Putting Your Horse In Front Of The
What does your horse have in common with a turbo-charged
Porsche? If you said the location of his engine--his
"horsepower"--is in the rear, you're absolutely
right. So, in order to be in the driver's seat, you
need to take charge of your horse's hind legs by putting
him in front of your driving aids.
For me, putting the horse in front of the driving
aids involves three steps. In the initial stage, you
teach your horse to give an immediate and enthusiastic
response to the subtlest of signals so that you're
able to whisper with your aids rather than shout with
them. I call this being "hot off" your driving
aids or "thinking forward".
In Step 1 I'll outline a system so you can teach
your horse to "think forward" when you use
any of the driving aids--legs, seat, voice and whip.
I'll describe the technique starting with your legs.
Then all you'll have to do is go through the same
process to get your horse to respond eagerly to your
seat, voice, and whip.
Most horses figure out this first step within the
very first session. So you'll be able to go on to
Step 2 relatively quickly. In the second step, not
only do you want your horse to listen attentively
and react promptly to your signals as he did in Step
1, but you'll be looking for a more educated reaction
to your driving aids. Specifically, when you use your
driving aids, you want him to respond by physically
reaching underneath his body and stepping towards
your hands with his hind legs .
Once your horse is mentally attentive and physically
steps forward towards your hands with his hind legs,
you can go on to the final step in putting your horse
in front of your driving aids. During Step 3, you'll
refine his reaction to the aids even further by using
your hands to receive and recycle all this exuberance
back to the hind legs. Because the energy is recycled,
it becomes self-perpetuating and your horse stays
in front of the driving aids on his own. It feels
as if your right leg is his right leg and your left
leg is his left leg. His back serves as the bridge
between his hindquarters and his front end. There's
a wonderful feeling of "oneness"--like a
STEP 1 - "THINKING FORWARD"
- THE LEGS
Are you from the "more leg", "stronger
leg" school of thought? If you are, you're traveling
down an exhausting road. Do you really think you can
squeeeeeze a lengthening out of your horse? The fact
is that you don't make a 1200 pound animal do anything.
You teach him a non-verbal language and train him
to respond to the words in that language through repetition
Maybe you're skeptical that your horse will ever
react to light leg aids. After all you've had him
a long time, and he's pretty laid back. You've always
had to work hard to get him going. But take my word
for it. It is not only feasible, but it's essential
that you do so.
To prove to yourself that it's possible, just watch
what your horse does on a summer's day when the flies
are out. At the mere touch of a bug on his side, he
flicks it off with his tail. Now, if your "thick-skinned"
friend is sensitive enough to feel a fly on his side,
then he ought to be able to feel light leg aids if
you take the time to school him to react to them.
Here's your new rule for leg aids: You'll give one
feather light squeeze and your horse must react instantly
and eagerly. If he doesn't, you won't adjust your
aid by repeating it or making it stronger to get a
response. Instead, go through the process of teaching
him to be "hot off" your leg.
To teach your horse to pay attention to your legs,
follow this simple guide. If you give a light leg
aid and your horse eagerly responds by going forward,
reward him by patting or saying "Good Boy!".
The reward encourages him to react the same way the
next time you use your leg. Alternatively, if you
give a leg aid and your horse doesn't answer at all
or responds sluggishly, you'll need to remind him
to listen to you. Your "reminder" motivates
him to change his response the next time you give
Before you actually correct your horse for a poor
response to your leg, take a moment to consider his
temperament. The easy-going fellow might need a few
taps with the whip or a kick to send him forward.
But the sensitive soul might only need a brush with
the whip to get the same reaction. The point is not
to terrorize him but to get a clearly forward "hot-off-the-leg"
Also, if your horse is the type that bucks when you
use the whip, it's better to kick instead. First of
all, you don't want to get bucked off. And secondly,
if he's bucking, he's obviously not going forward
and he's missed the whole point.
Let's test your horse's reaction to your legs by
asking him to do a transition from walk to trot. Give
the aid for the transition by closing both of your
legs very lightly on his sides. If he doesn't respond
(and he probably won't if you're used to giving him
strong leg aids), send him forward for eight or ten
strides by tapping with the whip or giving him a kick.
Keep in mind that at this point, all you are looking
for is some type of immediate reaction to your aids.
It doesn't necessarily have to be a "pretty"
answer. That is, your horse might push backwards with
his hind legs or put his head up in the air as he
rushes off. None of that matters in the beginning.
Your only goal when you start is to get some kind
of enthusiastic answer from your horse that shows
he's paying attention to you.
While you are sending your horse forward, maintain
a light contact with his mouth, but don't give any
rein aids. There's no point in using the reins or
trying to keep the horse in any kind of "round"
shape if he's not thinking forward.
Don't be surprised if initially there is some tension
when you remind your horse to listen to you. You'll
find that the tension dissipates fairly quickly once
your horse understands that he'll be rewarded for
responding promptly to light aids. Remember that this
phase is very brief, and it's comforting to know that
in the long run you'll have a happier horse because
you can use your legs lightly rather than grinding
and pushing and squeezing every stride.
Once you've sent him forward, go back to the walk
and ask for the transition to the trot again by retesting
with a light leg aid. If he responds electrically
by immediately going forward into an energetic trot
when you retest, praise generously. ( At this point
it's still okay if he breaks into the canter when
you do the retest--later on through repetition and
reward you can explain that you just want him to trot.
But for the moment ANY forward reaction deserves to
be rewarded) If his reaction to your legs is "better"
but not 100% wholeheartedly forward, repeat the whole
process from the beginning until he makes a huge effort.
How will you know that your horse has given you a
100% response? Two ways. First his answer will be
prompt and enthusiastic. You won't feel like you need
to repeat the aid or make it stronger to get a reaction.
Secondly, you'll feel like he keeps going under his
own steam without any additional urging from you.
Retesting with a light leg aid is probably the most
important step in the entire process. If you don't
retest, your horse only becomes more insensitive to
the aids because at this point you've only taught
him to go forward when he feels the whip or a kick.
You haven't taught him anything about reacting to
a light leg aid unless you retest with it.
Here's a checklist to sum up the process of teaching
your horse to be "hot off" your leg. Be
sure to include every step. If you skip one step,
you'll actually end up making your horse more dull.
1. Give a light leg aid
2. No response, half hearted response, or delayed
3. Use the whip or kick to send him forward
5. 100% response (99.9% isn't good enough!)
Follow these same steps as you go through the process
of training your horse to listen to the rest of the
driving aids. Do each aid individually. If you combine
your seat with your legs, for example, your horse
can react to your legs but ignore your seat. You won't
know it unless you test with the seat all by itself.
To use your seat as a driving aid, stretch up tall
and give a little push with your seat as if you're
trying to move the back of the saddle towards the
front of the saddle.
Get ready to test if your horse is in front of your
seat by draining all the activity out of his walk.(
Don't be concerned that you're teaching your horse
to be lazy. You'll only be doing this a couple of
times as a training exercise.) Once you're in a really
pokey walk, give one aid with your driving seat. If
he immediately becomes more energetic in the walk,
praise him. If he doesn't react at all or only responds
a bit, send him actively forward with your legs or
the whip. Then bring him back to the lazy walk, and
retest by giving another push with your seat. If his
reaction is immediate and wholeheartedly forward,
Once you can do this in the walk, test him in the
trot and the canter.
A lot of riders forget that the voice--a clucking
sound--is a driving aid, and it's just as much their
responsibility to educate their horses to their "cluck"
as it is to teach their horses to listen to any other
driving aid. Think of it this way. Riding around clucking
every stride and getting no reaction from your horse
is the same as using your legs constantly and having
your horse ignore you!
To teach your horse to react to your cluck, go through
the same steps that you did to train him to listen
to your seat. Start in the walk and drain all the
activity out of the pace. Then give one cluck. Your
horse should immediately activate his walk. If he
does, praise him. If he doesn't, you know what to
do. Tap him with the whip to send him forward. Reestablish
the lazy walk. Retest. Praise him for a 100% answer.
Again, once he understands that he should activate
his walk when he hears you cluck once, do the same
thing in the trot and the canter.
You're already familiar with using the whip as a
reinforcement of the driving aids. In other words,
if you use any of your driving aids--legs, seat, or
voice--and your horse doesn't respond, you tap him
with the whip to remind him to pay attention to your
You can also use the whip itself as a driving aid.
When you do this, you'll be expecting the same increase
of activity in the paces that you got from your inside
leg, seat, and voice.
Make sure your whip is long enough that you can press
it against your horse's barrel without having to pull
back on the reins. Let's say you're riding to the
left and the whip is in your inside hand--the hand
that normally carries the whip so it can be used to
reinforce your inside leg as a driving aid. To use
your whip as a driving aid, bring your left hand directly
to the left so that the whip rolls over your thigh.
Position the whip so that it lies behind your calf
and is almost parallel to it. Then press the whip
against your horse's barrel. (Be sure he can feel
the pressure of the whip. Some square saddle pads
are so large that it's difficult to lay the whip on
the horse's side.)
As with all of the other tests of the driving aids,
start by draining the activity out of the walk. Then
lay the whip on his barrel. If your horse becomes
more energetic in the walk as soon as you press the
whip on his side, praise him. If he ignores the whip,
go through steps #3 through #6 as you did before.
Now that you have your horse "thinking forward",
you really hold the reins in this partnership. Not
only is the forward-thinking horse less tiring to
ride but he's much more submissive. Picture this.
You're out on the trail and he's balky about going
through a stream. You close your legs to send him
forward, but he's still thinking about wheeling and
running in the other direction. So you add a push
with your seat, a cluck, and lay the whip on his barrel
all at the same time. He reacts to the combined effect
of the driving aids by instantly jumping forward.
That's because you've conditioned him to do just that
by systematically teaching him to "think forward".
STEP 2 - ASKING THE HIND LEGS
TO STEP FORWARD TOWARDS YOUR HAND
After Step 1, you might say to me, "Okay. I've
got all this power, but my horse is rushing off when
I use my driving aids. What do I do now?"
As soon as your horse gives you an electric reaction
to your driving aids (usually after you've explained
it to him a couple of times), you need to go on to
the next step. Step 2 involves asking your horse to
give a more sophisticated response to your driving
aids. At this point, it's not good enough if he reacts
immediately but also pushes backwards with his hind
legs and rushes off. Instead, when you use your driving
aids, he should step further underneath his body with
his hind legs.
To teach him to do this, go on a circle in rising
trot. Close both legs and ask him to do a lengthening
for a few strides. If he reacts immediately by coming
forward with his hind legs and lengthening his strides
and frame, praise him. If not, steady him back to
the working trot and try again. You want to repeat
this exercise over and over until you program him
to lengthen as soon as you close your legs.
Continue to maintain a light contact with his mouth
as you did in Step 1, but don't give any rein aids
yet. You need to be sure he gives you the correct
response to your legs both mentally and physically
before you combine legs and hands.
STEP 3-RECEIVING AND RECYCLING
Once your horse is "hot off" your driving
aids and steps underneath his body with his hind legs,
you can go on to the final step in teaching your horse
to be in front of the driving aids. This step involves
using your reins to receive the energy from your forward-thinking
horse and recycle it back to his hind legs.
Do not skip step 1 or 2. You must be satisfied with
your horse's reaction to the driving aids before you
proceed to this step. That's because "thinking
forward" and stepping forward with the hind legs
are prerequisites for using the reins. If you use
the reins before the horse is thinking or moving forward,
you're riding your horse from front to back.
That sort of hand-riding can only result in an artificial
head-set. Your horse might look round because his
neck is arched and his face approaches the vertical,
but you'll know that he's not truly connected as soon
as you try to do something different like a transition.
Most likely he'll drop his back and raise his head
and neck. You'll probably assume that your horse came
off the bit, but the fact is he was never on the bit
to begin with.
Once you're sure that your horse reacts to your driving
aids correctly, catch the energy coming from behind
by closing your outside hand in a fist. The outside
rein is called the rein of opposition because it can
be used, as it is in this case, to oppose the speed
from your driving aids. I recommend using your driving
aids and rein of opposition for approximately three
Since three seconds is a fairly long time, your horse
might bend his neck to the outside. If he does, use
enough influence of the inside rein to keep his neck
straight. I call this marriage of the driving aids,
the rein of opposition, and the inside rein a "connecting
After applying the "connecting half halt"
by using the driving aids, your closed outside hand,
and your optional inside hand for up to three seconds,
soften the aids. Go back to maintenance pressure of
your legs softly draped around your horse's sides
and your hands maintaining a pleasant, elastic contact
with his mouth.
Essentially your aids say to your horse, "I'm
driving you forward, but my rein of opposition doesn't
allow you to speed up. Instead you must yield to the
outside hand and because you're being driven, you'll
bend the joints of your hind legs more." You
should still feel the desire and power of the lengthening
as you did in Step 2, but your closed outside hand
doesn't let him express this energy forward over the
Here's your checklist for Step 3--the "connecting
1. Use your driving aids to generate energy (close
both legs and give a push with your seat).
2. Close your outside hand in a fist to receive and
recycle the energy back to the hind legs.
3. If necessary, use just enough inside rein to keep
the neck straight.
4. After a maximum of three seconds, soften all of
When you successfully create energy and then receive
and recycle it in this way, you end up with a horse
that stays in front of the driving aids. As your horse
comes from behind, over his back, through his neck
and steps into your hand, his balance, throughness
and ease of movement improves dramatically.
DOES YOUR HORSE
GO FORWARD UNDER HIS OWN STEAM?
Many riders are not even aware how much
they "help" their horses to go forward.
Others mistakenly think that it's their responsibility
to keep their horses active. In the walk, these riders
use alternate leg aids. In the rising trot, they close
their legs each time they sit. And in the canter,
they squeeze once during each stride.
You shouldn't have to drive every stride
to keep your horse moving forward energetically. It's
your job to tell your horse to go on his own, and
it's his job to keep going under his own steam without
you having to remind him.
Here's a simple test you can do to see
if you're "helping" your horse too much.
First, ask your horse to walk forward energetically.
Then take your legs completely away from his sides.
I want you to do this so you don't accidentally "cheat"
and give a little nudge with your legs here and there.
Now ask yourself how long it takes before
your horse starts to slow down even a hair. And how
long does it take before he stops completely? The
length of time it takes for either of these things
to happen gives you a pretty good idea of just how
hard you've been working to keep him going.
This article is reprinted
with permission from Dressage Today ©1999.
Reproduction is prohibited without written permission
from the publisher.