Snaking Leg Yield

I’ve been using a tricky little exercise recently with several clients recently. It’s all about balance, straightness, and understanding of the aids. Plus the fact that less is more.

Starting on the left rein in walk, because it’s more complicated than first appears, turn onto the centre line at C. Leg yield to the right for about three strides. Ride straight and then leg yield to the left for about six strides. Then leg yield back to the right onto the centre line. Turning right at A to change the rein.

When coming off the right rein, leg yield to the left first.

The secret to this exercise, and I usually let my rider have a couple of goes before letting them in on the secret, is that less is more.

If you’re too ambitious and ask for too much leg yield, the horse invariably loses balance and has too much bend in their body. Which makes it harder for them to straighten, change their bend and start to leg yield in the opposite direction. Then it takes longer to change direction and you run out of centre line.

Once my rider starts to be more conservative with their leg yield there is usually just the small task of tidying up the transitions between the leg yields and then they’ll crack the exercise.

If leg yielding from right leg to left hand, the rider needs to use the left rein to balance the horse and use their left leg to stop the leg yield and ride straight. Then they need to change their position into position left (left seat bone slightly deeper, left leg on the girth, right leg behind; right rein becomes the outside rein) before asking for very slight left flexion and then the leg yield back to the right.

The straighter the horse stays in leg yield the easier it is to change direction. Less is more.


It’s a classic exercise to introduce leg yield, and can help increase a horse’s bend, but I find that spiralling in and out on a circle can encourage bad rider habits to form and is so often detrimental to both horse and rider, rather than achieving the desired effect of increasing the engagement of the inside hind leg.

The basis of the exercise is that you establish a twenty metre circle before spiralling in towards the centre and then spiralling out again.

I begin teaching this exercise by standing at X, and asking my rider to ride a twenty metre circle from either E or B. We spend some time establishing the roundness, and identifying points where their horse is liable to drift out (usually at E and B), or fall in (usually as they cross the centre line). Then I ask them to slowly decrease the size of the circle by moving the horse’s outside shoulder in first. This reduces the rider using the inside rein to pull their horse onto a smaller circle, and encourages the use of the outside leg. Decreasing the circle slowly requires more balance and more subtle aids. The inside rein opens slightly to indicate moving across whilst the outside leg pushes the horse over, outside rein prevents the horse overturning with their head and supports the outside shoulder. The inside leg maintains the correct bend, and the rider turning their shoulders into the circle with their weight in their inside seat bone helps the horse stay in the correct bend.

By spiralling in slowly, and almost adopting a shoulder fore position the horse will bring his inside hind leg under his body, propel himself forwards more correctly and feel lighter and more engaged. The smaller circles require more suppleness and balance from the horse. I often tell my rider to stay on a certain sized circle, or not to spiral in any further because I can see that the horse has reached their limit in terms of suppleness so are better staying at this point instead of going smaller but losing the quality to their gait.

From the small circle, I ask the rider to sidestep out onto a bigger circle before riding a few strides on this circle and then sidestepping again. This makes a series of concentric circles, rather than a spiral. This helps control the movement and keep it correct. By only leg yielding a couple of strides at a time the rider doesn’t lose their horse’s outside shoulder, the inside hind continues to push the horse sideways so they stay engaged. The rider’s outside aids continue to be effective and the horse stays balanced.

Some horses are more likely to rush back to the track, so pulling themselves across in the leg yield from the outside shoulder. In this case, I get the rider to “ride smart”: as they start to ride towards E or B they have to apply the outside aids before their horse drifts and takes control of the movement, and then ask for the leg yield as they move towards the centre line, when the horse has no inclination to fall out. This ensures that the leg yield comes from the rider’s aids and is not the horse anticipating.

Ridden correctly, the horse becomes more supple and engaged, and it is an excellent warm up exercise for gently stretching them and unlocking and tight or resistant spots. I find it incredibly useful when Phoenix gets her knickers in a twist (when the wind blows or the something is out of place) as when I move her body around subtly she releases through her barrel and becomes more rideable. It’s also useful for identifying a stiffer side in rider or horse, as well as fine tuning the rider’s aids and control through a movement.

So often I see the spirals being ridden badly; the head and neck over bending as the horse spirals in, with too much inside rein, and them falling rapidly through the outside shoulder in a race to get back out to the bigger circle. Which doesn’t help engage the inside hind leg, or promote the rider using their outside aids correctly or effectively.

Next time you ride this exercise, try changing your approach to it, and critique yourself to make sure you aren’t letting either yourself or your horse cheat by drifting in and out on the circle. How many times do you pass B as you move in or out? Can you increase that number? Slowing down the movement requires more balance and more obedience from your horse.

Teaching Leg Yielding

Leg Yielding is probably the first lateral movement you will teach a client, so it`s really important that you, as an instructor, explain it succinctly and clearly. I`ve done it a few times recently, and each time I find I miss out, or don`t explain an element sufficiently, so I`ve done a bit of research to collect my thoughts.

I usually begin a couple of lessons before, introducing the idea that the horse moves away from the leg, not just forwards. So I often spend a few minutes spiralling in and out on circles. I don`t tell them about leg yielding, I just work on keeping a consistent contact, checking that they are not pulling their horse round, and that they can use their legs independently. I sometimes tell them, if I don`t think they are already aware, that the inside leg isn`t always the one furthest away from the arena fence. This is usually a mind boggler, especially when combined with the words “counter flexion”. Cue me attempting to bend my body in demonstration.

The next time I see the client, and am planning to introduce leg yield I start off with the circles, spiralling in and then out, and then explain what leg yield is. Put simply, it is when the horse is moving forwards and sideways at the same time, producing a diagonal movement. It is a suppling exercise, and teaches the horse to move away from the leg. Likewise it teaches the rider to use their legs independently. At this point I usually suggest they YouTube “leg yielding” to get a visual interpretation of what they are aiming for. Two good ones are below. If there is a suitable livery or client nearby then I ask for a demonstration.

It becomes a little bit more complicated when trying to explain to the client about how the horse`s body is positioned – i.e. bent slightly away from the direction of movement. Then I move on to explain the aids for leg yield, and help the client position their legs. A lot of people swing the outside leg back wildly and wonder why it`s ineffective. We then discuss how the horse`s legs move, almost crossing in front of the other leg.

I use the riding school horse`s natural inclination to drift to the track, by starting to leg yield from the three quarter line to the track. Initially I find that most clients almost just turn their horse towards the fenceline and walk on two tracks. This is when I remind them that the horse needs to stay parallel with the fenceline. When the horse turns it means there is a problem with their rein contact. Too much outside rein and the horse turns; not enough outside rein contact and the horse falls through the outside shoulder and curves their body. This is usually my sticking point because the client struggles with the rein contact. I can also see that it`s pretty difficult when learning something new because you don`t know what to feel, so you can`t tell if it`s right or wrong, and you aren`t necessarily pressing the right buttons. We usually have a few attempts, while I`m telling them which buttons to press and how to correct themselves. Sometimes the client can be seen sliding to the inside in an attempt to push more with their inside leg!
Another common mistake, is losing the forwards impulsion, the client curls themselves into a ball, applying tension on the rein, and losing their seat aid. This encourages the horse even more the fall through the shoulder and curl themselves excessively round the inside leg. If this happens I send them off into trot to get some impulsion back and to reassess their horse`s rhythm.

After a couple of lessons or attempts, I hope that my client will have a light bulb moment. Either they feel the sideways step, or the correct feel down the reins and pressure on the legs. Usually this means that their aids become a bit more subtle and the leg yield becomes smoother. Once this is established in walk we progress to trot, by which time the horse is usually predicting the exercise and rushing to the track, so I revert back to spiralling in and out on a circle. Except this time it is leg-yielding out. I then ask the client how their outside contact feels. Hopefully it is more secure!

Another exercise is leg yielding away from the track, but it is usually very difficult for the client to set up counter flexion, or at least keep the horse straight coming out of the corner, so I don`t tend to use this when learning leg yield.

We can also discuss how the horse`s trot feels before and after leg yielding. I taught with a lovely, but green, horse last week, and in the trot work we did micro-yielding. That is, moving him around using the leg a step at a time, coming out of the corner, and it just unlocked him! He started stretching and lifting his back. Last night`s client found her horse`s trot more active and he was more alert. Eventually, clients come to understand how being laterally flexible can improve their way of going in straight lines, and circles, and them onto jumping. Hopefully by this point I now have their full attention and we can move on to shoulder in and studying the horse`s straightness a but more, and utilise leg yield into their warm up and improving the horse`s way of going.untitled3

Further Reading:

An Interesting Question

I teach a middle aged man who comes for an intensive riding day every couple of weeks; he`s lovely, and you can really see him progressing. Today I was amazed to see his sitting trot without stirrups – long legs, deep seat, that Carl Hester would be proud of. But today we had a breakthrough, we started doing leg yield and in the process of the two hour morning session I got him feeling how the horses were going, correcting them himself, thinking about how to improve them, the horse`s weaknesses and strengths, etc. Even in the canter he managed to balance the canter which meant that he could really sit into it. It`s such a great feeling of achievement!

But what I like most about teaching him is that he is very methodical and logical, and often it takes a couple of explanations. Sometimes he`ll just stop mid exercise to check which leg is doing what. I find it helps me clarify my explanations and also makes me think about what I`m saying rather than just regurgitating last weeks spiel. Today I was asked this;

“Which is the correct diagonal when you`re hacking? I mean, in the school it`s obvious, but what do you use to guide you onto the diagonal?”

It`s a good one; I explained about circles and the outer foreleg travelling further forward and the inside hind coming under to take more weight, so it helps the horse to alleviate our weight when they`re doing this. I then went on to the fact the in the school we should talk about correct or incorrect diagonals (using the outside leg) and then when hacking have right and left diagonals. Ultimately it doesn`t matter which you rise on, but the horse will accommodate this and develop more muscle and become one sided therefore you are better to alternate you diagonals regularly.

He was satisfied with this answer and I know now to use the terms left, right, correct, incorrect!

Today`s lessons

I had quite an insightful day today; my first lesson was with a lovely lady of the senior years, who likes her dressage. We don`t canter as she feels there`s so much to learn in walk and trot. Plus at her age she likes to feel safe! So over the last 12 months we`ve progressed from developing a good working trot, transitions, straightness. The full works. Then in the spring we moved onto lateral work with one of the school horses. It soon became obvious that this lateral work was becoming too difficult for this mare and she was struggling. So I played around with different horses, but needed a fairly slim  horse, to take my clients leg but not be too wide for her bad hip. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my horse would be the best bet. She couldn`t harm him, she`s a very quiet and sympathetic rider. Even with my controlling personality I was sure my hours of schooling wouldn`t be undone.

So her lessons have been progressing well and last week we were leg yielding – 3/4 line to track, then track to 3/4 line to fool him. Both struggled with leg yielding away from the fence and I couldn`t get my head around why. She did everything I told her to do but there was a lot of swinging of quarters, rushing, tension, shuffling etc. We left it on a fairly flat note. This week however, I had a revelation! The reason both horse and rider were struggling to leg yield away from the fence was because I never did it – I always half pass in! That means my horse is already set up around the inside leg as you come around the corner and then crosses over beautifully. So today we had a breakthrough and covered both leg yield and half pass, my client enjoying feeling the sideways step. I finished the lesson feeling much better about my teaching technique and knowing my horse CAN do it! And my client went away over the moon because she had got the same amount of sideways movement that I do when riding my horse.


My second interesting lesson was with a girl and her cheeky pony; who won`t jump unless you ride it every step of the way in to the jump. Relax for a second and she`s scooting around the fence. My client has recently started getting into a bad habit (probably all the cross country and hacking over the summer) of not sitting on her bum in canter, so her shoulders are in front of the vertical and she`s not using her seat to keep the canter to the fence. I threatened to tie her ponytail to the pony`s tail! But she rode very well; using a A-frame to correct the pony`s straightness over the jump, but also a series of cones before and after, that they must go between before and after the jump. This gave my client a line to the jump, helping her corners, and also gave her a focus after the jump. They ended up popping over a 3ft upright to finish, so I was very pleased with them.