Riding Back to Front, Part I

Be the rider your horse deserves.

If you ever have attended one of my expos, clinics or schools, you might have heard me talk about the concept of riding “back to front.” Because this theory draws so much interest, I thought it was an excellent subject for a series of articles.

First, let’s define riding “back to front.” By this, I mean controlling the motor (the horse’s hindquarters) more than the steering wheel (his shoulders, neck and head). I like to say that 80 percent or more of your communication to the horse should be through your seat and legs, and only 20 percent or less should come from your hands.

By using your legs and seat, you control the horse’s body all the way from his withers to his dock, so that you are controlling his back, barrel, hips and hindquarters, which is two-thirds of his body. Obviously, we want to achieve control of the entire horse, but if you already are controlling two-thirds of his body, it is like having power steering on the remaining third.

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It is a human instinct to use our hands first because this comes naturally to us. One of the horse’s most sensitive body parts is his mouth, and we need to remember this. You can gain more control or lose it, depending on how you use your hands. The more you use your hands, the more you will find problems arising. Plus, you absolutely cannot achieve collection by just riding with your hands.

As an example of how your hands can complicate matters, if you have too much contact with the reins in a canter departure, you actually put a “wall” in front of the horse. You are pulling against him at the same time you are asking him to go forward, and he cannot do so because your hands are shutting him down. Also, any time you try to slow down a horse just by using your hands, you give the horse an opportunity to resist and pull against your hands.

The rider’s form is of utmost importance in riding back to front because proper position allows you to ride in balance with your horse. Using correct form is the only way to have good coordination and clear, consistent communication with your horse through your aids. The rider’s position and balance is absolutely crucial if you hope to control your arms, legs and seat -- the parts of your body that you use to communicate with your horse. An unbalanced rider will interfere with the horse’s performance and will not have clear, consistent communication with the horse.

There are several common ways riders get out of balance and use improper form. When riders are off balance in the upper body, their eyes typically are looking down, shoulders are rounded forward, and their hands are often behind the saddle because their reins have too much slack. If this is the case, you will be late in your timing and abrupt when you do connect.

If your reins are too short, your arms will be straight without a bend at the elbow, and the horse will resist or pull. He might toss his head, mouth the bit or jerk his head to evade bit pressure.

To use your seat as an aid, your hips should be slightly moving with the horse’s movement. If your hips stay stationary, there is no way you can use your seat as an aid. The pelvis can move back and forth when the hips are slightly tilted forward. You can feel the forward-back motion (rocking) easily at the walk and canter. A trot is quicker and more challenging, but if your pelvis is not working with the motion of the horse, you will find yourself bouncing up and down.

Most commonly, riders sit on their crotch instead of on their seat bones. If you are sitting on your crotch, you cannot use your seat an as aid. Your shoulders will be too forward and your hips too far back.

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If you are leaning back so that your shoulders are too far behind your hips, or if you are sitting on your tail bone or on the cantle of the saddle, again, you cannot use your seat effectively as an aid. This is because you are not in balance.

Looking at the leg position, if you are tilting too far forward, your legs usually move back and you end up gripping with your heels. If this is the case, you desensitize the horse to subtle cues because you are always gripping. Another problem riders have is bracing their leg against the stirrup, and that “locks” the leg and causes it to move too far forward. When that happens, your timing always will be late or abrupt, and your horse will overreact and have a delayed response or resist.

Now that you know what can go wrong when you are not in proper from and balance, pay careful attention when you ride to see exactly what you are doing with your body parts.

In the next article, I will discuss how you can expect a happier, more responsive horse by properly riding “back to front.”

Look for Lynn’s next article in a couple of weeks.