Front End Foes by Troy Green
One of the most popular topics I seem to come across lately is the quality of front end movement in our pleasure horses. I frequently receive emails of people asking what to do… “My horse has a deep hock but is ‘funky’ up front.” Or when looking at videos of potential horses for clients we frequently run across the same thing… “I like this horse behind but… not the front end.” It seems to be an all-too-common conversation ring-side at horse shows as well, whether among industry professionals, amateurs or spectators. Sit back and listen to the conversations in the stands during some of the pleasure classes and you’ll find the most criticism and or praise surrounding front end movement. Many horses will have a deep hock but it’s a rare few that will maintain a quality step with lift, sweep and no artificial pause in the front end.
Part of the problem is that the percentage of horses that can go slow and really maintain proper movement is pretty small. They are elite athletes. The best pleasure horses in the country are a minority percentage and the others are above average, average and in some cases, below average horses, that are trying to fit in the mold of those top few. Over the past few years AQHA has taken strides to ensure that the quality of movement is kept intact in the pleasure horse industry. While the increase in forward motion helps, what else can we do to preserve the movement in our horses, especially in the front end?
One of the biggest things I will tell people is “don’t go slow all the time.” Good movement is about rhythm and lift. If your horse knows rhythm and has cadence and lift, you can slow the rhythm down. You have to find the pace that is comfortable for your horse to maintain their best movement. Riding for long periods of time at a pace slower than this can result in the horse compensating in different ways. Some horses will use their neck more in an effort to balance and you’ll have a significant head bob. Some horses will develop too much knee or a vertical step instead of a sweeping flat step. The legs of a horse should swing like a pendulum on a clock. The legs should swing freely from the horse’s shoulders and hips and can only do so when the body is up out of the way. Sometimes when our horses are shut down too much they lose the lift in their bodies and the front ends go up and down instead of swinging.
No horse is perfect and I try to look at my horses and find their weak point and make that the best it can be. If I have a horse that is just adequate moving in the front end, I will take care to lift him up and do exercises that get him using his body. I won’t shut him down very often, because the more I ride him slow and pull on him, the more the front end will go away. As trainers and riders we need to be aware of what position we are putting our horses in. Having an educated set of eyes on the ground is extremely beneficial. You can identify what changes their movement for better and for worse. Avoid what takes away from your horse’s optimal movement and engage in the exercises that enhance it.
There are some horses that cannot succeed as pleasure horses past the age of three or four as a result of being shut down too much. If our horses learn to move “funky” up front it becomes harder for them to get out of that habit and it can interfere with learning other events such as western riding or a lead change for other pattern classes. My goal for my horses is always longevity in the show pen, and the option to excel in other events. The choice of which events to pursue always belongs to the owner and ultimately the horses will let us know what they are going to be good at. But, if we preserve optimal movement in our horses we are at the same time helping them for their future in other events and helping to ensure they have a long and successful career in the show pen.
Another key factor in preserving the best possible front end movement in your horse, is to know your horse. They are not all the same. Some horses travel faster, some slower. Some move the best with their neck higher and some move better with it lower. Some horses are better just off the rail, and so on. If I find myself in a crowd and need to move off of the rail for a better lope departure, I’ll do that. If that shows off my horse the best, I would rather do that than wait for the ten horses piled up in front of me to move off and have my horse jammed in with the pack. Find your horse’s optimal movement and don’t base it on others. Show your horse. Don’t try to show your horse as if it’s your competitor’s. Good rule of thumb for any event….don’t get to the show and change your routine, (especially a routine that works) based on somebody else’s horse. What you have is what you have. If your horse’s best movement is 85% and you push for 100%, you may end up back at 50%.
Know your horse’s limits as well and be realistic about their physical limitations and what classes and at what types of shows they can be the most competitive. My lab/beagle mix will never win the national dog show. If it’s a goal of mine to win there, I need a new dog. The goal is to maintain optimal front end, and overall, movement for each horse we have and to realize that what is optimal for every horse will vary. Know your horse and do what you can to help them achieve and maintain their best possible movement.
Troy Green is a firm believer in the importance of a good foundation for every horse with balance, rhythm, and self-carriage being key. A good foundation equals longevity in the show pen. Troy has won over two dozen All American Quarter Horse Congress Championships in western pleasure, versatility, reining, halter and western riding, and has coached clients to over 50 Congress championships. Troy has three AQHA World Championships and two National Championships under his belt, and has won at all major futurities. He spent three years on the national board of the NSBA.
Troy Green has an extensive background working with youth and amateurs at all levels and of various disciplines. He specializes in pleasure futurity and all around horses.
Now is your chance to have your questions answered by Troy! Just submit your question using the comment section below or the email link, and he will respond to select questions in future posts.