Develop Your Leg Aids

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo Leg embrace is important to riding hoses. Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton.
© copyrighted horse article.
I never learned how to ballroom dance. It's on my life to do list. However, I have been in the embrace of an accomplished dancer on several occasions in my life, and it was an interesting experience, once I stopped trying to lead, paid attention, and allowed myself to be led by the aids of my elegant partner. Even though I wasn't schooled in all the steps, I could attempt to follow the directive cues of his embrace and voice.

Where do you start to develop a leg embrace so that your horse is able to discern your aids and eventually become schooled to the steps that you want. Yes, there are equines who will never dance, they may well learn the steps, but they were not born to dance, and, unfortunately, we try to make them fit a mold that they are not comfortable in and it turns out to be a frustrating experience if we try to force performance. However, before you make any rash decisions, you need to really evaluate your training foundation and that of your equine and find out if you truly have a good foundation. Also we must ask, not only is the horse fit to dance, but are you?

I evaluated one of my training charges yesterday who the owner says is being "cranky". I started this youngster, this very big, part draft, youngster. He will never be a ballerina, but he was doing nicely under saddle and truly moving forward during the first part of this year. What happened? He wasn't kept on a work routine and he is now unfit. He has gained a lot of fat, lost muscle and is far from being the athlete I was working with in late summer. His attitude has become sour and it reminded me of some people participating in the exercise classes.. They complain (body language), balk (actually refuse) and get downright belligerent. On the other hand, there are people and horses who will attempt to work when they are unfit because they have a really good attitude.

Horses do have attitude. With an equine, if you can't work through the difficult stretch, you may just face a big training issue later on. For the rider, before you even start to think about the leg embrace, you had better be honest with yourself about your own fitness level, your mental attitude and even your goals. Much of what will be outlined here is not fun. If anything it is focused and demands that a student put the horse first.

If you want to immerse yourself in study, the confusing and controversial An Anatomy of Riding, that was first published from Germany in 1985, is now offered by Half Halt Press as Anatomy of Dressage and has been re-translated to make more sense for the dressage rider, which means any rider to me. The adage I have used in the past "that there is great strength in softness, but that softness best be supported by a core of steel" developed from the understanding that explanation alone of how to do something will not produce the strength to do it. If you want to ride well, it will take effort. Good riding demands bilateral performance. I have had many students that don't have the time for the gym and others that could not afford the latest in home exercise equipment. Personally, I don't feel you need either. We all have a floor to stand on, chairs to sit on, various props around our homes and a horse to straddle in whatever stage of your riding you may be in.

Many instructors shy away from concentrated work on isometrics because "it isn't fun". Tell your instructor that you want to develop better strength and range of motion in your legs and that you are willing to go on the longe. I want to refute a common mind-set. No matter what your body type, your size, your shape, your limitations and yes, even your actual weight, if you want to t, you can learn to ride and as you do, you can hone your skills, your aids, if you are committed. There will always be extreme cases of the human condition and I will be the first to say that some individuals may have to be cautioned not to attempt our sport because of their safety issue. However, we don't deal with extreme cases all that often. What we do deal with is a public who has preconceived ideas. You have to find an understanding instructor who is capable of working outside of the box, that perfect body ideal, that too many of us have stuck in our heads. Then you can start working with your body, your legs, not someone else's, your unique body and do what you can with it to communicate with the equine you are working with.

I have watched in awe some interesting human body types dance across a ballroom floor and ride a dancing equine across an arena. They knew the steps, they had the focus and they were fit to perform. Nothing wrong with that!

We have a national epidemic going on of children and young adults being overweight. I don't know if through horsemanship education we can help stem the tide, but we may be missing an opportunity to not only help, but develop another economic opportunity to expand. The already overweight couch potato or computer chair individual is not going to embrace a soccer ball or even a golf club without a lot of pushing and prodding. However, I have seen the instant bonding with equine and the sense of accomplishment that came at the end of a manure fork when the stall was cleaned. I have also experienced first hand the joy and tears from an overweight child who I was able to teach, direct and with parent commitment, take off the pounds to better health. Is it worth putting six months or a year into a starter program, which you would probably have to offer at a base rate, probably less than what you get for your hourly instruction rate, to develop individuals who just may surprise you and develop the passion? If you don't have a full training and teaching program and are looking to expand, what ideas could you bring to your schools, community center, church, youth groups, etc.?

I recently had one of those breakthrough moments with one of my thinking riders who has a hard time feeling what she is doing. The awareness came when I broke down the leg aid into an embrace and explained it as like being in a ballroom dancing where you are leading. You don't pound on your partner with one or both legs, you don't try t squeeze the breath out of them and you don't squirm and squiggle trying to get them to do what you want. What is the leg embrace, what is a correct leg placement and what does "on the horse" mean for you?

You should know the footfalls of the three basic gaits and have an understanding of what the horse is doing under you. Hw does the horse move on the straight lines and on bent line ? Learn why you want to apply inside leg or outside leg and how your legs should work to communicate your aids. What happens in transitions, and what should you be feeling for? If you are working lateral moves, you need to understand how a horse move sits four legs in order to move its body forward and sideways at the same time. The same hold rue if you are starting to work canter, changes and the counter canter. How as riders are we supposed to apply our leg aids for these things to happen? Would you leg aid be different than mine or that of your instructor because our body types are different?

Also don't push the upper limits of repetitions anytime when doing any leg work. If you do and you can't walk the next day due to soreness and cramping, don't blame anyone else. Trying to rush into fitness will spell disaster for you, just as much as for your equine.

Your saddle should be centered and should fit "you". I am so very tired of the "fitting the horse" mania going on, and on. People are often trying to ride in saddles that don't fit them and have panel migration problems ( collapsed on the right side) and stretched out leathers ( and this includes western).

Don't attempt to do any exercises under saddle if you feel that your horse will not stand still or remain calm at the walk. Take off the spurs, you don't need them.

For instructors, I would recommend the development of a program of longe work for your students. Exploration and experimentation for body work, feel, is best done at the walk.

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