The leg aids are one of the most basic, "natural" aids we have to communicate with the horse. All riders regularly use their legs to give messages to the horse, but most of the time, the legs mean go faster or change gait.
Fortunately, there are many other uses for leg aids. Using them for the "go" message is good to use when you are a novice rider and beginning to grapple with the various aids. However, as you develop your skills, your aids can evolve to become less intrusive and more specific. Instead of relying on them only to get the horse to move his legs faster or transition to a new gait, we might discover more involved messages that can be given with a sophisticated leg aid.
Although there are many variations of how to use your legs, we will discuss their purpose in this article. Also, the other aids (weight, hands, seat bones) must be employed along with the legs for all movements, but here we will look only at the legs.
What the leg aids do not mean:
Riders are taught early in their education that the legs should be positioned in particular ways to indicate gait change. While this is an effective method to communicate a particular gait to a horse, riders often confuse the two leg kick as a gait change. Soon enough, the horse thinks, "upward transition" to any leg use.
It might seem that a quick change of gaits is desirable. However, what you miss out on by letting the horse "leak" into the next gait is the opportunity to allow the horse to use his back and engage within a gait.
To get a fluid gait change, use your leg positions but initiate the movement with your seat.
Changing leg speed is somewhat related to the gait change above. If the horse can't change gaits in response to leg, then surely it must go faster within the gait! The problem is that by allowing the horse to go faster faster faster, you suddenly find yourself on the forehand and out of balance. Half-halts become difficult to do and you often have to resort to pulling the horse to slow down and regain balance.
Once again, regulate the tempo with your seat.
People often feel that it is necessary to use strong kicking legs.
Kicking is unfair if it is being used to inflict pain. Just as with any other aid, legs (and spurs) should be used as a method of communication and not for causing discomfort or distress to the horse.
What they do mean:
Leg aids tell the horse to step deeper underneath the body with the hind legs. There might or might not be a gait change involved. However, the leg speed should not change nor should the gait change be initiated solely by the legs.
The legs aids may result in a slight whiplash effect for the rider as the horse engages the hind end and creates a stronger, more active stride. This is good!
Reach for the bit (longitudinal flexion).
Two legs can encourage a horse to lift his back. Along with impulsion, the horse can learn to allow the energy over the topline so that the back will lift, round and therefore the horse can reach forward to the bit.
Bend (lateral flexion).
Stepping away from the leg aid allows the horse to bend "through" the rib cage. The space that is created by a sideways shift of the ribs allows the horse to bring the inside hind leg deeper under the body. This is often helpful for the horse to balance better through turns and corners. These leg aids are also useful for shoulder-in and haunches-in.
Step away (lateral movement).
The leg aid that lingers is asking the horse to step away in a lateral manner. These leg aids are used for movements such as leg yields, half-pass and full pass (a.k.a. side pass).
Bear in mind that the legs are just a part of the overall communication process that goes into aiding the horse. If we are clear on why we use leg aids, the "how" becomes easier and makes more sense.
Can you think of anything else leg aids do or do not mean?
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