Riding Skills: Understanding Leg Aids

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Understanding Leg Aids By Julie Goodnight

The “natural aids” are the tools that you were born with that allow you to communicate to the horse what you want him to do while you are riding. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat, the legs, the hands and the voice. If you have attended one of my clinics or seminars, you already know that I feel very strongly that the primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, should always be used together, in a coordinated fashion, stemming always from the use of the seat aid first. I also teach that there are actually seven natural aids, the others being your breathing, your eyes and your brain.

For riders learning to use the aids to stop and go, I teach the “gears of the seat,” neutral, forward and reverse, to ask the horse to keep doing what he is doing, move more forward or stop or slow down. Neutral gear is sitting straight up over your seat bones in a relaxed and balanced position with your center of gravity right over the horse’s. Neutral gear tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing until you tell him something different. You should ride in neutral almost all the time.To ask the horse to move forward, you inhale; shift your center slightly forward (a clear signal to the horse to move forward); at the same time allowing your arms to move forward giving a release to his mouth and your legs to fall slightly back, closing on the horse’s sides and asking him to move forward.

The aids are reversed to ask the horse to stop or slow down: exhale, shift your center of gravity slightly back, while you arms come slightly back and up, closing the front door for the horse, your legs relax on the horse’s sides. As a rider progresses, the leg aids become more articulate to control different parts of the horse’s body for turning and more refined and controlled movements. The rider’s hands control the horse from the withers forward, but the legs control the horse’s body from the withers back to his tail.

To simplify the use of the leg aids, I teach that there are three leg positions, using the terminology neutral, forward and back. The neutral leg position is when the rider’s leg hangs straight down, close to the horse’s sides, in the balanced position with ear-shoulder-hip and heel in alignment. Light pressure on the horse’s side from the neutral leg position will cause the horse to move his rib cage away from the pressure. This would be useful when asking the horse to arc his body and bend in a circle, as the rib cage moves out, the shoulder and hip bend into the circle.The forward leg position is applied by reaching toward the girth with your calf. I find it easiest to apply forward leg cues by twisting my lower leg and allowing my heel to come toward the girth or cinch.

Pressure from one leg at the forward position will move the horse’s shoulder away from the pressure or ask him to bend in the shoulder. When horses turn, they prefer to lean into the turn like a bicycle, thus dropping the shoulder and lurching onto the forehand. Light pressure with the forward leg position will ask the horse to keep his shoulder up and bend properly in the turn.

The back leg aid is applied when the rider’s leg shifts back a few inches behind the neutral position and it will ask the horse to move his hip away from the pressure. Again, this leg aid might be used in turning and bending the horse, to keep his hip in toward the center of the circle in order to be properly bent. Good hip control is also important for leads and lead changes and more advanced movements such as leg yielding (two-tracking) or side passing.

Leg aids work together but the rider might be using each leg in a separate position. For instance, if you are using the forward leg position with your inside leg to achieve an arcing turn, your outside leg would be in the back position to also keep the horse’s hip in place.
An ancient saying in horsemanship is that the inside leg gives impulsion and the outside leg gives direction. In other words, the inside leg is the gas pedal and the outside leg is the steering wheel.To control the horse’s entire body, the rider must be able to control the horse’s nose, the shoulder, the barrel and the hip. While the hands control the nose of the horse, the leg and rein aids work together to control the shoulder, barrel and hip.

Experiment with applying a light pulsating pressure with one leg in either the forward, neutral or back positions and feel how the horse will yield that part of his body to the pressure.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Over-Reactive To Leg Pressure

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I have a 4-year-old bay breeding stock paint gelding. He is broke for western pleasure and does really well. His only problem is that he completely goes crazy if I put my feet on him for any reason. If I bump him he will just take off running. So there is no way that I can get him to move away from the pressure I put on him w/ my feet. He will trot and canter just by clucking and kissing and he does just fine this way. As soon as I even slightly touch him w/ my feet he will just get flustered and is ready to go. He is not dangerous at all just ready to go. He has lots of energy too, which I like. He would be an excellent barrel prospect, and I have even thought about doing barrels w/ him, but I want him to know the difference between pleasure and barrels. Could you please tell me a way to get him over him going crazy when I put my feet on him and what is the best way to train him so that he knows the difference between western pleasure and barrels?

Thank you so much
Doug

Answer: It sounds like you have a horse that is very forward and sensitive in his sides. These are not necessarily bad qualities, although very forward horses don’t often make good Western Pleasure mounts. Your horse simply needs to be desensitized to leg pressure and you need to use your legs more effectively.

To desensitize your horse to leg pressure, first make sure you keep you leg in contact with the horse’s barrel all of the time, with your legs in correct position, hanging straight down underneath you with your calf in contact with the horse’s sides. It is very tempting when riding a forward or sensitive horse to stiffen your leg and hold it off the horse’s sides. This will always make a sensitive-sided horse worse. Because every time you go to use your leg, it becomes a big movement and because the horse is not used to the feel of your leg against his side so it comes as a shock to the horse when your leg comes in contact. You want to keep what is called a “warm leg,” which means that your calf is very close to the horse’s barrel. To desensitize your horse to leg movement, keep your legs very loose and relaxed and move them slowly and gently back and forth on your horse’s barrel, first at a stand still and later at a walk. If your horse tries to pick up speed when you do this, gently sit back and pick up on the reins to let him know that you don’t want him to go faster.

Once your horse is desensitized to the leg, you’ll have to improve the technique you are using to cue him with your legs; my guess is that you are simply over-cueing him. You shouldn’t have to bump to make him go, you may not even need to use your legs at all. Instead, try cueing him with your weight aid to go and stop, which is probably all you need. There are articles on my website about how to use your aids effectively and my videos do a great job of explaining how to use your aids correctly.

I have ridden thousands of horses in my lifetime, many of them very sensitive and forward horses. I have yet to encounter one that didn’t accept leg cues when they are applied properly. You probably just need to correct your leg position and lighten up on your aids. As for your other question, it is not easy to use a horse for both barrels and pleasure since they are such opposite disciplines and the talent required of the horse for each event is much different. A horse that is good at one, would probably not be that great at the other. However, there is no reason that you can’t try both and there are some horses that can do both disciplines quite well.

When working on your barrel training, make sure that you train at slow speeds a lot, working on flexing and bending the horse and strategic positioning around the turn. Only work at speed on occasion (this is true of training any barrel horse).

Another good idea any time you are training a horse for more than one thing, especially when he may be expected to act very differently in the two things, is to use different training context. For example, use different bridles for the two events and also do your training in two separate areas. That way, the horse will learn that when he has on one bridle he is expected to do one thing and when he goes to a certain area, he will be training only in that discipline. Good luck to you!

Julie Goodnight

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Jigging Horse Sensitive To The Leg

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: I have been given a 12 year old gelding that I am very much attached to and enjoy riding. The problem is that he has had some past abuse issues and under saddle he is a nervous wreck. On a trail ride, he will mainly jig the whole ride, like he wants to run. However, he is not a ‘hot’ horse by nature. It seems he has been “trained” or it seems more like abused to the point of acting this way. We have come a long way in respects to ground manners (he is now an angel when it comes to handling) and even have some progress under saddle, as he is not bolting anymore.

He is highly sensitive to leg pressure (actually, he is highly sensitive to everything). To the point that I only ride with my weight because leg pressure sends him shooting off into a tizzy. However, when I am on the ground with him and I put pressure on his side with my hands (to ask him to step sideways or move over), I get zero reaction. I would like to teach him to yield to my legs and bend. Eventually going into side passing and pivots. I would also like to teach him to go on the bit rather than behind it. (His old bolting habit was to go behind the bit and run.) So far, asking him with my seat and legs down into the bit has not worked. In fact, this results in a hyper, hopping mess of a nervous horse.

I ride in a loose ring snaffle and I really stay off his mouth when I ride (western horse, light to no contact). He is not very responsive to this bit and responds better to weight in respects to stopping when working in an arena. (He responds to the tiniest half-halt) On trail, I have to haul on him to stop him much of the time. However, he is not very responsive to a tom thumb either. I think a tom thumb is the wrong way to go with this horse anyway as raising his head is not the goal here.

I need suggestions as to what I should do next? I am continually working on relaxation under saddle using half halts. Also, how do I teach a calm down cue under saddle? I’ve got it working great on the ground and the results have been fantastic…I can spray him with the hose; we can walk by tractors, barking dogs and other very scary things. (BTW-the cue I use on the ground is pressure on his poll to put his head down below his withers…this calms him down greatly.) Thanks so much for some advice!

Answer: Wow! There are quite a few questions in your email, but I’ll give it a crack to try and suggest some solutions to your problems.
First, I should say that it sounds like you have made a lot of progress with this horse, so you should feel good about that and continue on whatever path you have been on to this point.

Secondly, let me say that I learned a long time ago that it is very difficult make diagnosis and recommendations on horses when I am not actually seeing the horse’s behavior. I have always found that the rider’s interpretation of what is happening and what he or she is actually doing is not always the same as what I might observe if I were there in person. But what I’ll do is answer your question in terms of what I most commonly see when people are dealing with issues such as you describe.

First, I’ll address the jigging on the trail. I have yet to encounter a horse that was not responsive to correcting this behavior. Most often, when the horse jigs, the rider picks up on the reins to make him stop, but then does not release the reins (or only releases minutely) the instant the horse walks. And/or the rider does not trust the horse to walk and so keeps hold of the reins and pretty soon the horse is jigging BECAUSE he is anxious about his mouth because the rider is holding the reins too tight. Also, in anticipation of the jig, the rider is typically perched forward in a tense position, with her center of gravity in front of the horse and the horse associates this position with trotting.

The solution that I have always had success with is to pick up high on the reins (sitting back on your pockets at the same time) when he breaks into the trot, and the instant the horse walks, drop the reins dramatically to a very loose rein, with your hands actually laying on the horse’s neck so he can feel them. He may only walk a step or two before he trots again, then pick up and release dramatically (the rein drop has to be very dramatic so that the horse notices).

Soon he will associate walking with a totally loose rein and that is what he wants (that is what any horse wants). Also, it really helps to concentrate on the walk rhythm and really sit down on him hard and make sure you are not tensing in your seat in anticipation of the horse breaking into trot. Often in this situation, people tense in their seat thinking that the horse is going to break into trot and pretty soon, the horse thinks he is supposed to be trotting because he feels the rider’s weight shifting forward. So make sure you are sitting well back on your seat bones with loose and relaxed joints.

Trust the horse to walk on a loose rein. If you feel him tense up like he might trot, just sit relaxed. Do not correct him unless he actually breaks into a trot. That way he learns to trust you too and he learns that he is only corrected if he actually trots. Don’t get sucked into the vicious cycle of you pulling all the time and him jigging all the time.

Your horse sounds very sensitive. Another way of describing a “hot blooded” horse is one that is highly sensitive to environmental stimuli. That means ALL stimuli (sight, sounds, smells, touch, weather, movements, etc.). With horses that are sensitive to leg pressure, the temptation is to always brace your leg out away from their sides to keep your leg off them. This is the worst thing that you can do for two reasons. One, when you do use your leg, it feels like a real jolt to him (it requires a big movement of the leg). Secondly, when you brace your leg it causes you to tense and that leads to jerky motions, which will make a sensitive horse reactive to the leg.

Keep your legs relaxed and soft and in close contact to the horse’s sides always. This will not only help desensitize him to leg contact but also remove the shock factor that happens when the leg is held off his sides. Again, also make sure that you are sitting well back on the horse and not perching forward in anticipation of his forward movement. This is very common but the result is that your horse wants to move more forward when your weight is forward, in an effort to get back under your center of gravity. So sit back on your pockets and down on the horse’s back and keep your legs relaxed and close to his sides.

Behind the bit: This is likely related to all the other problems and stems from the horse being pulled on too much. Forward or sensitive horses fall into this trap easily. Because the riders are less than confident on them, they tend to sit tense (forward) and clutch on the reins. Which increases the horse’s anxiety (from the pressure on his mouth) and the tense position makes the horse want to move more forward. Horses are herd animals and as such, when their rider is tense, they will tense. Herd animals are programmed to act like the animals around them. So, before the horse can learn to respond properly to the bit, he needs to learn to trust the rider and work on a loose rein (way loose). I would spend a lot of time with this horse trying to work him on a loose rein with a low and level frame.

Once he works steady and calm in this frame, only then would I ask him to come up onto the bit, with the lightest amount of contact possible. Contact is contact, whether it is one ounce or ten pounds in your hands. A very sensitive horse will likely only tolerate very light contact. I might try riding the horse in a rope halter, a bosal or a side pull at first to get him to relax and accept contact without pressure on his mouth.
When you are ready to ride on contact with a bit, I would try a Myler snaffle or the Myler combination.

For a calm-down cue with hot horses, I like to use two techniques. First teach the horse to lower his head on command both from the ground and mounted. A horse has to relax when his head is down low. There are many techniques for doing this. Light pressure on the poll will teach the horse to drop his head from the ground (be sure to release the pressure at the first hint of a drop). The rope halter is an especially useful tool for teaching a horse to drop his head. The first few inches of head-drop may be tough to get but after that he will take big drops all the way to the ground. Be sure to release the pressure and lavish praise on the horse when he drops so that he becomes addicted to this calm state.

Once the horse learns this from the ground, it is much easier to do it from the saddle. Teach him a rein cue for a head drop. Lift up lightly on one rein (make sure the other rein is totally loose) and wait until the horse drops his head slightly. Be sure to release as he drops so that he does not hit the bit and punish himself for dropping his head. Then go through the same process of release and reward so that he learns to drop it all the way.

The second calm down cue would be the one-rein stop and disengagement of the hindquarters. Disengagement happens when the horse crosses his hind legs and all forward motion ceases. Disengagement takes away the horse’s flight response and therefore puts him in a submissive and calm state of mind (even if only for a moment). To do this, lift up on one rein (it is essential the other rein is loose). Lift the rein up toward your opposite shoulder so that it is an upward, diagonal pull. Pull slowly and softly, this is not intended to be a harsh or quick movement. Hold the rein up until you feel his hindquarters disengage and then drop the rein all the way down to the horse’s neck and he should stop. If not, repeat. So every time the horse gets squirrelly, pick up on one rein until the horse disengages and stops. Soon, the horse will begin to slow and relax when you just begin to lift one rein. The one rein stop is far superior to pulling on both reins, which causes the horse to stiffen his neck and jaw and lean into the pressure.

It is sad but true that many horses that have been trained using brutal and relentless training methods and have terrible emotional baggage when being ridden, even if those techniques are no longer used. Imagine what it is like for a horse to be constantly criticized and tortured with inhumane apparatus, day in and day out. He will learn to do what he needs to do in order to survive this treatment, but he will be emotionally scared, possibly for the rest of his life. Be understanding and patient and try to make his training as drastically different as you can, using as little in the way of artificial aids as possible.

I think I have addressed most of your questions. I hope you find something that helps. Remember, apparently what you are doing is effective since your horse seems to be making progress. Consider some of these ideas and they may help you make even more dramatic progress with your horse. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

Julie Goodnight,
Clinician and Trainer

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Issues From The Saddle: Do I Need Spurs?

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Question Category: Issues from the Saddle

Question: Dear Julie,

I’ve seen your show on RFD-TV about how to lower your horse’s head. In the episode you mentioned something about spurs, how to use the spurs at the right time and it’s not always a good idea to use on a lazy horse. My question is when I get ready to ride my horse, how do I make it go forward? Do I need spurs? I kick and pull but it won’t move forward. Does my horse need more training? I need advice.

Bryant

Answer: Hi Bryant,

Thanks for watching the show. We get lots of feedback from people on how much they learn in each episode and often they say they watch the show again and again and pick up something new each time. The truth is, there is a lot of info packed into a half-hour show and there are always things I wish I had more time to address. You touch on several really good issues in your question and I need to make a clarification about when to use spurs and when not to.

When talking about getting your horse to lower his head and round his frame, I always talk about using a lot of leg (not spur) and that you always increase leg pressure when you increase rein pressure. There are many articles in my Training Library that address the horse’s frame, lowering the head and collection and volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection gives extensive instruction as well.

Before you ask for any horse to lower his head and round his frame, he must be moving freely and willingly forward in all gaits. This is a much more basic and fundamental stage of training which far precedes collection and rounding of the frame. Forward motion is one of the most fundamental tenets of classical horsemanship. Anyone who has ever started colts knows this—you cannot teach them anything (stop, go, turn) until they are moving freely forward. Free and forward movement is the basis of all training.

If your horse is not moving freely forward on command in all gaits, you must address this fundamental problem before you can ask a horse to lower its head or anything else. As with all training problems, you must first and foremost consider a physical cause. You’d be surprised how often people pour thousands of dollars and hours into training when the horse was acting that way because he was in pain—an ill-fitting saddle, a painful bit, a sore joint, a rib out of place that only hurts when you ask him to canter (right before he bucks you off). With a horse that is not moving willingly forward, it could be any of these and dozens of other physical causes. Best to have your horse assessed by a vet to rule out any issues.
Once a physical problem is ruled out as a possible cause of the horse’s refusal to move forward, then you can look to the horse’s training. First off, does he have any clue of what you are asking him to do? You’d be surprised how many horses are being ridden regularly but have very little actual training. When it comes to responding to the bit and cues, it has to be taught by someone. Often I see horses that just simply are untrained even though they are packing a rider down the trail with no problems. A horse must be taught how to respond to rein pressure; it does not come naturally to a horse. If your horse is lacking basic training, watch my video on Bit Basics and you can easily learn to train your horse for a light response and low head carriage.

The next thing to consider is whether this is learned behavior by your horse? In other words, does the horse know better (to move off your leg) but is acting this way now because it has worked so well for him in the past? It doesn’t take much of a perceived gain for a horse to learn that his refusal gets him what he wants—many insensitive horses will gladly endure the kicking and spurring from a rider if it means he doesn’t have to lope circles or do any work. Again, there are articles in my training library that may help if this is the case.

However, as is often the case, and the topic of an episode of Horse Master we just taped (it will air in May ‘11), in some cases the problem is that the rider is giving the horse conflicting signals by pulling back on the reins when she wants the horse to go forward. If you are riding a lazy horse or one that is reluctant to move forward in some situations (like when approaching a giant mud puddle—as in the case of the episode we just taped), and you pull back on the reins, the horse will choose to take that as permission to stop. Any backward pull on the reins inhibits forward motion; that is a fundamental truth that you should always remember. In some cases, we do want to inhibit forward motion, like when asking the horse to stop or collect his frame (but he has to be moving freely forward first). But in many cases, riders are pulling on the reins, inhibiting forward motion when they don’t really mean to, like when the horse spooks, balks, backs or is just plain being lazy.

Remember that forward motion precedes all other training concerns and when you need the horse to move more forward, you must reach forward with your hands towards the horse’s ears. If you pull back on the reins when the horse is not moving freely forward or even just keep your hands in a neutral position, the horse is unlikely to move forward. Actively pulling back on the reins of a lazy horse or one that is not moving forward for any other reason will always make the problem worse.

As to your question about spurs, let me clarify what I said on the show and how I feel about this artificial aid. I said that, to me, the use of spurs is not a good choice on a lazy horse. It is not an aid to make a slow horse faster; it is an advanced-level aid for advanced riders to use on advanced horses to motivate them to a higher level of performance and do more difficult maneuvers. If the problem with your horse not moving forward is simply because he is lazy and has learned to ignore a polite request from your legs, then he needs to be reminded to respond to a light leg.

I prefer the use of the crop to reinforce your leg aid, rather than the spur, in the instance of the horse not moving forward off a light leg cue. A spur will often make the lazy horse even duller to your leg and make him sull up and balk even more. Kicking harder on a lazy horse also does not work well because the lazy horse will tolerate the pressure and just wait for you to quit kicking from exhaustion (which doesn’t take long).
To use the crop as a reinforcement to your light leg aid, in a horse that is trained but not responding, ask once lightly for forward movement with a shift of your weight forward and a gentle bump with your calves (and a dramatic forward reach with your hands). If he ignores your polite initial request, immediately reinforce your leg cue with a sharp spank with the crop right where your leg cued him (make sure you keep reaching forward with your hands—a lot!). If done right, this will undoubtedly send him expeditiously forward, but do not contradict yourself as most riders do by then pulling back on the reins (and punishing him for doing what you asked him to do). Let him move forward freely and only stop him when he is voluntarily moving forward, without any pedaling from you.

Then ask your horse again lightly to move off your legs, prepared to reinforce with the crop again if needed, but always giving him the opportunity to respond to your light aids first. If your timing was good the first time and you used adequate pressure to motivate the horse, the second time you ask with your legs, he should step right off. But you may need more than one spanking before the horse begins to take your leg cues seriously again. With good timing and the right skill level of the rider, the horse will be moving freely forward in minutes. Again, this is a tip for refreshing a trained horse that has become unresponsive– you would train a young horse that didn’t know better a little differently.

I did a “Quick Tip” for Horse Master recently, which may be airing soon, about the use of spurs. Basically it said that spurs are neither a piece of apparel nor a fashion statement, they are an artificial aid. And like many artificial aids, they have a propensity to be used incorrectly, even abusively and they can become a crutch to good riding. I believe that spurs should only be used by an advanced rider that has excellent control over their balance and leg position; inadvertent/indescriminant use of the spur will confuse a horse and can be downright dangerous on some horses. I also believe that with an advanced rider, training a horse to do advanced maneuvers (like collection, lateral movements or other maneuvers that require more effort from the horse), the spur can be a useful tool to motivate the horse to try a little harder. I have written a lot about “finding the amount of pressure that motivates change,” so I’ll let you read up more on this concept by visiting my Training Library.

I think that covers your questions and answers to a few you didn’t ask too! Thanks for watching Horse Master and keep learning!

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.