Too often, riders are determined to make their horses go with a swift kick or two (or three). At best, the horse lurches forward with arched back and raised neck, scrambling to get his legs underneath him despite being thrown to the forehand. At worst, the horse becomes resentful of the leg aid and learns to resist or even demonstrate his discomfort by kicking out, rearing or bucking.
Did you know that leg aids are used for more than just "go"? Leg aids are such an integral part of your ride that you simply can't do without them!
As you become a better rider, you will discover that the legs have so many messages to communicate other than "go". (Click here to tweet this if you agree)
Talk to different riders and they'll tell you the various uses of leg aids. Here are a few examples:
The most important result coming from your leg aids is impulsion. Ideally, the lightest lower leg squeeze should communicate an increase in movement from your horse. Two legs squeezing at the same time ask for a "scoot forward", causing the horse to tuck his hind under and releas a surge of energy forward. Physiologically, the horse's hind legs should step deeper underneath the body and allow the horse to begin the process of carrying more weight in the hind end.
2. Stride Length
Ideally, a deeper reach should mean a rounder back and an increase in stride length. Paired with half-halts, the energy obtained can be redirected in many ways - to a longitudinal stretch over the back, to a higher head and neck elevation and/or to more animated action through the entire body.
One leg can be used to create a deeper hind leg stride on that side of the horse. Theoretically, you could influence just one hind leg with the corresponding leg aid.
Use of one leg aid should encourage your horse to move away from that pressure. True bend (i.e. not a neck bend) should always begin at the seat, be reinforced by the leg, and then be contained with the reins.
4. Hind end position
Using your leg behind the girth should indicate that the hind end steps away from that pressure. Use of your outside leg behind the girth encourages the horse to move into a haunches in ("travers") position. Using your inside leg behind the girth is the key to the renvers (counter-bend), when the horse bends to the outside of the direction of movement.
5. Keep Moving
Two legs used at the same time could mean "keep doing what you were doing". This understanding is essential for movement such as the back-up, where the reins should be the last factor in the movement, and the legs (and seat) the first. Ideally, the horse should continue backing up without increased rein pressure until your legs soften and your seat asks for a halt.
6. Lift the Back
A gentle heel or spur lifting action underneath the rib cage should encourage the horse to lift his back. Of course, this aid is used in conjunction with the seat and hands but the legs can be an effective motivator for the horse to lift his rib cage and "round" in the movement.
7. Lateral Movement
The positioning of your inside leg at the girth and outside leg behind the girth should combine to indicate a lateral movement. Where your seat goes and how your hands finish the movement will differentiate the shoulder-fore from the shoulder-in from the leg yield from the half-pass.
With the exception of the leg yield, your legs position in a way that encourages inside bend and catch the outside hind end (from swinging out). Finally, the horse will proceed to step in the direction of movement if that is required.
Give Up On Kicking!
Kicking your horse only stuns, disturbs, imbalances, and hurts. Although kicking might be a useful way to start out for a beginning rider, once you have better balance in your seat and a more consistent contact with the bit, aim toward using your legs with more refinement.
Learn how to use your legs in the rhythm of the movement. Working against the movement only serves to irritate the horse because he simply cannot respond if the timing is out of sync with the footfalls. Good, effective leg aids work within the movement and are generally not noticeable. Great legs look like they are doing nothing at all.
In all cases, the essential thing you need to do is to keep soft, loose legs draped gently on your horse's side. In this manner, the legs are kind, responsive, clear and secure. The horse knows he can rely on the communication he is receiving from the leg aids, and with repetition, will know just what to do when!
Are there any other uses of the leg aids that I'm missing in this list? If so, please comment below!
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If you enjoyed this article, here are more:
The #1 Rider Problem of the Year – The Leg Aid: You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want.
Do You Make This Timing Mistake When Riding Your Horse? Have you ever given your horse an aid and got nothing in return? There could be one other variable that you might not have considered…
6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.
How Do You Know Your Horse Is Using His Back? In the long run, our primary motivation for self-improvement in riding is for the sake of the horse’s health. We want horses that live well, staying strong and vigorous long into their old age.
Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.