“Calm, forward and straight” ~ General Alexis L’Hotte, Ecuyer en Chef at Saumur from 1864 to 1870

“Forward and straight” ~ Gustav Steinbrecht, author of Das Gymnasium des Pferdes (The Gymnasium of the Horse), 1885

When I learned to ride, many decades ago and a hundred years after the masters I quote above, my instructors were not afraid of the word “forward.”  It was a word that no one defined but everyone understood. When an instructor shouted “FORWARD!” it was a command to be obeyed immediately:  increase the horse’s energy and make him move with athleticism and grace.

The meaning of “forward,” as it applies to riding, is no longer clear.  What is clear is that the word has fallen out of favor.  Especially in dressage circles. This despite the fact that “forward” was a word chosen by both France’s L’Hotte and Germany’s Steinbrecht to define the properly ridden horse.

Personally, I’m with them.  But we’re in the minority.

No one seems to be sure anymore even what the word means, so it’s not surprising that it’s no longer popular.

Several years ago, I was watching a horse on the lungeline with a friend of mine who was a working student for a former Olympic competitor in dressage.  I commented that the horse was “forward,” and she told me that her mentor had told her that “forward” is not a description of physical activity, but rather a state of mind.  A horse can think forward but not actually be forward.  I said I thought he was thinking forward and she disagreed, and the horse unfortunately refused to settle the argument.

This year, I audited the USDF “L” Education Program (anyone calling it the “L” Judges Program was corrected), where the word “forward” was again in the penalty box.  The future L Graduates (not L Judges) were told not to use the word “forward” in their comments.

The USDF Glossary of Judging Terms defines forward as:  To or toward the direction that is ahead or in front of the horse, or moving or tending toward that direction. Forward indicates the direction in which the horse goes (in contrast to sideways, backward, or standing still); it does not indicate how he gets there. References to specifics such as impulsion, energy, reach, length of stride, and tempo more accurately express how the horse should proceed in a forward direction.  In other words, a horse can go forward but not think forward or be forward.

I have to say that I feel sorry for the word “forward.”  Once so beloved, esteemed even, and now shunned.  Nullified simply because there are so many seemingly better words out there, with more precise meanings — activity, engagement, impulsion, thrust, scope.

But if we conclude that “forward” is simply a direction — the opposite of “backward” — we do the word a disservice. I just know that when L’Hotte said to keep your horse “calm, forward and straight”  and Steinbrecht said to ride your horse “forward and straight,” that neither one of them meant you shouldn’t spend all your time in the saddle teaching your horse to rein back.

To be fair, in the modern lexicon, when horse and rider have reached a level of education where they can differentiate between activity, impulsion, engagement, thrust and scope, the word “forward” is a poor substitute.

On the other hand, if I’m standing in the ring and sense that the horse is withholding the energy at its disposal, I know just what word I’m going to use.  Or more likely, shout.  “Forward!”  I guarantee that the rider who hears it will know exactly what I mean and what I want.  And so will the horse.  Which is not necessarily true if I talk about impulsion, engagement or scope (which I do, as well, on occasion).

Which is why if you have only two or three words to express what you want from your horse, the word “forward” should be one of them.  L’Hotte and Steinbrecht knew that.  And that’s why we need to welcome “forward” back into the fold.

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