How often have you been told to: “Use your legs!”
But did anyone ever tell you how?
Communicating with your legs can be as basic as a kick which crudely transmits a desire to go faster or, with development of control and finesse, can become a language filled with subtle nuances which produce a harmony only seen between the best riders and their mounts.
The first step towards this rewarding refinement is to gain sufficient control over your legs to avoid sending garbled messages to your horse.
Correct leg position.
We all know what a correct leg position should look like, and that the leg must remain relaxed, without gripping.
What is not often taught, is that to maintain this position some degree of tone is necessary in certain muscles; specifically, the inner thigh muscle – just enough to keep the upper leg lightly closed against the saddle without tension (gripping), without any corresponding tightening of the buttock muscles; the hamstrings (to keep your knee bent and your lower leg stable beneath you), and the muscle up the front of the shin, which raises the foot and stretches the calf to produce a deep heel, which should not be achieved by pressing down onto your irons.
- Have a photograph taken of yourself, and check your position – is your heel directly below your hip – do your knees and thighs lie flat against the saddle – are your heels below your toes?
- Position your leg correctly without your stirrups, and then check the length of your leathers – if you cannot reach the irons without dropping your toes, they are too long.
Use of different parts of the leg
Once you have developed a degree of co-ordination of individual muscles within your legs, ie., you can tighten one muscle at a time without affecting others, you can begin to use your legs to produce a variety of effects:
- Asking for impulsion
This seems very basic; a squeeze or a kick usually does the job. But there are ways of becoming far more effective for less effort.
- The most common error is the up-scraping heel. Not only does this de-stabilise your position by lifting your knees and loosening your seat, it is also a much less efficient use of your muscles. Take a moment to experiment – raise your heel and feel how soft your calf muscle becomes. Now lift your foot (your whole foot, not just your toes) and feel it again – at full stretch it is nice and hard – just how you want it when you apply it to your horse’s sides!
- Next, you need to discover how to close your lower leg without compromising its position. Try standing with one leg lifted off the floor, slightly out to the side, knee and ankle bent into riding position. Now move it inward towards the other leg. Which muscle did you use? You should have found it was the inner thigh muscle. Try the exercise again, and even press the raised leg hard against the other to really give yourself a muscle memory which you can draw upon when you are back in the saddle. To begin with, you will find using your legs like this tiring, but if you persist you will quickly develop the strength in the correct muscles.
- Using the leg in the correct moment of the stride confers even greater efficiency and is talked about later in this article.
- Controlling speed.
We all know we are not supposed to slow the horse by using the reins – but how else do we do it?
On a horse that is hurrying in trot you may well have been told to rise slower, but this is only half the equation. To be effective, this slower rise must be achieved by closing the thigh (that inner thigh muscle again!) a little more tightly than normal as if in an effort to hold the saddle to a speed slower than the horse is moving. This holding with the upper leg retards the speed and, if in rising trot, allows you to rise more slowly without getting left behind the movement.
This upper leg closure can be used in sitting trot and canter for the same purpose. What you must not do istighten the buttock muscles, which will have the opposite effect, that of driving.
- Producing bend and correcting lean
Horses have two methods of following a curved line:
- leaning like a bicycle.
To bend, the horse must stretch the outside of his body and step further forward beneath himself with his inside hind leg. This demands effort – not something all horses are fond of, and even if they are willing, they will invariably find one rein easier than the other.
To develop impulsion and engagement, a horse must be encouraged to bend correctly in both directions. Leaning is counterproductive, but a subtle evasion often not noticed by riders. Have someone experienced watch you riding circles (in trot and canter) or alternatively have a video made and check it yourself.
Bend is asked for by correct positioning of both the inside and the outside legs – inside leg at the girth, using the lower leg to ask for impulsion, and outside leg positioned back from the hip, lying passively against his side to discourage the quarters from swinging out. The outside (lower) leg need only be used if the quarters deviate.
Lean is corrected using the upper leg (inner thigh) to push his ribcage towards the outside, so up-righting him, followed by using the lower legs as above to encourage him to bend instead. This may require a great deal of upper leg strength, but is essential if you wish to create true bend and progress your horse’s training.
- Lateral aids
- Leg yield and shoulder in – the horse is bent slightly away from the direction of travel. The active leg is the inside lower leg, at the girth position. The outside leg (which should still be in an outside leg position) must hang passively, or even gap away from the belly or the horse will be confused by being asked to move into a leg.
- In all other lateral movements, the horse is bent in the direction of travel. The outside lower leg is the dominant, and in the earlier stages of learning (for both horse and rider) will be the only one used. As you progress, you will find some gently use of the inside calf becomes both possible and necessary to increase bend and improve impulsion within the sideways movement.
At its most sophisticated, a slight pressure with one calf will result in the horse lifting the corresponding hind leg. This allows the rider to influence each hind leg independently, and achieving some of the more advanced movements without this precision is difficult, if not impossible.
- Timing within each pace
- Walk. The lower legs are used alternately, in the marching rhythm of the walk. They need to co-ordinate with the hind legs, so that you use your left leg as the near hind is lifting into the air, and vice-versa. To find this timing you need to feel how the belly moves from side to side in walk, and coordinate your aids to that swing. The belly swings away from your leg as the hind leg on that side is lifting into the air (flight phase). So, for example, as the belly swings away from your left leg, that is the correct moment to apply your left leg. If you struggle to feel this at first, you might need to get someone to watch and call out the lifting of the hind legs (left, right, left…) and match your own aids to their calling. In time you will develop the feel to enable you to do this without assistance.
This allows you to influence each hind leg to either take a longer step (a stronger, more sustained squeeze) or a slightly quicker step (short, sharp squeezes with each of the legs, slightly faster than the rhythm the horse offers – he will speed up to match you).
- Trot. In rising trot, you need to close both calves in the same moment as you sit, to maximise the combined effect of leg and seat. Ask someone to watch, or check a video to see if you do this. Many riders flap their legs in double time, or squeeze as they rise. In sitting, most rider’s legs tend to close naturally in the correct rhythm – both legs together as each of the hind legs lifts and steps forward.
- Canter. Because of the sequence and positioning of the horse in canter, the legs should be maintained in inside and outside positions respectively while the horse remains in the pace. Most riders allow the outside leg to slide forward once the transition is accomplished. Whilst the outside leg is rarely active in the canter, it needs to be maintained passively in place, or the quarters may swing, and a more experienced horse may make a flying change.
The inside calf should close as the inside hind leg lifts into the air – this is quite easily felt as the horse’s body lifts under the rider in this moment and the co-ordination feels quite natural.
- Square Halts – If your horse clearly understands the connection of your right leg asking his right hind to lift, and vice-versa, then applying the legs together will indicate to him to step equally forward with both. If, for whatever reason he has left a leg behind, then a small squeeze with the leg on that side should tell him to move just the one leg straight forward. The length of that step is dependant on the relative strengths of your leg aid and your contact on that side.
- Walk Pirouette – Make sure you keep the alternating leg co-ordination of the pace, but with inside and outside leg positions. Your outside leg asks the outside hind to step into the direction of the movement (in a feeling of travers) whilst the inside leg asks the inside hind to keep lifting clear of the ground in a correct sequence, ie. not ‘sticking’. You can also use quicker aids if he loses impulsion, to stop the pirouette from slowing down.
- Rein Back – Take both legs back into outside leg position and use actively at the same time, once to each stride if he is willing, or with short, vibrating taps if he is lazy or dragging; if he is reluctant to move back at all, it is your legs that will solve the problem, not pulling harder on the reins.
- Shoulder in – Use the inside leg at the girth, in the moment the inside hind leg lifts, to cause it to take a longer or more active step forward. The outside leg should be drawn back into outside position but not applied – merely guarding in case the haunches try to swing out.
- Travers/Half Pass – Use the outside leg in the moment that the outside hind is in the air to produce an increase in the depth of crossing.
- Canter From Walk – The appropriate moment in the walk sequence to ask a canter strike off is as the outside foreleg comes to the ground, ie. as the outside shoulder moves back. If you time this impeccably and your horse responds without delay, you will always pick up the required lead. Getting this correct is an important step leading towards the flying changes.
- Counter canter – Ensure your outside leg stays in position, but keep it passive or your horse will curl his haunches round. Use the inside leg at the girth for impulsion, remembering that inside and outside relate to the leading leg, not to direction of travel within the school.
- Flying Changes – The old outside leg is used briefly for two or three strides, (less on a more experienced horse) to straighten him and to activate that hind ready to jump through. Next, the old inside leg moves back to ask for the change and in the same moment the old outside leg must move forward and away from the belly to allow the new inside hind room to jump fully forward.
There is only one moment within the canter sequence when a change can be achieved – the alteration of leg positions must be accomplished by the time the last leg of the stride is on the ground (the old leading fore) so he has time to achieve the change in the moment of suspension. Too early or too late and he will be muddled.
- Piaffe – You have two options here, depending on your individual horse’s responses. You can use an alternating leg action with the legs drawn further back, both into an outside leg position, asking each hind to lift clear from the ground, and by using your individual legs with appropriate strength you can get both of his hinds to lift to the same height. You can alternatively use both legs together (also both drawn back into outside leg position). If your horse uses the hind legs differently (height or length) you can then use your individual legs with different strength or speed to achieve more even steps. Your legs also dictate the tempo (speed of the rhythm), by the speed with which you apply them.
- Passage – This is fundamentally a trot with extra suspension, so the legs are used as for sitting trot. The amplification of the pace is produced largely by the seat and from carefully timed half halts.
The legs, of course, cannot be used in isolation from the rest of your aids, but with more insight into the subtleties available, you can begin to see possibilities opening up beyond that crude ‘kick’ instruction heard in so many early lessons.