly influence the forehand would be forbidden.
And it’s easy to understand why you’d think that. It’s the message the modern mainstream proclaims at every opportunity.
But is it really true?
The concept of the ‘circle of energy’ that’s often quoted by mainstream teachers sounds nice… it’s the idea that the push from your horse’s hind legs travels forward through his spine, through his neck and onto the bit before being somehow magically redirected back up the reins into your hands and through to your seat.
But this describes the feeling of an end result that occurs once your horse is well schooled and it isn’t necessarily the most effective nor the most horse-friendly way of getting to that point.
In fact, if you try using your legs and seat to drive almost any young or not-yet-very well-schooled horse forward while resisting with your reins in the hope this will reflect the energy of his forwards push back towards his hind quarters, you’re much more likely to terrorise him than educate him.
What creates the feeling of energy being ‘sent back’ in a well-schooled horse isn’t the bit acting as a physical barrier, it’s the way his muscles and associated connective tissues (especially those around his forehand) produce upwards forces to counter those that tend to make him lean more onto his shoulders.
All horses naturally carry the majority of their weight on their front legs, which means they move forward at least a little out of balance, like a car that’s rolling down a hill. Adding a rider in the saddle actually magnifies the problem, since more than half of the weight of a rider and saddle is carried by the forelegs too.
Now, if you imagine yourself sitting on top of that car and throwing a rope around the front like a pair of reins, it quickly becomes obvious that no amount of revving the engine while resisting on the ‘reins’, is going to solve the balance problem.
In the case of your real horse, the tension in the reins that comes from holding on against the forward push of his hind legs is only going to cause him pain and stress. And it’s this unnecessary stress that’s the root cause of so many unwanted behaviours, like a lack of forward, reluctance to go into the arena or even a general dislike of ‘schooling’.
Yet mainstream teaching seems intent on ignoring what’s going on inside your horse’s mouth while you struggle away driving your horse forward with your legs and seat against the fixed point of a bit held still by keeping your hands fixed in a low position.
All horse’s mouths are incredibly sensitive. Just think what it feels like if you accidentally bite your own tongue! If you literally drive your horse onto the bit like this the obvious consequence will be pressure on his tongue or the bars of his mouth.
If your goal is to rely on the pain created to cause your horse to avoid this pressure by yielding at his poll then, yes, it will achieve exactly that. But it will also very likely cause him to over bend, lower his neck and bring even more weight onto his shoulders – the exact opposite of what schooling a horse is supposed to achieve.
Even worse, the bones that form the bars of the mouth are almost razor thin under the soft tissue of the gums. Researchers studying the skeletons of former riding horses have found micro-fractures in the exact area of the jaw bones where the bit sits. This clearly shows that horses who overbend or bring their heads behind the vertical aren’t just ‘evading the contact’ as if that were some kind of naughty vice. They have very good reason to do whatever they can to avoid these pressures. It’s simple self-preservation!
So does riding bitless solve the problem? Well, while it will probably reduce the severity of the symptoms, unfortunately that’s not the whole story. Even if the fulcrum that’s supposed to reflect the energy is created by something pressing on your horse’s nose instead of his tongue, the compression created will still block the freedom of his head and neck, shorten his strides and prevent the full engagement of his hind legs under his body. Once again, the actions that mainstream teaching encourages work directly against another fundamental goal of schooling.
Now, that’s not to say that getting your horse to be ‘round’ by flexing at the poll and engaging his hind legs is a bad thing. On the contrary, if you do it in a way that respects your horse’s nature and doesn’t rely on pain or force, then it’s an essential quality in a good riding horse. Roundness makes it easier for your horse to carry you as well as making it easier for you to ride and influence him. The real question is how can you accomplish this in a horse-friendly way instead of relying on crude, mechanical techniques?
Fortunately, there is an easy answer – if you’re willing to let go of the conventional wisdom that everything has to come from the back end first.
The first step is to put your horse in balance by using his head and neck as a balancing arm in the way that nature intended. Then, with his neck free to reach upwards and forward from its base, you can develop his capacity to flex at the poll by a gentle process of education instead of demanding it by force. Both of these aims are best achieved by skilful use of the rider’s hands.
In essence, it’s a process that starts with showing your horse how he can raise his forehand, though the exact recipe will depend a little on what type of horse you’re working with. It’s also true that some horses are going to find it more straightforward to achieve than others.
But ALL sound horses can get there if we give them the help they actually need – and that means beginning with the front end.
Subscribe For Updates