- People have a penchant for speaking with a knowing air of ‘good hands’ and ‘bad hands’ in riding
- and usually they don’t know what they are talking about.
- But I have rarely known anyone to discuss good legs and poor legs in riding.
- I suspect that this is because the average rider never realizes the importance of legs
- and cannot distinguish good leg action from poor.
- Thumping his mount in the ribs
- or roughly prodding with the spurs is about as much as the average rider ever learns.
- Yet I would say that proper use of the leg is about 75% of good riding.
- Hands certainly are important;
- until we develop them-
- and develop them we must for they are not a natural gift-
- we can never become finished horseman.
- But if the legs do not create impulsion in the horse,
- the hands have nothing to work on.
- The most sensitive hands cannot make a horse supple and light
- except when coordinated with the action of the legs.
- from Schooling For Young Riders by John Richard Young
The first requirement for good legs is the same as for good hands. In order for changes in leg pressure and position to mean anything to the horse, the rider must be able to keep a soft and consistent position and contact between their lower leg and the horse’s ribs. If your leg bounces about, your horse will learn to ignore you. This is why serious riders spend hours riding on the longe line where all they have to concern themselves with is learning to sit quietly and follow the movements of the horse without disturbing them. Once you have a quiet independent seat, then you can think about fine tuning your leg signals.
My search for finesse took me to the French horse masters where I promptly found myself wrestling with a conundrum. For hundreds of years they have said:
- The horse should respond to the ”wind of the boot’.
- The spur could be used to increase the activity of the hind legs.
- The spur could be used to immobilize the hind legs.
Which sounds peculiar and contradictory until one studies the bio-mechanics of the horse as a true student must. Then you realize that these masters are doing their best to describe the physiological reality of riding the horse. The first statement:
- The horse should respond to the ”wind of the boot’
means that the horse is incredibly sensitive and reactive, able to not only feel a single fly, but shudder that particular area of skin to get rid of it. So the serious rider strives for their leg aids to be as subtle as the wind from the wings of a fly about to land. That is the horse’s norm, and in as much as we fall short, we fail the horse.
The next statement:
- The spur could be used to increase the activity of the hind legs
works because the horse’s abdominal muscles are major muscles for activating, engaging, and bringing the hind legs forward. These muscles attach to the ribs right about where most rider’s heels touch the horse’s side. Touching this area on the horse is equivalent to some one grabbing one of our common tickle spots: when someone grabs us around our ribs, we wriggle and giggle. If you use the spur to ‘tickle’ an untrained horse as lightly as a fly landing, their reflex will be to swing the hind leg forward and up. Some will actually kick the spur just as though it were a fly.
This is cause for rejoicing and bounteous praise.
You want to confirm this reaction until both you and the horse agree that the whisper of the boot, especially the spur, means bring that hind leg up and forward. It is a short, distinct, and precise unilateral movement and the horse normally responds with an equally precise, distinct, and immediate movement of the corresponding hind leg. Portuguese horse master Nuno Oliviera described this use of the spur as being like plucking a guitar string.
However, as in music, timing is all important. You must ‘pluck’ at the moment the hoof is leaving the ground and the hind leg is being brought forward. If the horse is supporting his weight on the leg, he cannot respond. This is the only truly effective way to ask for increased activity in the hindquarters because it is the only method that actually works with the physiological nature of the horse.
The ‘plucking’ of the spur can clearly be seen around 50 seconds into the video, along with the increased activity of the hind legs that changes an ordinary trot into a passage. Less than minute later, between 1:30 and 1:40 in the video, he praises the horse for his cadence, and immediately drops down to a walk on a loose rein. Notice that the horse is quiet and calm, happily walking on a loose rein in the walk when ever it is offered. Especially notice that the horse is never asked for the increased effort for more than a few seconds. In less than three minutes, there are about twenty transitions! The soundtrack is terrible, but his kindness and finesse is humbling. He says: ‘if your horse is not happy, your work is not good.’
Unfortunately it is rare to see any one ride this way. To explain that we need to address the next statement :
- The spur could be used to immobilize the hind legs.
which appears to contradict the preceding one but actually expands on it.
When the spur is held against the horse’s ribs the muscles of the abdomen contract and stay that way until the pressure is released. If you hold both spurs against the horse’s ribs at the same time, it does immobilize them. This is the true collected halt with the muscles that engage and activate the forward movement of both hind legs contracted. When you release the pressure, the horse also releases the contraction, completing their stride with powerful thrusts of the hind legs. Some may even offer to leap. This pressure of the leg/spur should be deliberate, steady, and mild , just barely enough to ask the horse to stand.
Most horses, especially riding school mounts that are ridden by many different people, are unresponsive to the leg, heavy on the forehand, and strung out behind. This is because when a horse freezes after being jabbed in the ribs, most riders are told by most instructors to kick harder, kick more often, and then reach for the whip to add more pain and contraction to the picture. If you jab the horse in the ribs repeatedly, either on purpose or just because you are bouncing around erratically on their back, they learn to brace against the attack of the leg and/or spur. Those abdominal muscles contract and stay that way, just the way we hold our breath and stiffen up if we think some one is going to poke us in a sensitive spot.
So when the horse responds EXACTLY as it should to the aids, in most riding academies it is punished. If we insist that the horse move any way, the hindquarters become disconnected from the front end and all the ills and injuries of the riding arena appear. Worse, it leads to a state of learned helplessness where the animal gives up responding because there is no right answer. A study that correlated blood cortisol levels with behavior in riding school horses found that half were physiologically depressed and the rest were borderline. This is an all too commonly overlooked and not- so-hidden cruelty and it is totally unnecessary.
Both you and your horse most likely have a lot to unlearn before you can start learning, so start your conversation about leg aids with the horse from the ground. These schooling sessions do need to be distinct from grooming so the horse doesn’t decide you meant for him to kick when you brush its sides and flanks. So make sure that you are both in riding gear and you are in a place where you normally school. It is a good way to begin and/or end a schooling session. Work very short sessions on both sides, no more than a minute or two, and praise generously.
- Stand beside your horse facing his withers, placing one hand on the point of his shoulder.
- This forward hand asks him to stay standing with a soft steady touch.
- Now run the flat palm of other hand quietly along his side feeling exactly where his ribs end and his belly begins.
- This should be about where your heel would rest against his side.
- Press the palm of your whole hand against this spot with a short distinctive pressure and relax without moving your hand
- if the horse moves away and to the side, move with him, and praise him
- Make sure that both you and the horse are standing in the desired positions again
- Then remove your hand from his side, take two fingers and briefly and just barely tickle the hair at this spot.
- If your horse twitches his skin, praise him
- if your horse steps to the side, praise him
- if your horse reaches up with that hind leg and kicks at your fingers like they were a fly, CELEBRATE! Praise him and put him away
When you first start you and the horse will both be figuring this out, so the trick is to watch for the smallest fleeting moment of connection, and make yourself STOP and PRAISE immediately. Practice until you and the horse can do it without thinking and you will have three distinct ‘ leg words’ in your conversation with your horse.
- A ‘pluck’ means more activity in the hind leg,
- a ‘press’ means move sideways,
- and a ‘hold’ means stay still.
Now you and your horse have begun to develop the vocabulary that may open the doors to collected and lateral work, so when you mount up, throw away the whip, take off the spurs, and work on using the least effort to get the most response.