Exercises for Leg Aids
(Part Two )

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo Exercises to develop those leg aids! Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton.
© copyrighted horse article.
Do you know your right leg from your left? That is a trick question. By know, I mean, can you discern, mentally feel, control and direct, your left leg and your right? I'll assume that you are sitting, somewhere, reading this, although you could be reclining in bed or on a couch and that will make this experiment much harder and possibly injurious to your back, so get up and sit on a chair if you have one available. You won't sit all the way into the chair, just about half to ¾ of the way into the seat, on your buttocks and upper thighs, your back will not be supported, you will have to sit up straight and maintain your upper body posture.

Can you lift your legs, maintaining the bent knee position, one at a time, off the floor? Keep the opposite foot on the floor, supporting. Feel for your hip joints and try to initiate the movement from there, not your neck, your jaw, your back or by squiggling your seat around shifting yourself. Simply attempt to lift one leg and then the other a few inches to maybe a foot off the floor. Attempt not to lean back too far. Is it really simple and are both legs equal in usage? If it isn't simple and you are struggling with your unique body, then don't expect miracles and join the club of a lot of other struggling riders.

Your baseline may be to attempt to lift the left and right leg 10 to 15 times in alternation just a few inches off the floor. You lift the left leg as the count of one, right leg as count of one, then count left leg two, right leg two until you get to 10 or push yourself to 15, no more. May seem real simple, but if you haven't been doing any type of standing leg lifts or step, you will feel this in your legs the day after. What goals do you set? Gradual increase, nothing drastic, slow and steady and if you want to play numbers, work for multiples of 10 in everything you do and the magic number always seem to peak at 50 with what we do unmounted, that means 50 with each leg! To make it a little more difficult and more of a riding move, you can pull the front part of your foot up, tense the calf, but keep the heel under the knee and lift, which will produce more of an isometric. Don't slouch! To make this into an aerobic exercise and increase the heart rate, place your arms over your head, palms facing ears so that shoulders are unlocked and work reps of the same leg lifts.

For those readers like myself who push the limits, you can find a small chair or a safe and sturdy stool (please note I said safe and sturdy) on which you can take a more straddled position, to imitate your riding position. You can easily straddle this improvised horse with your feet safely on the floor any time you need to rebalance or take a break.

For this article I am concerned with total leg usage which means, bilateral ability to discern your leg, range of motion that is comparable side to side and strength in application of the leg.

For further work while chair sitting, with your back as straight as possible, with free jaw, neck and shoulders, the following stretch/range of motion exercises can be produced. (You don't need to do them all on the first day and you don't need to do a lot of reps.) You don't want to have to hold on to the chair for balance, anymore than you want to hold on to the reins for balance while riding. If you do need a type of cheater strap, hold onto the sides of the chair seat. Take the basic leg lift into a forward reach and while tensing the front part of the foot up, just touch the heel to the floor at some point out in front of you. Do the same motion with the opposite leg, reaching the same distance. Control the movement, slow, steady and aware of how you are placing the leg and foot. Change the exercise/stretch into a toe point and touch.

The third movement of this series that can be done sitting, is the leg cross. The single movement is just a bent leg lift into a tensed lower leg (calf) crossed over the lower leg of the opposite supported leg. You are simply crossing you lower legs, one at a time, keeping a bent knee position. You can make it more of an exercise by lifting the crossing leg, higher and higher. You only need to do what your unique body type allows you to do. I work with people all the time that can only move a small amount in range of motion at first. Encourage your students.

An advanced single movement (one foot is on the ground supporting) of this exercise for students blessed with great hip range of motion is the eventual lift to the opposite knee, where you can bring your right heel up to the top of your supporting left knee (and then your left heel to right knee) and then flex the foot so that you can attempt to toe touch the supporting knee with the lifting right or left leg.

I don't support the double movement of the leg cross, where you cross both legs simultaneously in front of you. This movement puts too much strain on the lower back if you don't have really strong core muscles to support your torso. You will strain too much to try to accomplish something that doesn't really apply to your riding. Stick to the single movements, where only one leg is working at a time.

The under saddle comparison work are the straddling lifts and too many riders try to make this into a big movement when it doesn't have to be and it should not be for any rider where pain is produced. Before you do anything there should be some kind of warm-up that I hope you use.

Picking a leg up and off the saddle, the aforementioned leg lift, and de-contracting the holding tissue around the hip joint, can be painful at first, therefore caution should be taken that only slight movement is asked for at first. Exuberant students will put themselves into cramps if not monitored. The main objective of any leg stretches and strengthening exercises is to produce independent usage as well as awareness which will produce better timing of the aids." The other aspect of any embrace movement for aid production that you start to learn is that the supportive leg is as important as the active leg. What does that mean really?

Let's look at bilateral ability on the ground first to further understand the embrace under saddle. Can you free stand on one leg and leg lift the other with bent knee and hold it for several seconds? This is another trick question. Notice I said free stand, which does not mean hop around or hold on to anything for support. Here again you need to feel awareness as you do this. The supportive leg should not be locked at the hip, the knee should be flexed, the toes of the foot should be spread out bearing equal weight from big toe across to little toe and the toes should actually be able to move (like playing a piano).

Experiment with higher and higher lifts to the front, to the cross movements, to bringing one leg behind you and out to the side while standing on the other. You are working to develop the feel for range of motion, but also for independent ability. Increase the amount of time you spend standing on each leg. Use a watch or some sort of kitchen timer to set goals for yourself. You will use your arms for balanced support at first, just like in a martial art movie!, but then start to think about holding the reins, softly with no pull, by putting your hands in front of your belly and keeping them quiet as you attempt to do the lifts. Free the jaw, release the shoulders and make sure the upper body is not tense. Now you can attempt your first transfer of the embrace to the horse. I would expect that you would be working in a safe area, enclosed or where you normally ride.

As with most awareness work, the first stage starts at the halt with you straddling the horse in a centered position. Quit your stirrups and allow your legs to hang, hopefully evenly along the horse's side with your feet in a released, not forced position. The reason you quit your stirrups is because very often, unilateral riders do not know that they are bracing off one stirrup while riding. If you force your feet and ankles into a held position, you will tense and lock the leg, which will limit feel and range of motion for you in the initial stages of learning about your embrace.

If I want you to lift your right leg off the horse, I will ask you to place your left leg on the horse in a supportive position. This will tense the left leg and produce an isometric for several seconds while you attempt a little lift of the right. You don't slouch, you don't squiggle around or lean. Attempt to keep your shoulders and jaw released, arms and hands still. Focus on your legs. Feel your legs. You simply try to close the left leg on the horse in an embrace. That does not mean you overly grip with your thigh or knee in your left leg. You may have to really change the position of the left leg in order to find the horse with your lower leg. Here again, you need to forget the template of the "perfect rider". If you need to turn your toes out in order to get your unique lower leg positioned on the horse, do so. Hopefully your saddle will allow you to do that. The movement with the right leg is minimal, it does not have to be a cramp producing movement as is too often depicted.

Working with your body, simply support with left and slightly lift right. Then switch the awareness embrace to support with right and lift left. Work back and forth with the movement for several reps and see if you notice which side is easier to hold and which side is easier to lift. Depending on your riding level and the disposition of the equine you are riding, you can take this basic work into the walk. You will gain the awareness of your own unilateral development, which most all people have.

If you feel that you are weak and need to build your legs up, instead of doing hours of work without stirrups (which I feel is wonderful if you have the time!!) try some pillow work. I would think that you have a few pillows around the house. Take a well stuffed small throw pillow or even a bed pillow, which will be about four to five inches thick and while chair sitting in leg lift position, put it between your knees and squeeze it for a set of ten reps. You can work another set of ten if that was simple, but don't push for a lot of sets if you haven't been doing anything like this and if you really hurt. You will feel this the following day. Put the pillow down between your calves and squeeze from that area as well, another set of ten. You can advance this work by standing and putting your little pillow up between your upper thighs and yes, you will be doing something close to a Kegel exercise, which is a good exercise for all women. If you can tighten your butt muscles, that's a good thing. Try to tighten your abs as well. You can move your pillow up and down between your legs squeezing in each new position a rep of ten. Here again, experiment with how you can hold one leg and squeeze the pillow with the other and change the foot position, just like you would do if you were in the saddle.

Some readers may be wondering if I use surgical tubing in leg work. I use tubing rings for both arms and leg work, it is quick and efficient. I went to a surgical supply store, found the tubing and tested what I could pull on with good resistance and bought a few yards. You can buy it at a sports supply store as well and supposedly it can be matched for your strength level. You can also use a soccer or basketball for the between the upper leg squeeze work, the adductor muscles work. What props do you have which may work for you? Just use some common sense and think about what you are trying to achieve.

Once you start to pay more attention to your leg embrace, where do you take it? Have you ever worked the turns on the forehand and the turns on the haunches? What about leg-yielding and the more advanced movements of shoulder-in and haunches-in. The accomplishment of all these movements depend on your ability to produce a discernible leg aid from a quiet, secure seat that will support quiet hands. I am not going to say that you can just get on any horse, put on the correct leg aids and get a good turn on the forehand or haunches, but you may be able to get the first steps of displacement or shift into leg-yield. There has to be a starting point in all training. You may just work on getting square halts off the wall at first, which can be mind boggling when you find out your horse always shifts its hindquarters to the left or right with you, because of your unequal aids. There is no mystique to this work and as I have said in the past, it isn't just for one type of horse, discipline or rider.

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