Training in the Right Way: Let’s Talk About Balance

“[C]ollection creates better balance while performing harder tasks, which then also creates greater cooperation from the horse due to having the ability to stay balanced while performing these tasks.”

 This week’s article discusses balance, the terms used to define it in its various iterations, and why it’s important.

Dressage training is supposed to be the process of training ANY horse to be a better riding horse. The more the horse learns, in theory, the easier they are to communicate with and therefore complete more complex tasks with. Although competition dressage training often is more focused on training for the dressage test, that is not what the original intention (and original judging requirements) were for competitive dressage. Initially, it was designed to give riders and trainers a way to determine how their training measured up to the theoretical ideal of the training process. That said, it is critically important to understand the meanings and reasons for some of the terms we use to describe dressage training and what to look for when observing training and competition (and videos and photos), regardless of whether you intend to compete or just train your horse to be a better whatever you do with him.

That, ultimately, is the main purpose of my articles. To provide education and knowledge for riders to understand and improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training is supposed to be. While there will always be some differences in practice and theory, good horse training is always recognizable to the educated eye. That said, it is absolutely necessary that we remember and understand that limited knowledge is limited judgment.

In this article, I want to talk a bit about balance and the terms often used to describe it. In my experience as a dressage instructor and horse trainer, I find that there is a tremendous amount of confusion surrounding the terms “on the forehand,” “not on the forehand,” “natural balance,” “off the forehand,” “uphill tendency,” and “collection.” These terms are related though often misunderstood, applied in the wrong moment in training, and some are confused with each other.  Also, I find that sometimes these terms are used in other riding disciplines, often incorrectly in the sense of the level of training they are applied to, further adding to the confusion. Each of these situations may or may not be sustained by the horse. It is entirely possible for a horse to move through all of these different balances while playing in the field or being ridden.

Let’s start with some general definitions.

On the forehand: The majority of horse’s weight (and balance) is shifted more to the front legs of the horse (either with or without a rider’s influence).

Woody, a fourteen year old AQHA gelding. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt

First of all, “on the forehand” is an observation not a criticism. Horses at the lower levels SHOULD BE ON THE FOREHAND. The question is how much. The horse in the photo above is little too much on the forehand to be ideal, but we aren’t going to hold that against him or his rider. What we are going to notice is that the right front leg is completely under his rider’s weight and his right hind leg is barely under the rider. This shows us that the majority of his weight (and the weight of the person he is carrying) is shifted forward to his front legs. This is a normal part of the early training process. With the use of circles and leg yielding and some lengthening, this horse will learn to carry more of his (and his rider’s) weight on his hind legs. Any horse that is just under saddle, or is transitioning from a style of riding that did not develop his balance, will be on the forehand to some degree when he is being ridden.

Not on the forehand: Any balance where the majority of the horse’s weight is not shifted to the front legs (either with or without a rider’s influence).

Blue, an APHA gelding. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt

Dio. Photo (c) Morgane Schmidt.

Both the paint and the buckskin show a balance under their riders that is “not on the forehand.” It is not collected, but both horses are starting to show an “uphill tendency.” If you look at the trailing front leg and the leading hind leg, you can see that both horses have them meeting directly under the rider. This is the part of training where the horse has enough education to begin to mimic what their balance would be if they had no rider on their back while carrying the rider’s weight. This is the ultimate goal of dressage training, to teach the horse, through systematic exercises, how to carry their own weight and the rider’s weight in such a way that they aren’t overloading their front legs with all the weight.

Natural balance: The balance in which the horse would travel unimpeded by carrying a rider.

Flair. Photo (c) Carien Schippers.

Natural balance is the balance of the horse unencumbered by the rider’s weight. In the above photo we have a Westfalian mare showing her natural balance with an uphill tendency, unencumbered by the weight of a rider. This is evidenced by the same leg placement (if you were to envision a rider on her) as with the previous horses. This is how we derive the concept of where the legs need to be placed for a horse to be in balance, by watching what the horse would do in its natural balance. Indeed, this horse appears to be “built for the job” and naturally has some uphill tendency bred in to her.

Uphill tendency: The tendency of the horse to shift the majority of his weight toward the hind legs (either with or without a rider’s influence).

Milona DG. Photo (c) Q2 Photography.

This chestnut mare shows an intermediary phase of developing collection. She is more advanced (and honestly maybe more talented for the job) than the two horses illustrating “not on the forehand.” We can tell that she is at the point of starting to develop collection, as opposed to just “not on the forehand,” because her right front leg and her left hind leg are almost parallel and the right front leg is slightly higher than the left hind. This defines the uphill tendency along with the clear visual image of her shoulders being higher than her haunches. Also, her left hind leg is clearly coming under the weight of the rider, which tells us that she has learned to shift the weight of her front end and her rider toward her hind legs.

Collection: When the horse is balanced more on the hind legs and is in a position of balance and readiness to perform complex maneuvers and on the ground or into the air (don’t just think “airs above the ground,” also think jumping obstacles as well as bucking, rearing, and leaping). This is a natural state that can be achieved without a rider, but the horse will only learn to sustain a level of collection when a rider is involved.

Dio. Photo (c) Gwyneth McPherson

There is a tremendous amount that can be said about how to define collection and what its hallmarks are. For the purpose of this discussion, we are going to focus on the hind legs and haunches of this horse and the fact that he is clearly not loading his front legs with his rider’s weight. We can determine that he is not putting all his weight on his front legs by the fact that his right front leg is perpendicular to the ground and under his shoulder (not the rider). He is not in full collection. If he was, he would have his hind legs a little further underneath his body. But what he is doing in this piaffe, that the previous horse is not showing, is the flexion of the joints in the hind end. His croup is lowered and all the joints of his hind legs are flexed more than the chestnut mare. Part of this is due to the different exercises that they are exhibiting and part of it is their level of training. Dio (the buckskin) is showing the upper level ability to compress his body and hind-end and therefore put more weight on his hind legs and not only take the weight off the front end, but also “crouch in readiness” to spring up and forward to the next activity. Collection is an end-product. It does not just suddenly occur one day and it is not appropriate to expect it from young or untrained horses. When the horse is strong enough to sustain collection, it creates a high degree of balance and therefore preparedness to move off in any direction necessary. It is the same dynamic that we witness when we see a horse about to take off at a fence, for example. Most riders will never require or be able to develop full collection, but they absolutely can and should learn how to train their horse to come off the forehand and begin to develop an uphill tendency.

The reason we care about these definitions is that being in the appropriate balance is critical to effective dressage training. Anyone who has lost their balance and fallen knows what it feels like to be out of balance and what it does to one’s state of mind and physical sensations. In general, being physically unbalanced is upsetting mentally and causes us to tighten up and do anything we can to prevent ourselves from falling. This applies to horses too.

Whenever any human sits on any horse, we change the natural balance of the horse (it is NOT, in fact, “natural” for a person to sit on a horse). The history of dressage training is predicated around putting the horse, at the very least, back into his natural balance while carrying a rider. And, over a couple thousand years, we also learned that if we teach the horse through a series of systematic exercises, we can help them understand how to be in even better than natural balance while carrying us (collection).

We also learned that the ability to maintain a greater degree of sustained collection allows a greater ability for occasional extreme collection (jumping and airs above the ground). In other words, collection creates better balance while performing harder tasks which then also creates greater cooperation from the horse due to having the ability to stay balanced (not feeling like they are falling) while performing these tasks. Ultimately, this is why we seek to develop collection: a better, more willing riding horse. I agree that this is not what we actually see much of the time in competition and in training, but it is the original intent. (We will see in the comments who actually reads this far).

As I noted in the beginning, my goal for writing these is to help educate riders and trainers by providing useful knowledge that will hopefully serve to improve their eye and understanding of what dressage training should be. While theory and practice will have some discrepancies, ultimately, training in the right way is always recognizable to those who are educated. Hopefully this week’s article has shed some light on the different types of balance horses can be in and why recognizing them is key to effective training and progress.

Remember: Limited knowledge is limited judgment.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.