So why are some people not using their legs to communicate with their horses?
Lately we’ve encountered a surprising number of riders who insist that previous trainers (all in dressage) have told them not to use their leg aids to drive their horses forward or to achieve a half-halt to slow down. Surprised by this, we’ve encouraged these riders to disregard that advice and to actively use their legs.
Several of them have said they’re amazed—and relieved—at how much more relaxed and willing their horses have become after they’ve started using their legs.
We’ve always believed that riders should use all their aids, including leg aids, as lightly as possible but as strongly as necessary. So, puzzled by the no-leg-at-all advice, we decided to investigate.
We began by asking Margaret Freeman, a popular S-rated dressage judge and our Associate Editor, if she’d experienced the no-leg theory. Her observation confirmed this troubling problem:
“Picture a horse coming down the centerline to halt at X or G. One thing the judge sees that most people don’t see is the straightness of the halt. I often see horses cross their legs going into the halt (usually at training level, but it can happen all the way to Grand Prix). This is caused by more hand than leg, so that the horse crashes on its forehand and has to cross its front legs to regain balance.
“Since I judge 2,000 tests a year, which means 4,000 centerline halts, I often glance at the rider’s legs before the halt—away from the horse, toes out, toes in, spurs in, no spurs, light and straight, etc. I can almost always predict the quality of the halt well before it happens by the position of the rider’s legs.”
To The Classics. Next we went to Lt. Col. A.L. d’Endrody’s classic book Give Your Horse A Chance. The French master observes that riding and training a horse can become an existential experience, a feeling of oneness. But that feeling doesn’t happen quickly with a young horse. It takes years of training, often requiring aids that are not at all existential.
D’Endrody writes that contact between the rider’s legs and the horse’s sides creates the essential connection between the two.
“This form of contact is automatically achieved by the establishment of the animal’s cadenced, supple and collected motion. Thus it accompanies that physical state in which the horse performs its motion, and is by no means an abstract matter. As soon as the animal starts to move in the manner indicated above, the rider can feel its body attracted to his own like a magnet, and simultaneously it presses its sides to his legs.”
German master Waldemar Seunig writes in his classic book Training The Young Horse that the leg aids are essential, especially with hot or nervous horses:
“Do not give over-eager horses any opportunity to free themselves from leg control. If the rider’s legs remain calm and in gentle contact, such horses calm down most quickly. They then find a more relaxed, clear, even, four-beat timing at the rider’s legs, which they should respect, not fear or run away from.” (See Bertalan de Nemethy: The Jumper Perspective)
The Kyrklund Influence. Kyra Kyrklund, the Finnish international dressage star, may unwittingly be the reason for the no-leg theory. We suspect that people who want to believe you can get a horse moving forward and on the bit without using your legs have misinterpreted her teaching.
In her book Dressage With Kyra, Kyrklund often repeats that the horse should react to the lightest aids possible, but she also writes, “The rider has the following means of communication or aids at his disposal: the LEG, the Hand (and the VOICE as a supplement to these), and last but not least, the WEIGHT (SEAT), which is the most important aid.” [Emphasis hers.]
As for using leg aids, Kyrklund writes: “I do not use my legs when I want to slow down or stop. Neither do I constantly press with my legs and knees when riding. Horses do not like to be squeezed. I ride with a very light knee and leg contact, and when needed I can use more or less pressure. However, the horse should not be afraid of the legs; he must accept a light contact.
“If the horse does not want to move forward from the halt to the walk with a mild leg aid, and you increase the pressure of the aid, then it is possible that the horse will react more strongly than wanted and maybe go off in trot or canter. If at this point the rider becomes afraid and pulls on the reins to stop, he has created a conflict. The horse moved forward as wanted, albeit with too much energy, but he was ‘punished’ for his obedience with an unpleasant jerk in the mouth. Instead, the rider should have rewarded the horse and the next time used the leg aid more gently, hoping for a less violent reaction.”
Kyrklund never says “don’t ever use your leg.” The confusion likely occurs when Kyrklund advises that she doesn’t use her legs to slow down or stop.
But this technique can’t be performed by 90 percent of the riding public on a similar percentage to the horses they’re riding. Why? First, because the riders don’t have the balanced, secure seat and fine muscle control of their backs and stomachs that Kyrklund does. It’s this fine muscle control that she uses to balance and stop her horses. Second, because 90 percent of horses will only lose their balance or go faster if you don’t use your legs to balance, slow or stop them.
Bottom Line. We believe that your legs are your most important aid because they’re the only part of your body that’s actually in contact with the horse. We’ve had several horses whose training was that legs were a reprimand for misbehavior.
One of our first priorities was to teach them to trust our leg aids, to accept them as communication and support (see Your Legs Are Your Safety Belt), not as punishment. It took months of consistent work, but once they understood the language of our legs, they became completely different horses.
We like to think of our aids on a sliding scale, from 1 to 100. You have to constantly and sometimes instantly change the number, depending on the conditions, what you’re trying to do with your horse, and how he reacts or doesn’t react to your aids. One moment the number is a 5; a moment later it’s a 25. Then he spooks or bucks or refuses a jump, and it’s an 85 or a 95, but only for a moment. Then you’re back to a 15 or 20.
One of the many aspects that separates beginning or novice riders from expert or elite riders is the ability to use the scale appropriately and immediately, to sense a change coming (a resistance, a spook) and prevent it or to train the horse through it by picking the right number in response, and then continuing on with a lower number to reward the horse.