Reluctance to move forward is a problem I run into all the time. It’s also a problem that’s frequently misunderstood. Trainers and instructors and riders around the world mislabel the slowpoke horse as lazy, but if you take a moment to analyze movement patterns and understand the why, it’s easy to see this horse is not actually lazy.
Firstly, in a correctly moving horse, we want the front legs to be free of excess weight and tension. Ideally, the front legs would have more air time and move with a nice “lightness” to them – not slamming down to the ground. This allows their shoulders to lift and the base of their neck and back to lift as well, allowing for graceful and freely forward but controllable movement. This is a wonderful feeling to ride or work with, because the energy feels very accessible, the back feels supple, and things feel just easy. When a horses body is in alignment with freedom in the front end, going forward is easy and enjoyable!
Most horses I encounter have heavy front ends, but some more so than others. It’s natural for a horse to be heavier on the forehand – they are made this way. They weren’t designed to carry riders on their backs, so developing them athletically is essential for happy riding.
So many horses have saddles slapped on them and asked to carry a rider with no clue as to how. Many trainers focus on the behavior they want when starting young horses, but many horses miss out on athletic development to ready them for such a task as carrying a rider. Often they begin at the hardest part physically: all three gaits in a tight circle such as in the round pen.
Circles are physically hard to do in a correct balance, and without education and physical development, the horse has to do their best. They often find ways to lean in or put more weight on their forehand to carry their bodies forward.
Over time, tension patterns creep in. The horse becomes unbalanced, unhappy and resentful about moving forward. We often respond with more pressure: more whipping, spurring, kicking. This often tenses them up more, even if it does get them going, it isn’t sustainable because we haven’t solved the real problem.
So going back to the label of lazy: we know this horse is out of alignment, with front legs taking far too much concussion, has lost diagonal movement and has developed tension patterns. What we don’t realize, however, is that this horse is far from lazy- he’s actually exerting far more energy than he needs to to go forward. He is overworked!
So what to do if your horse won’t go forward? After ensuring their saddle fits, hooves are balanced, diet is appropriate for energy output expected, and lifestyle is good- Spend time loosening, organizing their body, ensuring diagonal movement and doing all your work at a slower, easier tempo first. Learn to position and relax in rhythm where they can, then you will be surprised at how much more movement they offer.
You wouldn’t go out and win a race without conditioning, right? Fitness and balance require conditioning, education, time, consideration and development. Then you can ask for speed.