That seems pretty simple. But there’s a catch. A horse has this long neck with a big heavy head hanging out there at the end of it which naturally has a tendency to shift a little more of his weight onto his front feet. When he’s just hanging around being himself, a horse typically carries about 60 percent of his weight on his front feet.
This natural balance is going to vary quite a bit from horse to horse. One young horse may look like he’s carrying about equal weight on all four feet when he’s standing there. You can look at another horse and it looks like 90 percent of her weight is on her front feet. As horses grow and develop, their hind end grows first and pretty soon they’re standing downhill. Then you’ve got to wait for the front end to catch up. Some horses never completely catch up and stay built downhill, or what we call on their forehand, their whole lives. Because one side of his body stronger or more dominant than the other, a horse also tends to carry a little more weight on one front foot than on the other. When you’re training a horse, it’s your job to get him carrying his weight more or less equally on all four feet.
When we’re working on straightness, the previous level on our training tree, we start helping the horse develop the muscles and strength he needs to adjust his balance laterally so that he’s carrying an equal amount of his weight on his two front feet. Until the horse becomes straight, becomes equally comfortable using the muscles on both sides of his body, he is going to be carrying more weight on one shoulder or the other. He will feel "stiffer" and less accepting of the rein on one side compared to the other. Once he’s straight, once he’s accepting the rein on both sides, we move to the next level and start asking him to shift some of his weight from his front feet to his back feet to balance longitudinally.
As we’re developing the horse’s muscles and his ability to carry himself in longitudinal balance, remember that horses have rear wheel drive. All of their power comes from their hind end. They don’t have front wheel drive that’s pulling them along. Their engine is in the rear. So we’ve got to build up their engine muscles to play the games they’ll eventually play whether it’s to get over a bigger jump, to get a longer slide, or to do a better canter pirouette.
Developing balance means that we are asking the horse to bring his hindquarters more under his center. If his back feet tend trail out behind him and we use our aids properly to ask him to step more under the center of his belly, he’ll lift his back and start carrying more weight on his hind feet and less weight on his front feet. So his hindquarters need to move up under his center of gravity in order for him to be more balanced. Cavaletti work and transitions are some of the exercises you can use to help a horse develop longitudinal balance.
Training means systematic mental and physical development of the horse. The training tree gives you a sequence of concepts that you can picture step by step. This is very important because it gives you something to go back to when things aren’t working. That’s a big hole in a lot of trainer’s programs. They don’t have a step-by-step system that, if something goes wrong, allows them to go back through the sequence to find the source of the problem.
Take a spin, for example. Some trainers just put the horse in the shape of a spin, reinforce with leg to get him to speed up and hope that the horse will figure out how to do it. A really athletic horse will which is why so many trainers get away with doing things this way. But then they get horses that don’t have natural athletic talent. Something is wrong in the spin. Maybe the horse is crossing his outside front leg behind his inside front instead of in front of it. Or when he pivots he puts his weight on his outside hind leg instead of on his pivot leg. If you have a horse logical sequence like the training tree to develop the horse’s mind and his body, you’ll always have a place to go back to in order to fix something. You can fix the problem within the problem and then, when you ask the horse to spin the next time, he’ll get it right.