How often have you heard that before?
It might come from a well-meaning friend. It might be what you feel is necessary at the moment. It might even be the determined coach who sees the need for impulsion and translates it to being a lack of leg aids.
But you probably know from experience - kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want. Your horse might:
- continue along in his meandering way, oblivious that you were "talking" to him
- pin his ears, swish his tail... and continue along in his meandering way
- hollow his back, become heavier in the bridle, and go faster, faster, faster
- pin his ears, look at you from the corner of his eye and STOP!
Of course, there are many other variations of responses clearly explaining to you - if only you listened - that kicking him in the sides simply will not achieve the purpose you had in mind.
And you wonder: what else can I do?
Let's go to the experts for some advice:
"What is essential is not to tighten the legs during the dressage training, but rather to use them without effort while allowing them to hang softly near the horse's sides." - Nuno Oliviera, Reflections on Equestrian Art, p. 117
"The greatest hindrance to driving the horse properly comes from riders stiffening their legs.... The horse cannot monitor tight legs as aids and will sour to the pressure, which he will interpret as a meaningless second girth." - Charles de Kunffy, Training Strategies for Dressage Riders, p.163
"Do not put your leg in one fixed point - let them loose to free the upper body. If you want a lazy horse and to exhaust yourself, squeeze with your legs. If you want a brilliant horse, active and relaxed, let go with your legs, forget your leg muscles while staying reactive, attentive and relaxed." Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg, Kottas On Dressage, p. 22
We can gather from these three brief quotes that strong, harsh leg aids are about as helpful as screaming louder to a person who doesn't understand your language. So what are leg aids for?
The legs in fact are the primary "natural" aids we have to encourage the horse to move forward with more energy. Ideally, using pressure in the rhythm of the horse's movement should be the way we communicate that the horse should reach further underneath the body and engage the hind legs.
The legs help to initiate a bend in the horse's body - the bend that should follow the arc of the circle or turn that the horse is moving through.
The legs can even encourage the horse to lift his back so that the hind end can reach under further and the topline can become rounder.
In horseback riding, the problem with the leg aid is that it's not just about the legs!
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Unfortunately, the legs are not able to do all this alone. Life would be so easy if that were the case!
In each above scenario, all the other aids must accompany the leg aids in order to fully support the horse in the desired movement.
The seat must be another main actor - whether for impulsion, bend or roundness. The seat acts as an initiator as well as assistant in the horse's ability to "swing" his back - the final result of impulsion, bend and roundness. If the seat interferes at the wrong moment, or fails to enhance the horse's offering, all the leg in the world will be ineffective.
The hands are also as necessary and responsible as the other aids. What they do may alternately restrict or encourage the hind legs in their action.
So really, in the end, the leg aid is only part of the whole! Of course, this is all just the beginning of developing better coordination and timing in your aids. Without a good instructor, and consistent practice, the muscle memory that is essential will be out of reach and difficult to achieve on your own.
The next time you find yourself with flailing legs and resistant horse, stop and reconsider: are you using all your aids in unison?
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If you liked the above article, you may also enjoy:
The #1 Problem of the Year: The Outside Rein! The outside rein is the most underused and poorly understood of all the aids, and here’s why.
Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Does “contact” have other-wordly connotations? Here is why effective contact is within reach of the average rider.
From a Whisper to a Scream: How Loud Should Our Aids Really Be? Should we be “loud” in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?
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…
Secrets to a Great Turn (a.k.a. Shift Out to Turn In): Can you tell if your horse uses his hind end before taking the first step in the new direction, or does he feel stiff and awkward, almost like he’s leaving his legs behind the movement?