Horses Are Not Bipedal!

After doing a series on the five rein aids, it occurred to me how few people are aware of or will acknowledge how much of our riding focuses on the horse’s front end. It seems the only time we speak of the front end is when either negatively declaring the horse to be “on the forehand” or praising good jumping form or movement on a hunter, when judges tend to ignore the hind end entirely in favor of a pair of even knees or flashy, daisy-cutting front feet. The front end seems almost taboo in dressage, with the emphasis placed on getting the horse, by greater and greater degrees, to shift his weight and balance to the rear in collection. After all, some of the esteemed masters of classical dressage, back in the day, would even expect their horses to walk on their hind legs – or at least hop around the arena like kangaroos at times.

I mentioned this to my farrier, and he told me of a practice of breeders in Germany who put shoes on the hind feet of their young horses and cut the front feet very short so the horses are encouraged, through pain, to continually displace their weight to their hind ends, contrary to their natural balance. That this works to produce better dressage horses is unlikely, and I suspect it does more harm than good to the developing horse to stress its hind end this way. But it demonstrates just how far some people are willing to go to negate the horse’s natural conformation, balance and locomotion to adhere to an artificial and completely arbitrary set of requirements imposed by the so-called “experts” in a sport.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I consider myself a dressage rider as well as a hunt seat rider, and I have nothing against dressage or its goals of fine-tuning the horse’s training to meet a variety of circumstances. I agree with the basic premise that, though the horse’s weight is distributed somewhere around 60% front end to 40% hind end, the addition of a rider requires a slight rearward shift of the horse’s balance to compensate. Likewise, some movements and exercises require collection from the horse. That part I get.

What bothers me is how some people think it is perfectly fine for the horse to spend all of his time compressed into a “dressage” frame with as much weight in his hind end as they can get – and keep – there, and focus all their training on this goal. In doing so, they neglect the natural mechanics of the horse.

I bring all of this up because, during the course of teaching the five rein aids to one of my students a few years ago, I mentioned how three (and a quarter) out of the five focus the horse’s balance on the shoulders, and she asked: “Why would I want to do that? I’m thought I was trying to get him on his hind end.” And I suspect a lot of people could relate to that statement, and have probably asked the same perfectly rational question.

My answer at the time, on the fly, was something like: “Because, despite what the dressage “experts” [a word I find impossible to pronounce without sarcasm, air quotes, or both] say, the horse needs all of his parts, and actually uses his front end a lot, especially in turning. You can’t just throw away half of your horse; you have to learn to ride the whole horse.”Had I more time to think about my answer, I might have phrased it differently. But I still think the basic idea is right. Just as it would be a mistake to ride only from the reins (the front end,) I think it’s equally a mistake to attempt to ride only the hind end. And yet there are those who claim this to be the goal, and pretend that both the reins and the front end can be dispensed with in favor of the seat and legs almost exclusively. I remember one “expert” questioning the way I was training her horse, informing me that “you should be able to ride entirely from your seat, with no hands!” Really? I’m not suggesting it can’t be done, I just wonder why anyone would try?

Perhaps this is why rein aids are no longer taught; no one believes in them anymore, and they are in denial that they need or use them at all! Everyone talks about not using the hand and doing everything from the seat, but that’s not what I see when I watch them ride. On the contrary, the rein aid with the most collecting power – the Direct Rein of Opposition – has become the universal, all-purpose aid for riding everything from ordinary turns to advanced lateral work, without much thought of its effects. And the end result is a bunch of people riding around the arena with a white-knuckle death-grip on the reins, kicking and yanking their horses into shorter and shorter frames, all with the goal of getting the horse to move as unnaturally as possible. It has the feel to me of those little poodles that are taught to walk on their hind legs and wear little ballerina’s tutus. People always think they are clever when they can train an animal to act against its nature. But dogs weren’t designed to walk around on two legs for human amusement, and neither were horses.

Am I the only one who thinks all of this is a little odd? If anyone else has an opinion on the subject, please share :-)

Training, Dressagejm elliottrant