Anyone who rides horses will have heard their instructor encouraging them to “use your legs!” Your leg extends from your hip right down to your heel, so what part of your leg should you use, and how do you use it?
Your leg is one of your most basic but versatile aids, so it’s essential that you understand how to use it correctly.
An independent seat
Before you can use your leg correctly, you must have an independent, balanced seat.
That means you must be able to control each part of your body independently and be balanced in the saddle.
Balance allows you to coordinate your aids, importantly, keeping your leg still and consistent. A leg that’s constantly moving creates confusing “background noise” for your horse and leads to misunderstandings and frustration for both parties.
Related Read: How to Get an Independent Seat
When the rider sits relaxed and balanced in the center of the saddle, the thigh should “drape” from an open hip. That gives you close contact down the saddle to your knee without any gripping.
Your knee should be slightly bent, allowing your calf to keep a quiet, passive contact with the horse’s barrel. Your leg should always be in contact with the horse.
There should be a slight back and downward stretch to a flexible ankle joint. That keeps your heel down without forcing it. Your weight should be evenly distributed on the ball of each foot over each stirrup.
The result should be a long, straight leg through which you can draw an imaginary line that runs through your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.
What about stirrup length?
Your stirrups should be adjusted to such a length that you can keep that leg position comfortably, without reaching for your stirrup irons or feeling cramped.
At the beginning of your dressage career, you’ll probably find it easier to ride slightly shorter, working toward a longer stirrup and deeper seat as you become better balanced.
Related Read: How Long Should Your Stirrups Be?
- If you find yourself losing your balance forward onto your fork, your leg will be too far back, probably because your stirrups are too long.
- If you grip with your knee, you will pitch forward and your lower leg will lose contact with the horse’s sides.
- If you sit with your seat too far back in the saddle in a “chair seat,” your lower leg will be too far forward and will be insecure on the horse’s sides.
Types of leg aids
The most frequently used leg aid involves using the inside of your calf to create one of the following reactions:
- To ask the horse to go forward/create impulsion
- To ask the horse to go forward and move sideways
- To prevent the quarters from swinging out
- To encourage the horse to bend through his body
- To help control the horse’s tempo
Let’s look at each of them individually.
1. Forward driving aid/create impulsion
When using your legs to send the horse forward, you apply pressure with your lower legs in a forward and inward motion.
Ideally, you need just enough pressure to get a reaction from the horse. Imagine that you’re squeezing toothpaste out of a tube; that’s the degree of pressure that you should need.
If the horse does not respond, don’t resort to using more and more leg so that you end up kicking him every stride. That very quickly makes the horse dull and dead to your legs. Instead, give a sharp leg aid or use your schooling whip quickly and immediately behind your inside leg to make your horse more reactive and responsive.
Related Read: How to Get Your Horse In Front of the Leg
This type of leg aid, combined with seat and rein aids, creates the half-halt and encourages engagement and balance.
2. Forward-sideways driving aid
Sideways lateral movements are created by using single leg pressure, as described above, in conjunction with your other aids.
Your rein aids prevent the horse from traveling forward, and when combined with your seat, helps to re-direct that impulsion sideways.
At first, the horse will travel more forwards than sideways, but as his suppleness, balance, and understanding of the aids improve, he will gradually travel less forward and more sideways.
3. Guarding the hindquarters
Your outside leg is used slightly behind the girth when riding around circles, through turns, and during some lateral exercises to prevent the quarters from escaping to the outside.
4. Creating bend
The inside leg on the girth is also used to help encourage the horse to bend uniformly through his body around circles and during lateral exercises.
The leg encourages the horse to contract his stomach muscles on that side, therefore stretching them on the opposite side, and creating bend through the horse’s body.
5. To control the tempo
The upper leg can also be used together with your weight aids to assist in controlling the tempo of the horse’s rhythm.
To slow the tempo or to prepare for a halt transition, slow down the rhythm of your seat while lengthening and contracting your inner thighs. This will restrict your horse’s shoulder movement and help to slow him down.
To increase the tempo, simply relax your inner thighs and allow the energy created from the hind legs to flow through your seat and over the horse’s back.
How not to use your legs
Some common faults that are often seen when riders apply their leg aids include the following:
- The rider draws up their heel
- The rider squeezes their buttock muscles when applying their leg aids
- The rider turns their toes outward
- The rider aids only with the heel, taking the knee and calf away from the horse
How to make your leg aids more effective
First and foremost, it’s essential that you can sit in a good balance with a correct leg position. Although many riders recoil in horror from the idea, working on the lunge without stirrups is the best way to develop an independent seat and a longer leg!
Secondly, you need to keep your leg aids are clear, simple, and consistent, with no background noise. And once the horse has responded correctly to a leg aid, then the pressure must be removed and the leg should go back to being passive.
Finally, the ability to time your leg aids correctly will make it more likely that you get the result you want. The aids should be timed to the horse’s hind legs and you can find out more about that in this post: How to Correctly Time Your Aids
Understanding how to use your legs in combination with your other aids is crucial to dressage success.
Your legs are used to send your horse forward, to ask him to move sideways, to bend around circles and in lateral exercises, to improve the horse’s balance, and to control his shoulders and hindquarters.
To use your legs properly and effectively, you need a supple, independent seat and good balance. Lunge lessons with a good instructor are probably the best way to develop a good leg position.