The concept of 'forward' in riding is probably one of the least understood. Many people think it refers to the rider's position, as in 'forward seat.' Others relate it to speed--the faster the horse is going, the more 'forward' he is.
'Forward' from the rider's point of view can be best described as the feeling that everything is right. The horse responds easily and fluidly to every command, his gaits are comfortable, and the first time it happens one finds oneself saying, "NOW I understand what riding is all about!" So how do we go about creating that wonderful feeling?
The concept is usually broken down into 'calm, forward, straight.' In this formula, forward refers to impulsion, but having impulsion alone is NOT 'going forward' in the full meaning of the phrase.
To achieve 'forward' the horse must first be calm and relaxed. Mentally calm, physically relaxed. How do you tell? A mentally calm horse is willing to stand, quiet but alert, his head and neck relaxed, until you ask him to move. Think of a really good field hunter at a check. He stands, reins slackened, listening to hounds and ready to move off if they find, but waiting for his rider's command. Without mental calmness, the horse cannot be physically relaxed.
Physical relaxation, that is, lack of tension in the body itself, is more difficult to determine. There are symptoms of tension such as upside-down head carriage, or tail swishing, which are easy to spot, but many trainers are mislead by the 'poky' horse, the one who is unresponsive to almost any driving aid. What appears to be laziness may in fact be anything from poor health to back pain to fear of the rider's weight.
Factors such as age, conformation, training and fitness will affect how comfortable a horse can be within his own body, that is, relaxed, and therefore the degree of 'forward' the rider can expect. But one must understand that the achievement of calmness is the first goal of training.
Impulsion means power, delivered principally from the thrust of the hind legs, the horse's 'engine.' It also refers to the horse's energy--his ability to produce impulsion willingly when asked.
Straight refers to the tracking of the hind feet on the same line as the front, as well as to the horse's spine being evenly bent along the line that is being ridden. (In lateral work, the 'straight' horse's position and tracking conform to a specific definition for each movement.)
The easiest way for the novice to understand the total concept of forward is to think about automobiles. Physical relaxation (calm) relates to the mechanical condition of the car. Impulsion ('forward') is the fuel that powers the car. Straight refers to the car's wheels and frame.
In order for the car to do what you want it to do, every mechanical part must be able to function correctly. Consider a car that is not 'relaxed.' If the electrical system has a short, or the fuel line is dirty, or the transmission is falling apart, the car won't respond when you 'step on the gas.' If the brake drums are worn the car won't stop when you apply the brake. Similarly, if the horse is stiff and sore, or tenses his neck against the bit, or is soft and out of condition, he won't be able to respond correctly to your commands. He may rush off out of balance and control, he may buck or otherwise resist actively, or he may simply ignore the command and continue on his sluggish way.
Just as with the car, warm up of the horse is essential so that the engine can function with maximum efficiency. During the warm up you may rev up the engine a little to get it running better. Similarly you might ask the horse for a little extra impulsion to help loosen him up. But just as racing a cold engine up to high rpms will be bad for it, because it is not ready to handle the speed yet, so asking for too much impulsion from a cold or insufficiently relaxed horse will cause problems both physical and mental because the horse's body will not be able to handle it.
When the horse (or car) is warmed up, you can successfully ask for more impulsion without creating tension (mechanical problems.)
Cars differ, so do horses. You wouldn't expect the family sedan to handle with the responsiveness of a highly tuned race car. The amount of time spent 'tuning up' either the car or the horse, as well as their basic potential, will affect the result.
A well balanced horse will go forward on loose reins, but as the work becomes more demanding the horse needs to go forward into the rider's hands, so that the rider can help him to control his body by helping him to balance himself. In order for this mutual assistance to work, the horse must be willing to push (generate impulsion) against both reins with both hind legs equally, without resisting by either stiffening or overflexing his body. A car with one wheel on ice would not thrust evenly forward, and the car would skid out of control, whether starting up or stopping. A horse pushing against only one rein will also slide out of control--dangerously so if he is jumping, or galloping down hill.
If the horse is stiffer on one side than the other, and virtually all horses are, when he thrusts evenly against both reins he may end up going in a circle. Lateral work and circles which stretch the stiff side while keeping the horse on the two reins, will help loosen the stiff side and teach the horse to go straight. To go back to the car analogy, a horse which is not straight is like a car with a soft front tire, or bad wheel alignment. You have to fix the tire or have the wheels aligned, you don't just try to cope by dragging on the steering wheel.
Completing the analogy, in order to get the horse to go forward (car into the best mechanical/driving condition,) the trainer (mechanic) must know a lot about horses (cars), how they work, and how to fix whatever goes wrong. The rider (driver) must know how to ride (drive) to get the most out of the horse (car). He also must understand the horse (car) so that he doesn't undo the trainer's (mechanic's) work. Functioning as a team, they can create a useful vehicle that will be a pleasure to ride (drive.)