"Keep the horse in front of your leg!" This is an expression you might often hear in dressage lessons, but it is also highly relevant and often referred to in other disciplines. Although the phrase sounds fairly self-explanatory, knowing what it feels like can be difficult to ascertain especially when you're just learning.
What It Isn't
"In front of the leg" isn't just faster. Even though there is a significant energy increase when the horse increases the tempo of the footfalls, speed isn't exactly what you're looking for. If you could harness the energy you get from speeding up, but not let the legs move faster, then you'll be on the right track.
It also isn't so strong that your horse is gets heavier on the reins and falls to the forehand. Even if you can increase the energy without leg speed, you shouldn't end up having so much energy forward that it causes your horse to fall out of balance.
To avoid this "throwing of the energy out the front end," you need to use effective half-halts that help keep the energy harnessed so that the horse can use it to improve everything from balance to quality of movement.
What It Feels Like
You can probably identify what "in front of the leg" looks like, but here we will focus on the feel, because when you're riding, you don't always have the privilege of knowing how you appear (although a friend with a video camera or mirrors in your riding area can be indispensable for your progress).
There's no stop to the movement
Do you know how it feels when your horse wants to stop every step of the way? You end up almost trotting or cantering for your horse, constantly using your legs or pumping your seat just to get that next stride?
That is the opposite of what "in front of the leg" feels like. When your horse is going well, you feel like the energy is just there. Your horse trots along until you ask for a transition. He canters and allows you to communicate with him during the canter - half-halt here, turn there, stay balanced here, lengthen there. So rather than using all your attention to keeping him going, you can focus on other things and count on him to maintain the gait.
The energy is rhythmical and forward
One of the first hints to "in front of the leg" is rhythm. If the horse wants to stop every other stride, you simply won't be able to maintain a clear rhythm or tempo of the footfalls. So that should be your first focus.
But then, there is also this sense of forward energy, the kind that feels like the horse is moving under his own power. You both progress ahead in space together freely and with regularity. It's not fast but it's also not restricted. He feels like he'll explode forward at a moment's notice, with the slightest leg aid.
A horse that is in front of the leg is also in balance. There is a purely physical reason for this. When the horse is forward and rhythmical (without falling to the forehand), the inside hind leg reaches further underneath the body and promotes better balance.
You'll find that your horse has an easier time with everything from transitions to changes of direction, but done well, you might also feel your horse actually lighten on the forehand and assume an uphill tendency in the front end.
Along with energy and balance, you'll find your horse can "round" easier. So instead of feeling like a piece of plywood through the back and neck, you should feel that the horse can send the energy "over the back" and allow longitudinal flexion to occur.
A gentle half-halt can result in the hind end rounding so the legs step deeper, the back assuming more of a "bridge" that can carry the weight of the rider and the poll and jaw softening in response to the bit contact.
The whole outline of the horse looks round, as does the movement.
The horse's neck is thick at the base
I think of this as a "stallion neck." Even though your horse may not be a stallion, the freely energetic horse can allow enough energy through the body so that the base of the neck is elevated slightly into this gorgeous neck arch position that bulges with muscles and looks surprisingly thick.
Your horse's movement simply becomes more expressive. Rather than moving flat and uninspired, the horse that is in front of the leg moves with animation, eagerness and buoyancy. His ears might be slightly forward (not like in a spook), because he is looking ahead and thinking forward.
Bold and Confident
Finally, the horse exudes a boldness and confidence that is simply not present otherwise. The horse moves forward, straight ahead between the legs and reins, seeming to know exactly where he is going and what he is going to do. The sense of confidence allows for a certain level of "looseness" or lack of tension.
If you're not used to riding a horse that is "in front of the leg," you might be somewhat unnerved at first at the strength and energy that forms every stride. You might even get left behind a bit, as your upper body and core must become more adept at keeping up with the horse's movement.
But the rewards are exhilarating. While your horse moves along, you are free to work on yourself. You are also able to use your aids more effectively to improve your communication with your horse - a goal we aspire to work toward at all times.
What does "in front of the leg" feel like to you? Comment below.
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"Go And No": The Connection Between Forward And Half-Halt In Horse Riding: We have to learn the coordination between “go and no” – all the while, keeping our balance to give the appropriate aids while not pulling on the reins.
Do A "Forward" Back-Up: The back-up is a very important part of the correct training of the horse.
Five Steps To Transforming Your Horse's "Give To The Bit": You might be amazed to discover that when you release, your horse can release too.
Three Steps To "Brilliance" In Horse Riding: In dressage, we often talk about this evasive concept of “brilliance”. Lots of people can get the job done, but not everyone can achieve “brilliance”.
How To "Allow" A Lengthening: There are so many reasons to add the lengthen to your daily riding routine.