One of the most common things I hear and teach is that a horse needs to be ‘off the leg’. I’d like to clarify in this post what it means for a horse to be off the leg, and some trouble shooting for if he is not.
Like everything with horses it is often more difficult to implement the self control needed in ourselves than it is to train in to the horse, but it is a prerequisite for almost everything we do with them. Be prepared to be patient with your horse and yourself while you do this.
First then we should know what it means for a horse to be ‘off the leg’. To me it means that when I squeeze both of my legs on the sides of the horse, I should get a response off the horse, that they step under from their hind legs and create more power. They go up a gear so to speak. How much leg I use, and what I do with my body at the same time, will depend on how many gears I want them to go up. If I want them to go from a sluggish walk to a more forward walk I will squeeze or ‘bump’ with my leg, but continue to sit in the saddle, with my seat bones moving at a walking pace. If I want to go up to a trot the squeeze or bump of the leg will come with a force inside myself (a strengthening of my core) that goes from the back to the front and perhaps a slight lightening of my seat. For canter then I will sit for a stride or two and arrange my seat and leg to prepare the horse for the correct lead, then a squeeze with a flick of the hips should get a canter. (Similarly, I should have a response from my seat and body combined with the rein to slow down, but that would be another post in itself.)
The most common problem with a horse that is not off the leg, is that a big kick or several kicks are needed to get a change of pace, this often then gets the rider doing a lot of pushing and shoving in the seat too. Once going the horse will slow down or stop if the riders stops bumping with the leg, so they end up kick kick kicking all the way round, essentially kicking for every stride or two. It is easily done, and a trap I have fallen in to myself before.
So, how do we change this?
First, you should check there is no physical reason for the horse not to want to go forward. This includes correctly fitted tack, no physical issues such as back/teeth pain/discomfort or lameness, and that your position is ready to go forward with the horse.
The beginning will be from halt to walk. You may need to do this infront of a mirror or have a friend on the ground to watch/video you. At a halt, pick up your reins and give a short firm squeeze with your legs. If your horse walks forward, give him a scratch/pat and thank him. Do not continue to tap with your legs. Don not push, shove or wiggle your seat. After you have asked your legs should become still again. It is surprising how easy it is to keep bumping with the leg without even knowing that you are doing it.
If your horse does not move forward from the leg squeeze, the response is very sluggish or delayed, or he stops a stride or two later because you haven’t kept squeezing, consider the following trouble shooting questions.
Does he go to walk off when the reins are picked up? – Your horse has learnt to ignore the leg, but has learnt that when the reins are shortened you are going to go faster.
Does he walk straight away or is it slow/delayed? – If it’s straight away he is ‘off the leg’ for this transition. If you have trouble with other transitions your problems may be something other than just your horse being off the leg. You may need help from an instructor to see why you have problems in other transitions. Slow or delayed, he is not off the leg. He is either unsure that forward is the correct response, he doesn’t want to go, or doesn’t think he has to.
Does he put his ears back, lift his head or drop his back? – These are often signs of pain, discomfort or confusion. Go back to checking for physical pain. If it’s understanding you will need to re-train the response to the leg.
Do you use the inside of the leg or the back of your heel? – If you are using the back of your heel (often in a circular motion) you are trying too hard… Just think about your legs getting tighter on the sides of the horse for a moment and then releasing. It may also help to think about using the stirrup iron to do the tap, so you don’t turn your toes out and heel in.
Do you get left behind/topple backwards as he sets off? – You are not ready in your position for the horse to move forward. This topple backwards can make the transition unclear for the horse (maybe you have a delayed reaction too?). Engage your core before you ask with the leg and be ready to go with the horses movement when he goes forward. He will thank you for it.
Does this topple backward cause you to put more pressure on the reins? – This essentially immediatley tells the horse to stop as soon as he has set off, cancelling out the leg aid and making him think that moving forward was not the right answer. Your horse will get confused and may start to ignore the leg, or give other unwanted behaviour in an attempt to find out what you are asking him to do.
Where are you looking? – Are you looking down at the horses neck or head? You may be missing a try from your horse. You are not thinking about going forward with him, you are thinking only about him performing an action for you. You are also relying on seeing him move forward, more than feeling it. You will likely have heard that feel in riding is important. Try asking with your eyes shut. Do you notice a shift in the horses weight you didn’t notice before? Do you notice something about your position? What else do you notice?
You can then do the same things when going from walk to trot and so on. Often once the problem is diagnosed the answer will become clear.
Have you noticed something other than described above? Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments!