I’ve got an interesting couple of horses to work with at the moment, along with their owners.
A few weeks ago a lady had the chiropractor (Otis’s McTimoney chiropractor actually) to her Welsh cross gelding who had begun bucking in canter and cantering on the spot. The chiropractor, who was a vet for years, couldn’t find anything amiss so suggested that I came and rode the horse to see if I could discover the problem.
So duly I went along a few days later to see the lady and her little horse. He was whizzy on the lunge, but ultimately he behaved. And on I got, noting his martingale and Pelham bridle.
That first session was fairly exhausting. This horse had a very choppy, quick walk and his trot was short striding, tense, and he didn’t seem to go anywhere. When I applied the leg he bounced up and down. Soon I asked if there was a snaffle available, and we put a loose ring on him. The effect was instant. I could get him to stride out a bit more, and whilst he still ran forwards from the leg, I had microseconds of him softening his neck and relaxing.
The next few sessions continued in walk and trot, with his owner now riding him for some of the time so that she knew how to school him during the week. We worked on transitions, circles, and serpentines until the walk became more consistent, with a slower rhythm. However, he was a bit strong in just the loose ring snaffle when hacking, so we tried a double link hanging cheek snaffle, which has so far been successful.
A couple of weeks ago we had our first canter and I focused on letting him go forwards, so he learnt that he wasn’t being held back, and his stride slowly got larger. Every so often he would forget himself though, and hop on the spot, but over a couple of canters he became more consistent.
This week`s session was one of the best to date. He`s starting off with a longer frame and a more relaxed work. I`m working on getting him to accept the leg on circles and changes of rein, by using leg yield on a circle, and it is coming but he sometimes rushes, hollows, and loses the quality of his walk. I`m finding it easier to get it back again after though. In the trot he has a bigger stride and is getting more even on both reins, not falling out through his right shoulder, as he likes to do. The consistency is coming slowly, and he is learning to understand the leg aids, which is pleasing. I`ve also been working him in sitting trot so he learns to accept that sitting trot does not mean canter! When he softened over his back I asked for canter. Result! A lovely forwards transition and no hopping in the canter. I rode several transitions, each time spending time to settle the trot, as he thinks it`s all about the canter from then on. To finish, we worked on settling the trot again, and he was lovely and forwards, with a light contact and using his back nicely.
So this brings up the question, along with the Arab mare I rode earlier in the week, what is the purpose of leg aids? And how do you teach your horse to accept them?
The equine dictionary would state that “horses are taught to move away from pressure” and “horses are taught to move away from the leg”. From this you can deduce that a horse should learn to move away from pressure from the leg, which almost works in a push, and release, way.
However, many sensitive horses never learn to accept the leg. They scoot away from the pressure so the rider stops using their leg and turns to the reins instead, because at least the horse doesn`t accelerate then. The only problem with not using the leg is that the rider cannot correct and help balance the horse on turns.
So how do you teach a horse to accept the leg aids? The Arab mare swung her quarters and accelerated when I moved my leg against her, let alone applying pressure. So I rode each circle by placing my outside leg against her, and keeping it there while she swung her haunches, and then when she moved around the circle, away from the leg, I took the pressure off, to reward her. Each time she resisted less, but the key was not to ask in a louder way, but to keep the slight pressure on until she moved correctly. But we had to begin again when I changed the rein! She seemed to completely forget about the other leg, and was surprised when it became the outside leg and started asking her to move away.
Then the question is, what are the hands and reins doing whilst you are using your leg and seat aids to move the horse forwards and around? Initially, while the horse is starting to understand the leg aids you may need to indicate with the rein, as he probably understands that more than the leg. But you should ask with the leg first, and then clarify your intentions with a slight rein or hand aid. As the horse begins to understand how to respond correctly to the leg the rein aid can be reduced. For a whizzy horse who only believes that the leg means run, the rein can be useful in providing a half halt before you ask him to move over with the leg, and then after, so he learns to balance himself and not run away from the aids.
It can be a difficult process, teaching a horse to accept the leg, but you need to persevere and be patient, until he understands, and has made the memory pathways to respond correctly to the leg aids, and then the rider can fine tune the horse`s movements and body position, which will enable more lateral work to be done and a more correct way of moving established, which should all help the dressage marks!