Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

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:

1. Impulsion

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.

3. Bend

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 purpose.

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.

17 Comments

  1. Enjoyed your post. Brought back memories of the riding lessons I took as a teenager. The lady that taught me was adamant about no kicking. She had very gentle horses and they knew they’d be treated with respect due to her diligence. Thanks.

    1. i don’t kick that often. i think a firm squeez with the lower leg and a firm voice command of walk-trot or canter or whoa will do the same job if not better then a good kick.

  2. I think of the seat as the top of the leg so that when the aid is applied, it starts at the seat bone and then leg is added only as needed. Leg aids are also used to ask the horse to slow down, collect and halt. The seat and leg send the horse forward into the blocking (not pulling) rein. As you said in point #3 – seat, then leg, then rein – the reins ‘contain’ the energy the same way they contain the bend.

    A horse that is kicked soon becomes resistant and tunes out the rider – or becomes overly reactive to the touch of the rider’s legs. The rider who kicks has tense muscles and joints and is often off balance. The poor horse is kicked and then inadvertently held by the rider’s stiff arms. He is in a no win situation.

    If you want your horse to be soft, supple and responsive, then you must ride with suppleness, softness and lightness.

  3. I agree with your leg aids, though sometimes it is enough to change position of the seatbone, not even using the leg in shoulder in or just move your outside hand to the inside. The change of seatbone works fine on my youngsters when turning and during shoulder in, so why not try it on adult horses***.
    .
    Think I have one more leg aid for you.
    My teacher has shown me how to start canter by taking a step into my stirrup beside the inside shoulder ( not touching). My horses lowes this, no more loss of balance during the transition and their response is also much quicker.

    She has also an interesting blog updated regularly.
    http://thequestforequipoise.blogspot.se/

    Been watching Philippe Karl when he teached riding instructurs here in Sweden, wery nice to see how he uses as few and clear aids as possible, each aid having its purpose.

    ***Today I change position of the seat bones as I want the horse hind to move underneath me, and move my torso/shoulders into the wanted position of the horses shoulders and nearly no legs are required, The outside leg more often used to show “doors closed” in the wrong direction of the movement, and inside leg open up to the inside to show the way.

    I have to admit I had instructors in the past asking me to bend the horse with inside rein, use the inside leg and outside leg further back at the same time, in order to round the horse on a circle, and then use more leg aids if the horse still not follows the circle.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, thank you for mentioning the seat bones and body positioning, as well as stepping into the inside stirrup for the canter departure. I believe I do that all the time without thinking, on young or older horses. Reading Phillippe Karl’s book as we speak. Lots to think about from his perspective. 🙂

  4. I never had a horse I had to get to go my problem was getting the horse to slow down, rush rush rush, of course my horse lady I used to have was a racking horse and at first it seemed she was rushing but she was just doing her natural rack (even riding off the halter) and it seems fast at first till you get used to it.

  5. I was taught to “ask first” with a gentle squeeze. Yes, if the horse’s answer was, “No, thanks,” I had to kick a little before my legs got strong enough to simply push harder. But kicking was never taught to me as the go-to practice of getting the horse to move forward. My mare is very light-sided and would have leapt across the arena if I ever kicked her. Her son is much less sensitive so I have to push harder, but we are a good team. And yes, my seat is an important part of the mix.

  6. Nice article! Also, violent kicking, as seen in barrel racing, disrupts the horse’s breathing. A horse takes in air when the lead leg is extended. If the rider’s legs are crashing down on the horse’s sides during this then he can’t get a breath. This also puts the rider way behind the horse’s movement.

  7. see I would have to disagree, a squeeze deadens a horse much faster than a tap. I am not talking about a kick, but a tap in rhythm at the right moment to inspire the desired response from the desired leg of the horse. A leg aid must be quick to be effective. A squeeze also requires the rider to tense many more muscles in their body and thus the horse will slow down or tense up in return. But a tap, is quick especially when done off the back of the heel not wiith the toes pointed forward, AAAHH WHat. Ya that is what I said. When you keep your toes forward you grip, you have to because of the muscles in your leg. When you turn your toe out and use the hamstrings you are light, quick, responsive and in time.

  8. This is probably the best article I’ve read. Reading cannot teach this. It has to be felt on the back of a horse. Now I wish I was riding.

  9. I am struggling to understand this concept with my youngster who I am trying to train to go forward from the lightest aid. As I leave him alone with my legs he goes slowly, although rhythmically, but lacks impassion. What am I doing wrong ??

  10. The author asked which leg aid might have been missed in her list. I will share my non-professional response. The missing element in the well-thought out list is ‘joyful, responsive stillness’. An attempt to explain follows: When doing mindful groundwork prior to mounting your equine partner, the rider has the opportunity to gauge both the horse’s physicality and mood that day. It is also the best time to reconnect all of our own body parts and mind. Leaving behind (or at least temporarily suspending) the detritus of our non-barn lives in favour of our complete focus on our partner is the first step in the magic of a magnificent ride. That said, to break the ‘leg’ element of that process down as offered in this post, my ‘joyful responsive stillness’ label relates to being prepared to provide as much or as little support from the rider’s lower body as is necessary in that moment for the partnership to move forward. For example: A nervous off-the-track thoroughbred is likely to respond to the calming of the ‘thoroughbred hug” (an overall gentle tension in the lower body that provides re-assurance and produces calm). A measured but slow paced partner may receive a boost in their impulsion through rhythmic ‘core vibration’ which translates into anticipatory micro muscular tensions within the rider’s lower body (not kicking).

  11. LOVE the article, but just not the one sentence saying kicking may be okay for the beginning rider!! Given it’s always so hard for people to UNLearn something rather than learn it correctly in the first place, at the very beginning, I would love if that one sentence could be edited out……..

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