Horses react differently to leg aids. While some tend to think forward very easily, others react by slowing down in a situation that is not clear or comfortable. For the rider this usually feels like the horse is not in front of the leg, like the horse is thinking backwards even if it still is moving forward.
If the horse clearly avoids to move easily forward with or without the rider, or if he is showing signs that the situation may escalate towards rearing or other severe resisting behaviour, it is wise to have a talk with the vet about the situation as it sometimes may be necessary to check if the horse is having pain or other reasons to avoid the movement. Even the tack, especially the saddle and the girth, needs to be checked then.
Resetting leg aids
The correction itself needs to be as simple and straight forward as possible. The key is hidden in how simple the aids are and how quickly the situation becomes comfortable for the horse. For this we need to be sure that the rider doesnt become tense in a way that might make the correction slower or more difficult because of unclear or contradictory aids.
Typical scenarios for the rider:
- Pushing forward with the seat. When the horse is responding slowly to the leg aids, many riders tend to try, often unconsciously, to push the horse forward with their seat. This usually continues for several strides, the horse becomes even more unbalanced and the forward effect is not really there. The horse may try to lift or curl the neck, which adds more resistance and unclear communication to the situation because the rider’s hand may be trying to affect the neck position at the same time. When the rider tries to push forward with his seat, it is necessary to contract and tighten the core muscles to push the pelvis forward. This is giving the horse mixed signals as we usually use the seat and the core stability as an aid to either slow down, for transitions, balancing or collection. But the pushing also affects the riders hips, they get tense which again is a sign for the horse to slow down. A vicious circle begins. If the rider has this tendency, he needs to recognize this, find a good upright position, relax the hips and lower back to allow the horse to move while the rider is focusing on the leg aid correction instead.
- Lifting the heel up. This is often combined with a lifted knees and flexed hips, resulting in a tight lower back and possibly a slightly forward leaning seat. The rider’s pelvis is no longer in a neutral position, resulting in a movement that is restricting the feeling for the horse. The rider may also end up lifting the lower leg if she is trying to over stabilize the seat with her thigh and core, then the lower leg may even become unstable.
- Squeezing with the leg. This is often combined with a forward pushing seat, resulting in tightness in the rider’s hips and core. Riders sometimes try to turn toes out. Squeezing often becomes unconscious, or the rider feels that if she stops squeezing, the horse will stop moving. Squeezing can also result in an unstable lower leg and even the whole seat.
Correction of the horse’s response
If the horse’s response to leg aids has become too slow or weak, the tissues (the skin, and the superficial and deeper tissues) usually still have the ability to sense and feel even the slightest aids. To solve this it is practical to use a patient attitude combined with a whip, which should be a tool that will not make the horse worried. If the horse is not comfortable with the whip, it is indispensable to teach this to the horse first before proceeding.
First check that the rider is calm in her seat, in a good comfortable upright position, ready to allow the movement and focusing just on the leg aid. Make sure that the shoulders remain relaxed, so that the reins are not restricting the movement the moment horse is going to step forward. The way the leg aid is used should be discussed between the rider and the trainer; if the rider tries to do too much with the leg, the original problem will come back soon. It is useful to go through the leg aid itself in pieces with the trainer, to show the rider the direction of the movement by touching the leg and letting the rider get the feeling of what is enough and correct. This helps the rider to do a bit less and be more precise, sometimes it is not easy to notice how much you are trying already.
The leg aid is given very gently but clearly, and then this can be combined with a soft, yet clearly increasing tapping of the whip, which is placed behind the riders leg. It is important for the rider to feel how intense the tapping should be. The pressure and time between each touch also depends on the horse, but often an imagined trot rhythm seems quite suitable. The horse absolutely must not be afraid, but there needs to be a clear reaction pretty quickly, after a few touches, so the rider adjusts the aid so that she feels that the horse is going to respond forward. When the horse reacts a little forward, the tapping is stopped and the rider praises the horse. Then this is repeated, adjusting the aid towards a smaller aid.
The way to ask for a reaction is calm but effective. The reaction is asked in a peaceful working atmosphere which is indispensable. If the rider is annoyed, the communication and quality of the aids is no more on a good, sensitive level. If the horse is very nervous, it will not be able to response in a correct way. If the aid is too small, there will not be reaction or the aid becomes just an unclear, unnecessary tapping. The rider should think of the good forward movement in his body, to have the direction and the energy existing. With some horses it seems practical to use a little quicker leg aid, thinking of an “electrical” quick aid with just a little pressure. Other horses seem to understand this whip aid easier from the ground, and others find it more clear from the rider sitting in the saddle. It is important that the rider reads the situation well, so that the horse won’t get worried, but that the aid is creating a correct kind of reaction.
Correcting the leg aid
The leg aid often becomes slightly more relaxed, if the rider thinks of the knees being a tiny bit outwards while using the leg. The aid should be so tiny, that you cant see knees pointing outwards - just think the legs being heavy and long, opening the knees half a centimeter outwards, but remaining relaxed in the lower leg and the thigh. This very little adjustment while giving a leg aid helps many riders to relax the hips and the back, but it really needs to be done very, very slightly. The toes should not point outwards, and no squeezing or heel lifting should happen. You can test your hips by sitting normally on a chair, knees pointing forward. If you relax your legs, your knees probably seek slightly outwards. This is for many riders a natural direction when they relax and rest their legs, and it may be useful for some riders in order to create a feeling of having a little more horse in front of the leg. There is a lot of individual anatomical variation, and there may be a difference in how easy this feels in different saddles. It is also good to remember that no tip is suitable for every rider – give it a try and feel what happens in your body, to find out if this is helpful in your case.
by Niina Kirjorinne for Eurodressage
Photos © Jan Reumann - Silke Rottermann
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Meet Niina Kirjorinne, Classical Dressage Rider and Physiotherapist
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