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Training Your Horse from the Anatomical Perspective. Part 3: On the Forehand

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

This is the third in Gillian’s series of articles focusing on common training problems, and exercises to correct underlying strength deficiencies. On the Forehand

ON THE FOREHAND - What Does it Mean?

We all are familiar with the term ‘on the forehand’. We hear it from our trainers and often from judges on our dressage sheets. But, what exactly does it mean? What causes it? And, how can we correct it?

Basically on the forehand means the horse is out of balance. The forehand refers to the front half of the body which accounts for about 60% of the total body weight. This includes the heavy head and neck which acts much like a pendulum and accounts for about 10% of weight. During training, we try to reverse this balance aiming for the horse to carry approximately 50% in front and 50% behind.

It is the hind quarters that are the power horse of the horse providing impulsion. Carrying more weight behind is referred to as engagement. When engaged, the hind limbs joints are flexed allowing them to come well under. The front end then becomes lighter allowing the horse to move with greater forelimb expression.

It is not difficult to appreciate when most of the weight is on the forehand, the power from behind is considerably reduced. The horse looks as if he is going downhill. Working on the forehand also increases the risk of concussion related lameness in the forelimbs. Horses carrying too much weight in front are also harder to collect.

Being on the forehand has a detrimental affect on the way of going in every aspect of training and performance. It affects the paces, which cannot be free and impulsion rhythm and regularity because there is insufficient ‘push’ from behind.

Typical Comments from Judges:

  • On the forehand

  • Needs to step under more to lighten the forehand

  • Nose behind vertical and hocks trailing

  • Needs to carry more weight behind

  • Needs to come more from leg into hand to lighten the shoulders

Engagement of the Hind Quarters

Raising the forehand comes from engagement of the hind limbs. These are joined to the spine through the sacroiliac joint. The hind limb bones are large and angled. This reflects their function as they need to be strong in order to carry the weight of the hind quarters and angulated to allow flexion in the hock, stifle, hip and lumbar-sacral junction; particularly important, both as the limbs come under to lighten the forehand and, in advanced movements in which the horse is required to ‘sit’ behind.

In order to carry more weight through the haunches, the large powerful muscle groups of the hindquarters need to be well conditioned. This is achieved slowly through correct training.

Positive tension through the extensor chain of muscles, that is the hamstrings, gluteals and top line , creates traction through the back muscles which helps to raise the forehand

Recruitment of the Thoracic Sling Muscles

The forelimbs are not connected to the rest of the body by bone. Instead they are attached by a network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons called the thoracic sling. This allows freedom of movement and absorption of concussion.

The main muscles which help to support the forehand include the cervical and ventral serrated muscles, transverse pectoral muscle and the subclavian muscle.

When these muscles contract and shorten in length they can actually help to lighten and raise the withers up in between the forelimbs. As a horse comes into work, these muscles tone up and can be responsible for the horse appearing to ‘grow’ in height at the withers.

It is important to be able to differentiate between being ‘on the forehand’ and working long and low.

Too much weight on the forehand can be caused by lack of engagement and hind end strength.

Correct long and low work, encourages self balance and stretches the horse’s back. The horse works in a convex outline reaching down for the contact with the head low and the hind legs stepping well under. This avoids the hind limbs trailing as it teaches the horse to use his back end to push off.

Ridden Exercises:

Exercises to lighten the forehand fall into two categories. Longitudinal, aimed at collecting and lengthening the horse's frame and stride, and lateral, which encourages a supple neck and back. These categories complement each other to produce a well-balanced, straight obedient horse.

Work on gradients, particularly downhill, is another very effective way of using the thoracic sling muscles. The forehand has to work harder to slow down and balance and

Key points for working on downhill gradients:-

  • For optimum anatomical benefit, this exercise is best performed in walk

  • Ensure that he is in self carriage.

  • Include downward transitions starting with simple walk-halt transitions

  • On less steep slopes use walk trot, trot-halt transitions. These really test good balance and self carriage!

  • Use Rein back (back up hill)

  • Half steps for the more experienced horses – this is a very good strength training exercise.


A useful ground exercise for strengthening the thoracic sling muscles and contributing to a lighter forehand is the sternum scratch exercise. Described in detail in Pilates and Stretching for Horses available in BOOK, DVD or online video format.

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Rider position

This is also an important contributory factor in working your horse in an uphill frame. Always sit straight, upright with light hands and do not allow the horse to ‘lean’ on the bit.

Ensuring your horse works correctly with more weight carried on the haunches will result in a more elegant correct outline, with improved performance and a lighter forehand .

Learn more about Training from the Anatomical Perspective in Posture and Performance

Copyright Gillian Higgins 2019


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