Dressage Puzzlers: Forward


We tackle some of the most perplexing concepts in dressage. This month: “forward.”

By Michael Barisone with Amber Heintzberge

Reprinted from July/August 2015 USDF Connection

You won’t find the word forward on the pyramid of training, but it’s a common term in dressage training and it’s often found in the judge’s comments. Riding your horse “forward” doesn’t just mean that you are proceeding with his nose before his tail, or that the horse should go faster. We asked Grand Prix-level rider and trainer and 2008 Olympic dressage alternate Michael Barisone, of Long Valley, NJ, to help demystify what “forward” really means and how to achieve it.

Michael Barisone says:
The roots of the training “tree”—the bottom of the pyramid of training—are “rhythm (with energy and tempo),” but acceptance of the aids is more basic than anything on the pyramid. Everything else is subordinate to acceptance of the aids. If you don’t have acceptance of your aids, you got nothin’. You can’t make rhythm or contact; you can’t do anything.

Looking at it another way, if the roots of the tree are rhythm, the fertile ground that they grow in is acceptance of the aids.

When it comes to acceptance of the leg, “forward” means that the horse accelerates when he feels pressure from my leg. It’s as simple as that. As I tell people who are working with young horses, it’s linear: I want to teach my horse that if I 1) squeeze with my leg, say, one pound of pressure, the horse goes forward; 2) if I squeeze two pounds, he goes a little more forward; and 3) that I can squeeze one, two, three, four, or five pounds of pressure, and his response is appropriately progressive and related to my leg.

If you can’t put your leg on a horse, you can’t ride him. You don’t want to have to use 500 pounds of pressure to get a response; but often people think that if they barely touch the horse with their leg and he shoots forward, he’s “forward.” With a Grand Prix horse, i might want his reaction to be exponential like that, but that will never work in training a horse. He has to accept your leg and respond to it accordingly.

Let’s compare using your leg to driving a car. If you step on the accelerator hard, the car goes fast; if you press down just a little, the car accelerates a little. If you’re doing Formula 1, you want exponential acceleration, but you can’t safely take your kids to soccer if your SUV rockets of when you touch the accelerator. We also don’t want the Formula 1 response when we are training a horse; we want linear acceleration like that SUV.

FORWARD, NOT FASTER: The horse that is forward accepts the rider’s aids and responds appropriately to leg pressure. Michael Barisone has HF Victor nicely in front of the leg and bending in this canter pirouette during the 2015 Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida. HF Victor is a 13-year-old Trakehner gelding owned by Virginia Alling.
Photo by SusanJStickle.com

The horse’s forward energy, or acceleration, has to be controllable and sustainable; you have to know that the reaction you get to your leg will be the same every time. I’m working with a nice horse right now that doesn’t like to have the leg on. His rider stopped putting her leg on, and now she can’t do half-pass because she can’t ever put the leg on. As I explained to the rider, her horse doesn’t accept the leg; it’s like knowing that one time out of 25, your car is going to rocket backward when you put your foot on the gas pedal. Imagine how that would feel when you got behind the wheel: every time you put your foot on the gas pedal, you’d brace yourself. You’d live in fear that this will be the time that you get the reaction that you don’t want.

One judge I respect is [German FEI dressage judge] Christoph Hess. In the FEI Young Horse classes, the judges come on the PA system and critique the ride at the end. When Christoph Hess judges and a horse isn’t going well, the first words out of his mouth are, “This horse has not learned to accept the driving aids.”

When you close your leg, the horse needs to respond. The day will come when you ride around the corner and your horse sees the mound of yellow flowers with the TV camera in it and starts to suck back. When your leg closes, the horse needs to fill up your hand: He needs to go into the bit and meet the bridle. I’ve never had the pleasure of riding Valegro, but I can guarantee he is not light in your hand—Charlotte Dujardin has contact! Consequently, those are always the horses that make it; all good horses take your contact well. That does go back to the USDF training manuals that educate riders to use the leg to the seat to the hand: everything starts from your leg.

In Front of the Leg
What does it mean to have the horse in front of the leg? “In front of the leg” is the result of a horse that allows the rider to put the leg on. Youngsters on the forehand will go downhill, and upper-level horses will come up—that’s a function of training—but if the horse is in front of the leg, at any stage of training, you will feel the horse move into the bit.

Acceptance of the aids comes from regular, consistent training. You can’t force it. The spurs I ride with daily are very dull, big round things: You’d have to heat it up to put a dent in a stick of butter. I don’t ride with a rowel or a sharp spur because that can create tension in horses. I’ll also ride without a spur on a young horse or a Grand Prix horse.

Sometimes I’ll see a rider “nursing the gait along” with the spur in the horse’s side. Your spur does not create “forward”; your spur and whip make energy. The thick part of your calf, closing on the horse’s side, makes the horse go forward. Listen to any symposium with the legendary hunter/jumper trainer George Morris. A constant theme is that you need to put your leg on and push. Push, push, push. Not your spur, not your whip, but your leg.

The books of classical horsemanship state that the horse has to accept the driving aids. The horse has to learn that when you squeeze with your calf, he goes forward. I need my foot and spur and heel for other things, to refine the leg aids.

Don’t kick! Show-jumper Beezie Madden might come around a Grand Prix course and use her stick before the water, but she won’t use it over every jump. Eventer Boyd Martin can’t nurse a horse around a four-star cross-country course; that horse needs to react to his leg aids. If he needs a kick somewhere, that’s one thing, but his horse needs to be in front of his leg and reacting to subtle aids. All horses are animals of fight, and when you kick your dressage horse, he shoots forward to your hand. While it can feel like a miraculous reaction, you want a sustainable reaction and an amount of energy that progressively accelerates into the bridle.

The Forward-Thinking Horse
When you read ads for dressage horses for sale, many are touted as “forward- thinking.” Different riders have varying degrees of success with different types of horses, but your job will be easier if your horse’s natural inclination is to go forward. You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken poop, and you’re not going to go to an international Grand Prix on a lazy horse without a whip.

Again, I’ve never had the pleasure of riding Valegro, but he’s always moving forward. He’s a powerhouse. I’m sure his trainer, Carl Hester, would say that while Valegro has an enormous amount of energy, they work all the time on how they can shorten it as well as lengthen it.

When I work with riders, I’m always trying to find analogies that people can understand—to borrow concepts from other parts of their lives to help explain dressage concepts. A friend of mine, who is a writer and scholar, was talking the other day about a quote that goes something like “Beauty is often mistaken for goodness.” What it means is that it’s human nature, when we see a beautiful woman or handsome man, to assume that they are a good person, as well. That same type of assumption happens in dressage. Energy and tension in a horse is often mistaken for

The Isabell Werths and Edward Gals of the world can ride horses most people can’t handle. Boyd Martin can run around a four-star cross-country course on a horse most people can’t sit on. Who’s going to ride Neville Bardos [Martin’s 2010 World Equestrian Games mount, a hot of-the-track Thoroughbred] except for Boyd? He’d be the first to tell you that his work with this horse was to make him as ridable as possible. That horse was never going to stop—he’s more likely to run away—but when I coached him, Boyd’s work was riding Neville for 45 minutes before his dressage test so he could get his leg on and have a horse to ride.

Concepts like “light to the leg,” “energy,” and “forward-thinking” are all really good things as long as they fall in the context of being ridable and responsive to the aids.

TWO KINDS OF LEG: Both of these photos were taken during the Grand Prix Special test at the 2014 USEF Dressage Festival of Champions. In photo 1, I’m riding Ellegria in extended trot. The mare is in front of my leg, which is relaxed; she is stepping into the contact with her nose in front of the vertical. Photo 2 shows Ellegria in collected trot. My leg is on and I’m pushing with my calves; she is responding by engaging her abdominal muscles, lifting her back and her shoulders, and moving with great animation. Ellegria is a 14-year-old Westfalen mare owned by Lauren Sprieser.
Photos by Jennifer Bryant

The Importance of Acceptance
I had a horse that I gave to a young girl to work with, and she was always smiling and happy and talking about how wonderful he was and how she hardly had to put her leg on. I got on the horse one day, and about the third ride he just about broke my back bucking when I put my leg on. It’s all well and good if you’re doing 20-meter circles, but what about when you have to put your leg on?

I don’t care if it’s a Fiat or a Ferrari you’re driving: When you turn the wheel left, the car goes left; step on the brake, the car slows down; step on the gas, the car accelerates. All cars that are functioning correctly drive the same. If you can’t put your leg on or use your hands without the horse stopping or slowing down, it’s like driving a car in which the controls aren’t connected the same as other cars. If you step on the brake and the car goes left, it doesn’t make any sense.

The energetic horse that’s forward-thinking is a great thing, but he still basically has to ride the same as the horse that needs more encouragement to go forward.

The pyramid of training is not real; it’s not binding. It looks good on a poster. It’s not written in stone, and it doesn’t apply in exactly that order to every single horse. But any rider who’s brought along a lot of horses from youngster to Grand Prix will tell you that the basis is a horse that responds when you put the aids on.

To develop acceptance of my leg, the first thing I do is I take my spur of. Then I walk, a lot. I’ll walk the long side, I’ll walk circles, and I’ll apply at least the weight of my leg on his side. When he pushes me away, I’ll leave my leg on his side. If that means that horse and I do nothing but walk for three months, I’m going to walk until he lets me leave my leg on his side. It’s important to keep in mind that yesterday’s drama is today’s commonplace. One day, your horse will accept your leg, and it will seem like no big deal.

If I’m riding a horse that’s hypersensitive to the leg, my job is not to make an allowance, but to alleviate that hypersensitivity as much as I possibly can. I’ll walk on a circle, leg-yield into the outside rein, and do simple exercises that use the leg, then relieve the pressure.

I took some lessons from [former Spanish Riding School Oberbereiter and Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame member] Karl Mikolka in the 1970s. Karl had a curriculum. He’d make the rider walk the horse in a 20-meter circle. These are horses that likely never accepted the leg. The lesson was how to communicate with the horse: He’d tell the rider to go on a circle and close the leg for five steps. Each step, you’d add two more ounces of leg. You’d say, “Horse, this is my left leg,” and with each word you’d add two ounces of leg.

I was teaching a woman recently, and that all came back to me. All good riders do that without thinking about it: they close their leg and expect the horse to respond. I realize now I do that intrinsically because of getting those lessons 35 years ago.

Open the Door to Forward
As we all know, the horse is a flight animal. If you leave the stall door open, he will go out. He survives through movement.

That’s why the really competent rider always leaves an “open door” for the horse to go through. The less-experienced rider may inhibit the horse by never giving him somewhere to go.

Some riders never get reared with or run backward with. Those are the riders who keep the horse in front of the leg and who always give the horse an open spot to go through. If you close your hand, two seconds later you open the hand and let the horse go forward. That doesn’t mean you give a loopy rein, but you allow the horse to go forward.

Sometimes visualization helps. I think of it like a window about the size of the horse’s head and neck. I keep moving that window—with some horses it’s a little down and out, with some it’s a little up and out, but I’m always leaving the shutters open a little for the horse to look out that window.

Lack of an independent seat contributes to inhibiting the horse’s forward energy. If you see a rider holding the body position by hanging on the reins, that person is not physically able to allow the horse to go forward. I try to go to the gym regularly because I have found that working on core strength makes a big difference. A rider doesn’t need muscular arms and legs; you need core strength to hold your position.

Your arms also have to be independent of your seat; that’s why we have lunge lessons and take the stirrups away, so you can hold your position. If your position is reliant on you holding on with your hands, you can’t open the door for the horse to go forward. That separates a top rider from an average rider, and ultimately a successfully forward horse.

Amber Heintzberger is an award-winning equestrian journalist and co-author with Anna Ford of the 2009 American Horse Publications book of the year, Beyond the track: From Racehorse to Riding Horse (Trafalgar Square, 2009) and of Modern Eventing with Phillip Dutton (Trafalgar Square, 2013). She lives outside New York City with her husband and children.

Meet the Expert

Michael Barisone grew up riding horses in upstate New York and has been based in the horse country of New Jersey for more than 15 years, where he and wife Vera built their farm from the ground up. The Barisones consistently produce upper-level dressage horses from young stock, selling many and keeping some to develop for themselves.

speaking at the 2012 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program

Michael Barisone has amassed more than 100 career CDI Grand Prix wins on nine horses that he trained. He was a member of the 1997 gold-medal-winning Nations Cup team at Hickstead, England, and of the 2008 US Olympic dressage team in Hong Kong. He serves on the USEF High Performance Eligible Athletes Dressage Committee, and in 2012 he gave then-The Daily Show “Colbert Report” host Stephen Colbert a dressage lesson on national TV as part of the Mitt Romney/dressage political hoopla. He has coached riders ranging from Olympic level to dedicated adult amateurs. He was the 2009 Sportsman International Horseman of the Year.

Dressage Puzzlers was run as a five-part series. Forward is Part One. Visit Part Two on The Sitting Trot, Part Three on Using the Leg, Part Four on Half-Halts, and Part Five on The Seat.

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