-By Charles Wilhelm-
The forward cue is probably the most ignored of all the cues. It is misunderstood and misused by most riders. I am sorry to say that it is often not taught and so some riders really have no forward cue. With those who do have a cue, I rarely see it practiced or reinforced. The forward cue is probably our most important cue as forward movement is critical for any maneuver a horse attempts. A good, solid consistent forward cue is vital for a number of reasons.
One, without a forward cue that the horse understands and listens to, the horse will become confused. This will cause the horse to become cranky. The horse will show this attitude by tail swishing or ear pinning. Most important, the driving force will not be from behind. The horse will be pulling himself along instead of coming up under himself and driving from the rear, or as we say, he will not be coming through from the rear.
Out on the trail, there is always the chance that you will need to cross an obstacle. Just because you have a forward cue doesn’t mean your horse will be perfect on the trail or at going over objects but it does eliminate a lot of situations that could turn nasty or dangerous. When the horse has learned to listen to your cue it makes your ride more pleasant.
I see many riders practice the leg yield, transitions and many other movements but they never practice the forward cue. Each time I ride, I reinforce the forward cue by putting the calf of my leg on the horse and offering some pressure. Some misinterpret the amount of pressure and think it must be a couple of pounds. The common theory is that a horse can feel a fly on it; I know this is true because I have watched the skin twitch when a fly lands. A horse can also feel five to eight ounces of pressure from your calf. In other words, you can squeeze a little bit and you don’t have to put one pound of pressure on your horse.
If the horse does not respond, then you must follow up, which is the key. This is a problem for a lot of riders; many don’t follow up because when you increase the pressure, you may get an adverse reaction. The horse may cow kick out which makes the hip rise and can feel like a buck or the horse can just plain buck. You need to decide if you are willing, and able to deal with a significant reaction. Are you comfortable and confident enough to ask with a spur or dressage stick until the horse does go forward?
Here is another key. Sometimes you think the horse is going forward because the horse is moving forward at a trot but there is no life in the movement. The horse is just chugging along and the movement is sluggish. We do not want the horse to jump into a hand gallop or a runaway trot. But, it is much easier to bring the horse back into a relaxed gait than to get it to initially go forward into a relaxed gait. We want life in the movement and no grudging attitude. Because your horse is listening to your forward cue he will have a good attitude and there will be no pinned ears or swishing tail. Going up the trail will be a lot more fun and you will have less concern regarding objects that must be crossed. You can have fun going over objects because the horse will be forward and willing all because it is listening to the forward cue.
Finally, and what is most important, the body dynamics of your horse will change as he starts pushing himself along instead of pulling. This is a huge factor. I get a lot of horses in training here and they are all muscled up in the front but they have no hip muscles and no top line. I have two horses here right now and the owners are amazed that the horses are going forward. We have to be willing to send our horses forward, on the ground and in the saddle. I start with the horse on the ground to evaluate the horse in terms of being behind the leg.
There are often consequences in making a horse go forward. If you are not
comfortable with the consequences you will need some help to get the
horse trained. Once in awhile, everyone needs a trainer around to help keep you and your horse moving forward with your skills. It is amazing that once you get your horse forward and listening to your leg cues, the horse will start listening to your seat cues. Your horse will not only move off your leg to go forward but also laterally and to back up.
I encourage you to practice your forward cue every time you ride. Be consistent with your cue, whether it is a squeeze or a kiss or some combination. Make sure your horse is responsive to your leg. You don’t want to bang on your horse and de-sensitize him to your cue. We don’t want a dull horse, as that horse has no life in its feet or movements and is often cranky and no fun to ride. We want our horses to know our cues and be able to respond so that everyone has an enjoyable ride.