This is a question that one of our readers sent in, and it’s a problem that so many riders struggle with. Why is it a problem if a horse won’t go forward? It’s very similar to a car that won’t accelerate when you step on the gas pedal. It defeats the whole purpose of riding or driving. If you can’t go forward, you can’t steer, and you will never get where you want to go. A horse that does not want to go forward will never be able to advance in his training and reach the upper levels. In addition, many dangerous disobediences such as rearing, bucking, turning around, or bolting originate with sucking back and refusing to go forward.
So today I would like to outline the issue a little and give you some pointers for how to approach it.
We have probably all experienced horses that will not respond to a driving aid by going forward. Some of them seem to ignore the aid. Others seem to become even slower and more sluggish, or even stop altogether. It’s a very unpleasant experience, because on the one hand it makes you feel very helpless and inept, and on the other hand, all the neat theoretical knowledge that you have picked up in lessons and from the literature doesn’t seem to apply at all to this horse. Nothing seems to work. You feel stuck, and quickly frustration sets in.
This is one of those situations where it is important not to become defeated by frustration, but to try and think your way out of the dilemma. Luckily, you have options.
The first thing we need to realize when we encounter a problem in riding is that what we see and feel on the surface is only a symptom. So instead of getting busy fixing this symptom, we need to take a step back and find out where this symptom comes from. We need to find the underlying cause and then address that. In the case of the horse that seems to ignore the driving aids, our first impulse is probably to grip, squeeze, or kick with our legs. But in many, if not most cases, this is not going to help. It can actually make things worse. The horse may get angry and refuse to cooperate altogether.
So before we can find the remedy to our problem, we need to identify its CAUSE. How do we do that?
There are three main areas where we can look for an answer to the question:
- The rider’s seat and aids
- The horse
- Care and equipment
These three areas can be subdivided further. As far as the Rider’s Seat and Aids are concerned, there are at least 8 factors that can cause the horse to suck back so that he won’t go forward any more:
- Too little core engagement (wobbly, unstable torso, concave front line, convex back line)
- Torso tipped forward
- Pelvis tipped forward
- Stiff rider’s hips (tight hip flexors)
- Stiff wrists
- Gripping legs
- Sitting too heavily (too much weight on your seat bones, not enough on your inner thighs)
- Tight glutes
These are very common mistakes that everybody makes, especially during the early stages of their riding journey, and it still happens even to advanced, experienced riders from time to time. No shame, it’s just part of the reality of practical riding. Some horses are more tolerant for these mistakes, while others are positively allergic to them and react very strongly.
The rider can address these seat issues in several ways. On the ground, you can work on your flexibility through yoga, on your body awareness and coordination through Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique, and on your core strength through pilates. On the horse, you can take seat lessons at the longe line, and when riding on your own, you can observe very closely the relationship between the horse’s reactions and your actions. You will often see the horse’s reaction long before you can feel the change in your own muscle tone and seat. But by tracing the horse’s reaction back to subtle changes in your seat, you will gradually discover which muscles were engaged and which muscles were relaxed when the horse was going well, and which muscles were tight or slack when the horse was going badly. In other words, the horse will help you develop your body awareness. It’s a slow, gradual process that can be frustrating at times, but it’s worth it, because it improves your communicative skills and the effectiveness of your seat and aids exponentially over time. You build a list of seat items that improve your horse and a list of items that your horse objects to. Then you try to repeat all the things that elicit a positive response from your horse, and you try to avoid all the things that elicit a negative response. That way, you gradually replace old, bad habits with new, better habits.
However, not all causes for sucking back and refusing to go forward originate in the rider’s seat and aids. It’s always safe to start your trouble shooting search with the rider. But then you also have to look at the horse in more detail. There are at least seven factors that can cause him to suck back.
- Tense, braced abdominal muscles
- Muscle blockages in the neck or poll
- Excessive elevation
- Not enough engagement of the core muscles
- Conformational issues such as a long, weak back, sickle hocks
- Unresponsiveness to the aids
If you check both lists carefully, you will most likely find something that causes the horse to ignore your driving aids. Pain can be caused by any number of factors, such as ill fitting equipment, injuries, muscle soreness, chronic stiffness, and others.
The causes that are related to muscular stiffness, weakness, conformational problems, and unresponsiveness to the aids can be addressed with specific, targeted gymnastic exercises that improve the horse’s balance, straightness, body awareness, coordination, suppleness, and strength.
Exercises are one of the three main tool boxes the rider has at her disposal to train the dressage horse, the other two being the seat and aids and the arena patterns.
The more tools you have in your tool box, the more different exercises and arena patterns you know, the less likely you are to get stuck in your training.
The better you understand how these exercises work on the horse’s mind and body, the better you will get at designing your own custom exercises that are tailored specifically to your horse and the training goal you are pursuing with him at the moment.
The third area that can create a reluctance to go forward concerns the care and equipment of the horse. Most riders and horse owners these days are quite diligent in this respect, but for the sake of completeness, I will mention that it is a good idea to check or double check that the saddle and the bridle fit the horse, that the feet are trimmed correctly and regularly, and that the teeth are maintained properly. In addition, it is always good to consult a chiropractor, osteopath, or massage therapist, ifthe horse is reluctant to go forward or shows uncharacteristic negative reactions to certain aids or exercises.
So, you can see that a horse’s reluctance to go forward can have any number of root causes in the rider’s seat and aids and in the horse himself. If you don’t know where to look for possible causes, you won’t be able to find the right solutions, and you won’t be able to select or design the right exercise(s) to fix the problem. In order to create the change in your riding and in your horse that you desire and progress beyond where the two of you are now, you have to change some of what you are doing, because what got you here won’t get you there. You need to start looking for the root causes of the problems you encounter. Once you have identified these causes, you can come up with exercises and training strategies that will remove them. And once the causes are removed, all the symptoms that were associated with them will have disappeared as well.