Swinging legs are a frustrating problem. Not only are they unsightly, but swinging legs also have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of your leg aids, your seat aids, and your overall balance in the saddle.
If you want to continue to move up the dressage levels, it’s paramount that you have a stable lower leg in which you can give clear and accurate aids.
So, in this article, we will explore why swinging legs are a problem, the reasons why your legs may be swinging, and how to correct this issue.
Where do you want your legs to be?
In a nutshell, you want your legs to be below your seat.
Try not to think of “sitting” in the saddle as that often puts you into a chair position, i.e., with your bum pushed backward and your legs pushed forward. Instead, think of “standing” as you would on the ground, except that your legs are slightly wider and you have a slight bend in your knee.
“The man should sit astride the horse as though he is standing on the ground.”Xenophon (Greek Cavalry Commander and Classic Horseman)
If you have your body in the correct position and alignment, then from the side, you should be able to draw a straight line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.
This is your vertical line, with each body part stacked on top of one another, running perpendicular to the ground. (We like to describe this as “stacking your skeleton.”) If you are sitting in a chair position, you will not have this vertical line.
The whole reason why the ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment works is that it is based on the natural force of gravity. When each part of your skeleton is stacked on top of the other, then gravity works to help ground you, stabilize your core and keep you balanced over your horse’s center of gravity.
Along with being in the correct alignment, here are a few more qualities your legs should have.
- Your legs should drape down from your hips and hang naturally due to their own weight.
- You should have a bend in your knees to allow your legs to absorb some of your horse’s movement, and your knee joints should be relaxed and supple.
- Your inner thighs should rest lightly and passively on the saddle without gripping.
- Your knees and toes should point forward.
- The balls of your feet should be resting in the stirrup irons with your weight naturally (not forced) falling down into the front of your heels. (NOTE: Don’t put the weight in the back of your heels because that can cause you to force your heels too far down, resulting in your ankle joint becoming rigid and unable to absorb movement.)
Now that you know where your legs should be and how they should hang, let’s take a look at swinging.
Why are swinging legs a problem?
Let’s look at four reasons why swinging legs are a problem when training and riding your horse.
1 – Ineffective leg aids
For your leg aids to be effective, your legs need to hang quietly and passively.
Constant swinging back and forth creates a lot of “background noise” for your horse, making it difficult for him to identify your leg aids amongst all that movement. This results in you having to use bigger and more obvious aids, ruining the harmony between you and your horse and making it difficult for you to put your horse in front of your leg.
2 – Ineffective seat and weight aids
If your legs are not stable and in line with your center of gravity, then you will be unable to use your seat and weight aids effectively.
Related Read: How to Use Your Seat and Weight Aids for Dressage
3 – Ineffective bending aids
The combination of points 1 and 2 (ineffective leg aids, and ineffective seat and weight aids) means that you will ultimately have ineffective bending aids.
This means that you will be unable to bend your horse correctly for circles, turns, and corners, and you’ll be unable to position him for lateral movements.
4 – Unstable position
Without your legs below your center of gravity, you will lack security in the saddle.
Should your horse spook, or make a sudden change of direction or speed, it may result in you doing an involuntary dismount.
How NOT to stop swinging your legs
Often, when riders try to stop their legs from swinging, they focus solely on trying to keep their legs as still as possible. Sadly, this can lead them to do one or more of the following incorrect things.
- Wrapping their legs tightly around their horse.
- Gripping with their knees.
- Stiffening their legs and holding them rigid.
- Forcing too much weight down into their heels.
- Pushing their legs forward (as though they were riding a Harley Davidson motorbike).
Remember that you are on the back of a moving horse, and although you may want your legs to stop swinging, you can’t just hold them still. Your legs still need to remain soft for them to be able to absorb the movement of your horse underneath you.
Your goal is to have a stable and supple leg, not a still leg.
Why your legs swing and how to correct it
There are several possible reasons your legs may be swinging when you ride.
To help you correct this fault, we’re going to run through a logical checklist that you can follow. You need to tick off each one before moving on to the next.
As you work through this list, one of the reasons should stand out for you personally, which will be the leading cause of your pendulum legs.
Reason/Step 1 – Saddle and stirrup length
Your legs could be swinging simply because the saddle is not a good fit for you and/or your stirrups are too long.
Often, riders have an incorrect or unstable leg position because the saddle is preventing them from sitting in the correct alignment and balance. Your saddle should, of course, fit your horse, but it should fit you too!
Furthermore, if your stirrups are too long, this can cause your legs to swing backward and forward, resulting in an unbalanced position and unstable seat.
- How to Fit a Dressage Saddle to Both Horse & Rider
- How to Establish the Correct Stirrup Length for Dressage
Reason/Step 2 – Not sitting correctly
In the previous step, you should have checked your saddle and your stirrup length. If both of these are correct, then you have no excuse for not sitting correctly.
So, as we discussed above, you should have that vertical line through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.
You should also have a three-point seat.
A three-point seat is created by both your seat bones and pubic bone, hence the three points. Most of your weight should be distributed evenly over your two seat bones while maintaining light contact between your pubic bone and the saddle.
The underside of your seat should be in contact with the saddle, and your pelvis should be upright.
Imagine your pelvis as a bucket full of water; if it tips too far forward or back, water will spill out. Although your pelvis should swing with your horse’s movement, it must remain upright.
If you do not have the correct body alignment and seat position, not only will you be either ahead or behind the movement, but your legs will tend to swing around as your body tries to stay with your horse’s movement.
Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position
At halt, stand up in your stirrups without holding onto the reins or balancing with your hands on your horse’s neck or the saddle.
Allow your weight to sink straight down into the front of your heels.
When you can stand without falling either backward or forward, and without leaning forward from the waist or hips, try the same in walk and trot (standing up instead of rising).
To do this exercise successfully, your legs must find the correct position below your center of gravity.
Reason/Step 3 – Your horse is not in front of your leg
If your horse is not responding to your leg aids and you are having to constantly use your legs to keep him moving, this can develop into a swinging leg.
In this case, you need to train your horse to be more responsive to your driving aids so that you don’t have to keep using your legs all the time.
Ride your horse forward into trot and then deliberately stop pushing him; hang your legs straight down and don’t use them.
When your horse slows down, give him one BIG kick (or more than one if he doesn’t react enough), and then let your legs hang down again.
Keep repeating; every time he slows down, give him one big reminder with your legs, then stop using them again.
Eventually, he will get the message and keep going without needing continual aiding. You will then need to concentrate on breaking your habit of continually nagging with your legs (which makes him dull to the aid).
Related Read: How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
Reason/Step 4 – You are using your legs incorrectly
As we covered at the beginning of this post, your legs should hang down naturally from your hips, there should be a slight bend in your knee, and the stirrups should rest on the balls of your feet with your weight dropping down in front of your heel, all while maintaining that ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment.
You should not try to hold your legs purposely on or off your horse, nor should you try to hold your legs forward or back (unless you are aiding your horse). Instead, allow your legs to drop naturally, creating a passive and breathable contact with your horse’s side.
Your thigh should lay flat against the saddle with your inner thigh muscle being totally relaxed.
When you use your legs, you should close the inside flat of your calf against your horse’s side. Do not contract your calf muscles, as that will cause you to draw your heels up. Instead, this closing of your leg is created by contracting your adductor muscle on the inside of your thighs before returning them to their relaxed state again. Imagine a peg squeezing inwards.
If you apply your leg aids incorrectly by, for example, drawing up your heels, contracting your calves, and/or clamping your knees, these faults can cause tightness in your lower leg, preventing them from absorbing your horse’s movement and instead swinging like a pendulum.
Reason/Step 5 – You’ve developed a habit
If you have followed our steps above (you’ve checked your saddle fit and your stirrup length, you’ve made sure that you’re sitting in alignment, that your horse is responding to your driving aids, and you are using your legs correctly), and you are still experiencing a swinging leg, then you’ve probably developed a habit of doing so.
Unfortunately, this is the most challenging fix of them all because habits are tough to break.
Riding with shorter stirrups and a lighter seat may help, as your legs will need to remain stable, directly below your center of gravity, for you to keep your balance.
You can also try riding in a stiffer pair of boots or gaiters; soft might seem comfortable, but stiffer ones will help to support your ankle and may help to keep your lower leg still.
If all else fails, you could try ‘training straps’ which attach your stirrups to the girth to help hold them still. This is not ideal for long-term use as it prevents you from achieving a correct outside leg position which is needed for canter strike-offs, bending, and lateral work, but as a short-term measure, they may help you to break the habit.
Swinging legs present a real problem as it results in an unstable position and interferes with your leg aids.
To help you prevent or correct this problem, check your saddle and stirrup length, ensure that you are sitting in the correct alignment with a three-point seat, address your horse’s responsiveness, and make sure that you are using your legs correctly.
Breaking the habit of swinging legs can be challenging, but with focus, patience, and determination, it is possible. And by addressing your swinging legs, you can improve your communication with your horse along with your overall performance and harmony.