Utilizing the American Forward Riding System

Understand the levels of control and the different stages of contact to produce connected, ground-covering, efficient strides.

The forward riding system is a modern system of riding for hunters, jumpers, hacks and cross-country horses and consists of three major components: position, controls and schooling. In this section, we discuss controls. There is no question that the average American rider and many Europeans know more about position from observation and reading now than at any other time. Although unfortunately emphasizing the seat (position) even in the title, the U.S. Equestrian Federation hunter seat equitation division has done a great deal to help educate the general public. However, the area of controls and understanding them has not come through as strongly as the position part of the system. It is very important to understand that modern American riding has a complete system of controls, one level relating to the next. This system emphasizes cooperation with the horse using soft, precise controls. The method and techniques of controls relate directly to the schooling of the horse and, together with the position of the rider, form a complete interacting system.

This excerpt emphasizes the system’s three levels of controls—elementary, intermediate and advanced—which each have different aims. It is important for the rider/teacher to be at least mechanically correct and clear in applying the aids.

Elementary Controls

ELEMENTARY CONTROL: The horse is on a loose rein with a ground-covering walk. Louise Serio demonstrates a correct position with an alternately urging leg used at the girth and elementary control. | © Mandy Lorraine

The basic level aims for authority over the horse through definite and quick controls. It utilizes the four natural aids (weight, voice, hand and leg) and emphasizes such techniques as loose rein, check-release, tone of voice with consistent vocabulary and tapping leg.

The aids for a transition down on the elementary level from the trot to the walk are (1) weight: stop posting and sit, (2) voice: “w-a-l-k” spoken in a drawn-out manner, (3) hand: check-release to loose rein, and (4) leg: alternating tapping/urging to walk forward united, following on a looped rein the gestures of the head and neck. The elementary level of controls is especially useful when starting young horses. It often takes an advanced rider to achieve a good performance on this level with a young horse. 

Intermediate Controls

INTERMEDIATE CONTROL: In posting trot on soft contact, the horse’s head and neck are extended, his mouth is closed and he is covering the ground in forward balance. Cindy R. Prewitt’s position is based on the stirrup, allowing unity of horse and rider on the flat and jumping as well as the efficient and effective use of aids. | © Brant Gamma

The intermediate level aims at harmony with the horse using soft and precise controls that require the rider’s hands and legs to coordinate with the horse’s efforts. Contact helps achieve softer, more precise control; more connected movement; and efficient, long, low, ground-covering strides. This level is often considered advanced in most modern sport riding today. The aids for a transition down on the intermediate level from the trot to the walk are (1) weight: stop posting and sit, (2) hands: give-and-take and (3) leg: squeeze-release action, alternating, urging the walk forward. Hands follow the balancing gestures on contact.

Advanced Controls

ADVANCED CONTROL: The horse is trotting with his head and neck extended and his mouth closed. He is accepting contact created by the rider’s leg and is demonstrating advanced-level soft contact with reserve energy. Rider Anne Kursinski demonstrates a correct design of position including angles at the ankle, knee and hip. | © Reinhold Tigges

This level of controls in schooling aims for a specific function such as jumper competition or competing as a show hunter and is designed to elicit the highest-quality performance an individual horse is capable of producing in his specialty. The level requires a mentally relaxed, physically alert, responsive, educated, above-average athletic horse. The same position, aids and techniques are used in all settings and transfer from flatwork to the American hunter or jumper course.

A key objective in successful modern schooling of the horse is to develop controls that are soft and precise. They produce the best-quality performance from the horse using the least amount of the horse’s physical and nervous energy. This is the reason that this system is more efficient and effective for schooling hunters and jumpers on the flat.

Two Foundation Concepts of Forward Riding Controls

For the rider to better understand controls, it is appropriate at this time to mention two important concepts frequently misunderstood in the schooling component of the modern forward riding system: (1) stabilization as the essential foundation in the first stages of schooling and (2) forward balance, which is different from the classical dressage school’s central balance. For the sport horse the goal is to cultivate his natural agility and balance under the weight of the rider, producing connected, ground-covering, efficient movement and mental alertness while keeping him calm. See the photos and illustration on pages 55–57 to compare forward and central balance.

After training on the foundation level, stabilization (elementary control) is achieved. The horse is mentally and physically stable, maintaining the gait and speed asked for on looped rein, over uneven terrain, on the flat, alone or in company and over jumps. This is an essential step before proceeding to work on contact and developing the prospect, i.e., teaching the horse to jump courses.

Distinctions of Contact In the American Hunter System

Contact is used for the intermediate and advanced controls levels. In forward riding, the dividing line between a quality elementary control performance and the intermediate and advanced levels is riding on contact. There are different levels of contact in this system. One level of contact is passive contact and another is soft contact with consistent reserve energy. Horses may be schooled to varying degrees of this consistent reserve energy, some more and some less. These two levels of contact will ensure attainable objectives and goals for most horses, riders and combinations of horses and riders. Some horses have more natural reserve energy than others. Many hunters/jumpers perform well on soft contact. Some may move better at one gait than another, requiring less schooling to improve movement at the better gait. A third level is a contact with more impulse and connection, applied for short periods with specific objectives (i.e., at the short canter for certain competitive jumpers). There are two reasons to ride on contact. The first is to improve the quality of the horse’s movement. The second is to improve the controls, which, when used correctly (soft/precise), improve the quality of the horse’s overall performance.

Achieving Contact

CENTRAL BALANCE: Piaffe, an advanced dressage movement shown here by Lendon Gray, demonstrates full collection, central balance and the vertical engagement of the hind leg. The quality riding and the quality performance of the horse are made possible by a special partnership between horse and rider over years of progressive and specialized training. | Reinhold Tigges

Riders can ride on contact when their hands are independent of their bodies.

When is the horse ready for it? How is contact established? How is contact introduced to the horse and the rider learning contact? What influence does it have on the quality of the horse’s performance? 

The horse is ready to ride on contact when he is stabilized. This means he can maintain the gait and speed when asked off contact but with a degree of connection under the weight of the rider and he is responsive to the lower leg. If the rider loops the reins and the horse increases speed, he is not stable and not ready for further training. The rider should stay with the elementary foundation of schooling before going on with the contact.

Contact is both a fairly sophisticated and a simple concept. It is a feel of the horse’s impulse or reserve energy created by the rider’s leg. It is important to emphasize that an educated rider establishes contact from the leg to the hand. The rider’s hands feel the reserve energy through the reins. It might be like dew on grass, a very soft feel of reserve energy that is created by the leg. 

Speed also produces reserve energy and in an educated, calm horse can be used to the rider’s advantage when schooling on contact, i.e., canter or gallop and then go to a trot on contact.

However, a horse that has been upset by previous riding will also give the rider a feel of energy through the reins. He pulls or tries to bolt. He might be a horse that is afraid of the rider’s spur or a horse that is unbalanced and nervous from being on the longe line with improperly adjusted gadgets. Horses in these situations can be full of nervous energy and be thought of by some riders as being on the bit, but these examples do not show educated contact and riding. They simply reflect upset energy from a nervous, partially ruined or frightened horse.

The trot is a good gait to start riding on contact because it has no balancing gesture for the hands to follow, and the two-beat gait gives steady energy. The rider establishes a direct line from bit to elbow (the arm can be seen as an extension of the rein) and feels the reserve energy created by his own leg. The rider should keep in mind that (1) the faster the gait, the more reserve energy or natural impulse (impulse at the walk can be difficult to feel on some horses), (2) the balancing gestures need to be followed at the walk and canter and (3) it is difficult to maintain contact during transitions, even for some talented amateur riders and some professional riders. (This affects the performance of the horse.)

At the trot as the rider posts down, the insides of both lower legs close, producing a little squeeze–release that increases the engagement of the hind leg under the horse’s belly and produces the thrust forward (disengagement). Put as much emphasis on the disengagement as the engagement because it is the push-off that produces the power and energy. Engagement in the classical school often means a vertical engagement and a vertical disengagement. In the sport horse, the goal is a good horizontal engagement/disengagement.

Sometimes the conformation of some horses makes engagement difficult, and it is therefore hard to put the horse on contact. An experienced eye can evaluate the conformation and predict schooling problems or advantages.

After stabilization, teach the horse passive contact before proceeding to the next stage of contact.

Soft contact—the horse’s ability to extend the neck and head and accept the hand—is a soft feel of the horse’s reserve energy created by the rider’s leg. There are degrees of reserve energy, and they produce a connected horse. The neck and head are extended with the nose in front of the vertical at ordinary gaits and transitions. An older horse warming up or a young horse being trained should not develop the habit of being behind the vertical or above the bit nor of leaning down on the bit unbalanced. The horse has balancing gestures at the walk, canter, gallop and jump. It is a fundamental principle that the rider should be able to follow the natural balancing gestures. A hand set against the natural balancing gestures will restrict movement, teach pulling or hanging, cause pain and may mentally disturb the horse. Horses often escape this hand by poking their nose up or overflexing, or they may develop an abused, numb mouth.

In educated riding, there are two main systems of riding and schooling. The older system is the classical dressage system where the horse is schooled to be in central balance to perform quality collected gaits in a flat arena. The second system is the forward riding system where the horse is schooled under the weight of the rider to be connected in forward balance with ground-covering, efficient strides.

Riding “on the bit” can have more reserve energy than is necessary for most horses and most movements. For some jumpers, it can be a form of semi-collection used at the short gaits as an exercise. The horse has more reserve energy and also has a higher head and neck carriage.

The short canter can be used to help the horse prepare on the flat to canter to a combination that requires a short, energetic stride for a short arc on the first element, but it needs to be integrated with normal gaits and lengthening. Horses with a good temperament, natural impulse and above-average agility will not need to be on the bit to do the short canter or abrupt transitions and turns. Too much work on the shorter gaits with a high reserve energy can negatively affect movement and temperament. For example, the ground-covering stride may be restricted, the temperament may become aggressive and/or the horse may become too energetic for the schooling objectives and too sensitive for his rider.

In schooling the hunter and jumper, the short-gaited work needs to be tempered by lengthening work in order not to distort the quality of the horse’s ground-covering movement. Normally a naturally good mover may need less lengthening work and a less-than-average mover will need considerably more lengthening work.

To summarize, contact is initiated by the leg aids and results in the reserve energy the rider feels in his hands. The reserve energy is created by the horizontal engagement and disengagement of the hind leg, which connects the hind end to the front end. The goal in forward riding is to produce connected, ground-covering, efficient strides for an athletic sport horse, enabling him to gallop, shorten, turn, stay connected and jump efficiently and with agility. He must remain calm but alert. This can be successfully achieved with a horse in forward balance that is connected on soft contact with reserve energy.

The goal does not include schooling in full collection and central balance. As a child I remember my instructor telling me to shorten the reins and collect the horse, which was a common misuse of the term. Collection is a very important concept in the classical dressage school, but in teaching contact for modern hunter, jumper and/or cross-country riders and horses, it is best to avoid this term and emphasize instead the concept of connection.

To be certain, quality, classical high school dressage is an important educated type of riding, but it should not be confused with the flatwork, the position or the level of controls that are the aim in modern hunter/jumper riding. Riders should not look to influence each step or perfect a movement that is a schooling exercise or look for a high degree of short elevated gaits and central balance. Riders should work at the shortened gaits to teach certain horses (i.e., upper-level competitive jumpers) to be agile making a turn or approaching a specific jump or combination. The schooling should emphasize natural connected movement (long, low, ground-covering, efficient strides) in a forward balance suited for uneven terrain, the flat and jumping.

Paul D. Cronin is professor emeritus and director of riding emeritus at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. For more than 40 years, he has been a clinician instructing successful amateurs, teachers and professional riders throughout the United States. 

In Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse, he focuses on the three elements
of the American forward riding system—position (the American hunter seat), controls (soft, precise aids) and a progressive schooling program of seven periods that produces a connected athlete. In the foreword of the book, Olympic gold medalist Joe Fargis says, “If horses could talk, they would say,’Read this book; this is how to ride me.’”

Adapted from Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse by Paul D. Cronin with permission of the University of Virginia Press. New in softcover, 320 pages, $24.95.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of

Practical Horseman.

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