Leg on, heels down and eyes up. We've all heard this as riders. It's pretty much drilled into us when we first get on a horse. It’s your foundation to riding. Essentially, it’s really not any different than getting in the driver’s seat of a car and told which is the brake, the gas and the steering wheel. You’ve got the basic understanding of how to move around safely? Great, now we can move on to other things. And just like driving a car, the amount of pressure on the pedals and how your foot is positioned will lead to a different reaction from the car.
So, let’s talk about having our leg on.
Where are we holding on and how much pressure do we really need? I’ve mentioned this before, but where we grip with our legs will lead to a different signal for our horses. Our calves give a totally different signal than our heels would and so would our thighs or our knees. Some keep us more stable in the saddle than others.
Once we figure out what each part of our leg tells our horses, we then move on to how we use them. Do we hold on and never leg go? Do we have our legs actually away from the horse’s side for a moment? Do we keep our legs on and only squeeze tighter in rhythm with their stride?
As we move on and continue to develop our skills and our sensitivities of our leg aids, we soon realise that the amount of pressure we use also has an affect. And depending on if that pressure is consistent or is a quick tighter squeeze, the horse will also react differently.
All this is to say that the leg aid is quite complex.
And I haven’t even mentioned how your legs influence different figures or lateral movements! So just having your leg on might not give you the reaction you were looking for.
I’m not going to list all of the different ways to ride with proper leg aids simply because we’ll be here all week. That and nothing is set in stone, so a certain riding technique might work great for one horse in one situation might not work the same for another. So, I’ll leave all of that responsibility to your coaches to teach you.
What I did want to share was the Aha! moment I had during my Friday lesson this week. I was riding a horse that I’m not used to yet and we were working on turns and pole work. I couldn’t get why the mare would break to the trot every time I went over the pole. I knew I had my leg on up to it and I tried not to hold onto her mouth while going over, yet she kept breaking and I was getting frustrated.
While taking a break to catch my breath, my coach and I started talking about what I was doing wrong. First off, letting go of my rein connection wasn’t the best idea as the mare would end up loosing her balance trying to find my hands again while going over the pole. Okay, so I’ll fix that. I went around again making sure that I had my connection, yet she still broke to the trot. I didn’t get what was happening. But my coach saw it all from the ground. Turns out, it’s the exact same issue I have with going over the jumps and why I get so many refusals. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t have my leg on. It’s that I had it on too strong too early which made it impossible for me to maintain that level of pressure for the last stride and while going over the pole.
Okay, so how do it fix it?
My coach went on to explain that instead of holding on with everything I have 3 or 4 strides away, I should actually have my grip get tighter and tighter as I approach the pole or jump with every stride. So instead of holding on tight right away, I should be holding on just with less pressure at the beginning and the pressure gets a little stronger with every stride. That way, I’ll have my leg on at the base and over the obstacle.
Makes perfect sense to me. So I tried it and it worked! Without any hesitation, we went over it much more smoothly than all of the other times before. And surprisingly, with what felt like less effort from me.
Now I know that for some of you reading this you might be thinking that this way of riding is obvious. That it’s second nature for you to ride this way. But for me, even though it made sense, I never actually put it into practice. I never actually rode that way until then and it has made all of the difference in the world.
Though I knew that the refusals were my fault, I never really was able to fix it. I would just squeeze tighter which made me loose my legs earlier before the jump. This lead me to becoming less and less confident about jumping.
Now, I’m wanting to put this to the test.
Because this way of riding not only keeps me stronger and clearer to the fence, it also helps calm my mind down as I can break it up in my head. I can think: “okay 3 strides way, leg on, 2 strides, leg on a bit more, 1 stride, leg on a bit more, takeoff, leg is on and not going anywhere”.
If any of you are also struggling with keeping your leg on at the base of a fence, I hope that this post has helped you. I hope that you go try it out and have the same Aha! moment that I had.
I try to keep reminding myself that riding is fun. That it’s my passion. And though it might be technical, it shouldn’t stress me out. It should just challenge me in a good way. So have fun, be confident and enjoy your time in the saddle.
Until next time, happy riding!