Forehand versus Engagement

In this article I thought we would have a look at on the forehand versus engagement. You might think “I’m not doing dressage, I’m only hacking, it doesn’t matter” BUT you couldn’t be further from the truth. It does matter, because if we constantly ride our horse on his forehand, we can cause our horse all sorts of physical problems –  problems with the  forelegs, problems with the shoulders and problems with the back. If we ride for long enough on the forehand  we create a perfect recipe for lameness. as the front legs of a horse were not designed to carry most of the horse AND rider’s weight for extended periods of time.

A horse that is heavy on the forehand often has to compensate in other parts of his body. So don’t be surprised to discover that the horse has to drop his back.  By hollowing out the “bridge” that carries the rider, the horse is counterbalancing the weight that is on the front end. This way, he doesn’t actually fall head-first to the ground. Similarly a horse that isn’t engaged but is forced into a “head-set”shape by the reins still has his hind legs trailing behind! There is no room for the legs to reach forward and under the body, which is where the hind legs need to be to receive the bulk of the weight. In addition to the above horses that are on the forehand very often rush or the total reverse, loose power & impulsion when ridden.

Horses are naturally front heavy (60/40 ratio), which isn’t a problem for them without a rider. After all they are designed to walk along slowly with their heads down. But when we add ourselves into the equation is becomes a different story.  Therefore, before we get on board we ought to train our horse how to use his body in a more gymnastic way. This can be done by working on-line or in-hand using movements like shoulder-fore, shoulder-in and travers either along the long side or on a circle.

Once we mount our horse we often exacerbate the  horse’s natural tendency to go on the forehand by our own position. In fact there are 5 major causes.

  1. Looking down. Just looking down can put several pounds of extra weight onto our horse’s forehand. Basically because it tends not just to be a glance down but the way we carry our head. We’ve been told to look up, we know we’re supposed to but we still look down. So how can we change it. One extreme but effective answer is sunglasses (British weather permitting). Go buy a cheap pair and cover the bottom half of the lenses with masking tape and wear the glasses when you ride. You won’t be able to look down.
  2. Over long stirrups and an over-arched back can add kilos of extra weight to the forehand, restrict your ability to move with your horse and effectively discourage the horse from moving forward. The BHS and the ISRB recommend that our stirrup treads should lie just below our ankle nobble whilst Mary Wanless talks about a 45° angle for the thigh.
  3. The next is a collapsed chest and rounded shoulders. This fault is frequently seen in riders who sit at a desk all day. The human head is heavy and when we collapse forward we can actually add kilos to the forehand! We need to raise our chest or ensure that our rib cage building block is equal lengths – front and back. A really good exercise to practice raising your chest is next time you’re waiting at a set of traffic lights (in your car, not on your horse) try lifting your bra strap off the back of your car seat. Take your bra strap away and then let it go back and repeat the exercise until the lights go green.
  4. Thumbs – so many riders tend to ride with their thumbs pointing inwards rather than carrying their thumbs on top. Not only are you far more likely to come off riding this way it can easily put kilos onto the forehand. This is because if your thumbs point inwards, your elbows tend to point out and your shoulders roll forward.
  5. Another major contributor to putting our horse on the forehand is our feet, or in this case our heels. If you suffer from tight hamstrings or have short Achilles tendons, and so many riders do, it can be a real struggle to have your feet level let alone have your heels the lowest point. But when our heels come up we tend to tip forward putting extra weight on to the forehand. My own heels are a constant work in progress and apart from doing lots of exercises to strengthen and stretch the hamstrings, the way I try to train them when riding is by standing in my stirrups.

Start off in a safe environment with a friend to hold your horse if necessary. Stand up as straight as you can but keep your knees bent, take your pelvis forward so it is over the front of your saddle and straighten your torso but don’t over arch your back

Do this first at a halt and from there progress to walk and eventually trot.

The exercise is simple BUT it certainly isn’t easy to do. You need to let gravity take your heels down to keep your balance – but don’t force them. If you force your heels down you will either force your legs forward and they need to be underneath you or you will straighten your knees. With either of these scenarios you’ll fall backwards into the saddle.

The more you practice the better your heels become. But don’t do this exercise on a raving lunatic of a horse, your safety is of paramount importance.

So next time you ride your horse see if you can make a change.

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