Riding a horse properly between the leg and the hand is a challenge for all serious riders. When done correctly, we get a horse beautifully balanced — weight transferred to the hind legs and a lovely head position in contact with the rider’s hand, neither too high or too low (behind the vertical). And this is all done invisibly without the onlooker being able to detect what the rider is doing to create such beauty. The result is what my dressage coach Dave Johnston calls “through.” But the rider must know how to keep the horse forward; that is, responsive to the leg and eagerly desiring to carry the rider ahead while at the same time catching that energy with the hand to create that beautiful rounded connection.
These challenges presented themselves last year when I hired a young catch rider/trainer whom I will call Mr. O to assist me in preparing and presenting my horse for the PRE stallion approval process. This process requires the stallion to stand quietly while being measured, walk out squarely while being led by the handler, trot elegantly in a circle on a lunge line, and blast brilliantly down a long side with the handler at his side.
I use the term “catch” rider for Mr. O because that’s how a trainer he works for referred to him. I take it she meant someone who rides what he can, when he can out of love for the sport but without having the formal systematic training and competition experience with a regular coach. .Mr. O called himself “a trainer,” a term better suited to someone with years of experience under his belt and the competition successes to show for it
I bear some responsibility for what followed by allowing this 20-something youngster to convince me that he could properly present my stallion for breeding approval, which is what I hired him to do. Then along the way I inexplicably invited Mr. O to ride my stud Soñador. Perhaps I thought that maybe he could magically pull things out of a hat on this horse in a way that I could not and that I could somehow live vicariously through the experience. This was foolish thinking.
For one thing, I found myself having to remind Mr. O to stop nagging my horse with his leg. My stallion must be convinced that his rider is capable of communicating with a very specific clear aid or he will test the rider who is not capable of doing so.
To be fair, Mr. O was not schooled in riding a horse such as this but rather was used to hyper-sensitive rescues with whom one must use a quiet leg to calm them, not encourage them forward.
The problem of not knowing how to get S forward without nagging him and thus ride him properly between the hand and the leg came to a head when Mr. O twice lashed out with the whip on Soñador, causing the stud to kick out violently and rear.
This could not be tolerated.
Mr. O transferred the blame onto me at one point, saying how on a slow motion video my leg was sliding back intermittently making contact with S’s side. This was making the horse dull according to Mr. O so that any non-responsiveness on the horse’s part was my fault, not Mr. O’s. I looked at the video and was glad I saw it because it helped me correct a possible tendency when S becomes heavy in the hand and pulls me forward. But I need to be reminded, not blamed. The presenting issue was the fact that Soñador was off balance at this point, but Mr. O couldn’t see that. He was rather preoccupied with maintaining his charade of expertise.
The end result of all this was Mr O walking off the job, or shall I say dismounting from my horse and leaving the scene in a fit of pique . This was how he decided to handle a criticism from me for not doing what I was paying him for, i.e. riding with a spur and using it properly to get responsiveness from the horse.
The video below of Mr. O on Soñador is what inspired Dave Johnston to provide the following instruction on how to properly ride the horse between the leg and the hand. May it serve us all well.
December 2, 2019
Isaias is a natural in his balance and position. He and the horse should be able to work well together.
The main issue for Isaias is connection. He, like everyone, needs to have the concept of dressage clearly explained and let it become second nature to use every time he rides.
The following is the foundational method used by dressage riders, trainers, and every judge.
First, the rider uses the leg to initiate or activate and sustain the impulsion from the hindquarters while maintaining consistent contact with the mouth through the hand and bit EVERY SINGLE MOMENT AND STEP. This doesn’t mean a rigid, forced contact. You have to think of it as invisibly and quietly remaining in CONSTANT, UNBROKEN communication with each other.
This is fundamental to also understanding the key principle of BALANCING THE HORSE BETWEEN THE LEG AND HAND. It includes the principle of keeping the horse in front of the leg, riding hind end to front end and riding from your leg to your hand WHILE understanding that the power, movement, control, and balance comes from the hindquarters. It is the way to correctly use contact rather than avoiding it.****
Being conscientious about misusing the hand is excellent, but then you have to know how to use the hand and contact correctly and be effective. We were all told or read about being light with our hands; that is, “avoiding unfeeling, pulling hands” or “riding backwards” and “over-flexing” or “riding just the head” to make it only look like the horse is on the bit while neglecting to include the hindquarters by engagement (lowering) and their transmission of pushing power (impulsion) forward through an elastic rounded topline and whole-body thoroughness.
Think of driving a car. There’s never a moment you’re not connected and maneuvering and controlling it from your foot either on the gas or brake to your hands to control the power of the engine to carry you smoothly forward. There’s never a moment you are not physically and mentally engaged within a specific position and using a specified , highly developed method. Dressage is exactly that.
STARTING from the hind legs, the power and impulsion is activated by the rider’s leg then pushed by the horse THROUGH ITS BACK AND TOPLINE and into the supple, CONSISTENT and rebalancing connection to the rider’s leg-to-hand contact — the support system for the whole horse/rider unit. Visualize THE TOPLINE from the top of the tail to the poll between the ears and the power being pushed smoothly from the hind legs through it. I visualize the power continuing to flow straight down the face and poll into the jaw and mouth and into the bit then back into the rider’s hand that maintains the correct outline and efficient, closed energy circuit, shaped together with the leg that reinitiates and sustains the whole power circuit.
It’s vital to be conscious that it’s the mouth, jaw and ribcage that we are communicating to in a nonstop, soft but effective conversation to keep the horse/rider partnership in sync or harmonious.
It’s critical to understand that abandoning contact is not the same as good light sympathetic hands. Being conscientious about not misusing the hand is important and then riders have to be given the technique for how to USE THE HAND CORRECTLY.
In dressage it is required to have steady leg and hand support in order to provide the horse the framework necessary to develop suppleness, strength and balance. Again it’s always a rounded, supple, stretched outline and whole-body, elastic thoroughness that the horse pushes the power from the hindquarters into. To understand how significant thoroughness is, think of the points that are deducted by judges every single time the rider loses control of hindquarters by allowing the horse to be even slightly crooked or for even going slightly against the hand by bracing stiffening or even slightly lacking bend in corners and turns. Also for more obvious errors such as momentarily coming out of position by lifting the head, which tightens the neck and back, or putting the nose forward a few inches in front of the vertical and coming off the bit.
Remember the other key element to dressage is understanding that every movement a horse makes, including stepping backwards and halting, comes from either the forward thrusting power or the sitting, slowing, collecting, balancing and carrying power of the hindquarters.
Bend is the other connection-related issue for Isaias and Sonny to confirm by using the connection and thoroughness method and develop bend in every corner, all bending lines and figures —the circles and serpentines, etc.
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF SUPPLENESS
Thoroughness must contain longitudinal suppleness through the topline from the top of the tail to the poll. Lateral suppleness and bend is supposed to occur side to side, left/right, through the horse’s sides (ribcage), neck, poll, and jaw.
Remember only with hindquarters engaged – – thoroughness with longitudinal suppleness, being on the bit and bending easily when required with lateral suppleness through the ribcage, neck and jaw – – will the horse be doing dressage and then be developed gymnastically as intended with dressage.
**The most important technique in using leg/hands is the half halt. This is created by the momentary simultaneous closing of the leg, slightly rotating the tailbone under the seat and tightening the core while taking slightly stronger contact with the jaw and then releasing back to regular contact within seconds.This occurs every few moments as needed to rebalance the horse back onto the carrying power of the hindquarters and by asking him to shift his weight back and engage (lower) the hindquarters.
There’s a quote that is exactly right:
“A good rider rides from half halt to half halt. A bad rider rides from movement to movement.”
Think leg and hands that rebalance the horse and connect and feel what’s needed in every moment.
Riding without spurs is fine if a beginner rider’s leg is unsteady or the horse is too sensitive. However, they’re compulsory at PSG and higher as an indication of the importance of the horse’s promptness off the leg and that riders have to be proficient in their use at some point. If moving quickly forward from the leg doesn’t happen, the rider must use spurs.
**Dressage begins with the quick, positive, forward response to the leg; it’s the cornerstone. Whatever reaction you accept is what you are training into the horse especially with stallions who naturally test authority. So make sure no resistance or lack of forward is happening. The quick forward response is the only acceptable one.
Some Final Thoughts on the Use of the Leg in Dressage
This article began with a critique of a young rider’s use of his leg on my stallion Sonyador. It proceeded with an instruction by master rider and coach David Johnston on the proper coordination of the leg with the hand in riding horses. One needs both. I want to end this writing by going back to the use of the leg and specifically what we’re aiming for in the use of the leg in classical dressage. Philippe Karl in his book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage (2008) puts it this way:
“One of the goals of dressage is for the rider to act with fewer and fewer aids. The lesson of the leg can only be given by a rider with a stable leg. Legs that are tight, gripping or constantly moving are unsuitable. they are constantly “talking for no purpose” and form a “background noise” which makes the horse switch off.”
I will leave it to the reader to look into Karl’s prescription for the “lesson of the leg” Until then I invite you to leave your comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
Horsewoman, dog trainer, theologian, writer, teacher