What To Do With Your Legs When Horseback Riding?

The rider’s legs in horseback riding are perhaps our greatest tools for directing horses well. Working in tandem with our seat and hands, our legs influence not only the pace, tempo, and gait of our horses, but also their direction. Today we will explore the role of our legs in horseback riding, i.e. what to do with your legs when riding a horse.

Primary Position And Role Of The Legs

how to use your legs when riding a horse

Your leg’s accurate position and movement stems from your seat. When you sit in the saddle, keep your pelvis squarely underneath you, not rocking forward or backward so as to hollow or round your back.

A round or hollow back will either produce upper legs that brace and pinch the horse’s back, or lower legs that apply too much pressure against their belly.

Your hips should be open, so as to allow free movement in the upper and lower legs. Your lower legs should hang loosely below the knee and rest against your horse’s belly just behind the girth.

They should not be gripping your horse, but rather resting in quiet contact.

Loose, supple ankles are extremely important for keeping your legs in proper position. You can loosen your ankles by rotating them outside the stirrup, as well as wiggling your toes in your boots.

When the ankle is soft, the rest of the leg is free to come into alignment as well.

What about the classic “heels down” position? While extremely important, the heels down position doesn’t come by force. Instead, simply relax into your ankle and allow the heel to deepen with every stride from your horse.

What Are Leg Cues?

leg cues

Cues are what we use in horseback riding to communicate instructions to our horses. Our legs work in tandem with our seat and upper body, but the legs play the primary role in all instruction.

The following is how to use your legs at each gait, and in turning and bending your horse:

The Walk

To ask your horse to walk from a halt, give him a light squeeze with your legs right behind his girth, encouraging him also by rocking your pelvis forward in the saddle.

If he needs further encouragement, apply heavier pressure from the leg, and finally, pressure from your heel. Make sure to not inhibit motion by pulling back on the reins simultaneously.

At the walk, your legs should be incredibly quiet. Your upper legs should be relaxed across the horse’s back, while your lower leg should just hang below the knee.

With such little propulsion from the walking gait, your legs should be motionless except to maintain light, resting contact on his sides.

This is a great gait to focus on your overall leg position, so focus on breathing and allowing your heels to deepen and your hips to open with every stride.

The Trot

The same forward pressure from the walk applies when asking for the trot. If already at the walk, apply light pressure right behind the girth, increasing your pressure only if your horse doesn’t respond to the first cues.

If asking for a trot directly from a halt, you will likely need to apply a firmer nudge or heel right away, depending on your horse’s training and sensitivity.

There are two ways to maneuver the trot, sitting and rising. Your legs in the sitting trot will be absorbing a lot of the “bounce” in your horse’s stride, allowing your seat to move with the horse’s motion.

The rising trot, or posting, is a much more active way to ride the trot. When you first begin riding, the rising trot looks a lot like merely standing up in the stirrups.

In reality, the rising trot comes from the pelvis, which is driven upward and forward by the horse’s motion.

Using your stirrups as a platform will cause your knees to pinch and your lower legs to brace, inhibiting your horse’s movement.

But when you allow the rising motion to come from your core muscles, your hips will remain open and fluidly moving. Your upper legs will then follow suit without bracing.

The Canter

While the cues for the walk and trot are the same, the canter cue requires a little more finesse. To ask for the canter, place the leg that is facing the inside of the arena at the girth, and place the leg facing the outside of the arena behind the girth.

When you’re ready, shift a little more weight to your inside pelvis, and apply pressure with both of your legs simultaneously. This helps your horse bend and lead the correct hoof sequence at the canter.

The canter stride has a lovely rocking motion, but is also bigger than the trot. Try to focus on keeping your legs limber and steady, absorbing the horse’s motion into the bottom of your foot with every stride.

To Turn Or Bend

Apart from using leg pressure to move forward, we can also use leg pressure to change our horses’ direction.

To turn your horse, first shift your weight to your inside seatbone, then apply moderate leg pressure at the inside girth.

If you are turning into a tight circle, you can also apply light leg pressure behind the outside girth to help him bend his spine.

Use your hands as the secondary means to guide him through the turn.

Under Pressure

where should your legs be when riding a horse

Finally, remember to just relax. The fastest way to improve your leg position is to eliminate all forms of bracing in the saddle.

Bracing in your upper or lower leg will not only distort your balance, but may discourage your horse from his full range of movement.

The most important thing to remember about your legs in horseback riding is that they are primarily for balance.

While your legs in horseback riding should be the first line of communication, they should always communicate with purpose.

When the horse has responded to your leg pressure, either by moving forward, bending, or turning, release the pressure.

Your horse will be happier being ridden if he knows when he has done well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions
What is the perfect riding position?

Center yourself in the saddle. Be sure your stirrup lengths are correct and equal. Sit on your sit bones with your legs just slightly forward. Your pubic bone, naval, breastbone and chin should be aligned with your horse’s spine.

How do you get your stirrups the right length?

With your horse properly saddled, place the tips of your fingers against the very top of the stirrup leather. Step back and straighten your arm. Lift the stirrup toward your armpit. If the stirrup fits just right into the nook of your armpit, the stirrups should be a comfortable length for you. Be sure to check both stirrups.

What are the different types of seat?

You can use your seat to convey information to your horse and to make movement easier and more comfortable for your horse.
Half seat and light seat are best for jumping and galloping. It is also a good choice when traveling over rough terrain. With a light seat, you move along with the horse rather than settling into the saddle. You secure yourself with your knees and lower, inner thighs with your sit bones just barely above the saddle. You don’t want others to be able to see daylight between your seat and the saddle, but you also don’t want to make full contact.
A full seat is a settled seat with full, firm contact through the thighs and hip bones. You would utilize this option when making quick turns or navigating a potentially tricky situation in which you expect your horse to balk or shy.
Driving seat is the term used to describe conveying moving forward or pulling back to your horse. In driving seat, you would tighten your thighs just above the knees slightly and lean forward (lessening sit bone contact) to indicate speeding up. You would tighten your upper thighs, lean back slightly (increasing sit bone contact) to indicate pulling back or slowing down. You can also use driving seat to assist and make things easier for your horse when going uphill (lean forward) or downhill (lean back).

Should you always communicate with your horse through your seat?

Developing a passive seat, wherein you simply sit comfortably and move along with the horse, is also very important. If you are constantly moving in the saddle, fidgeting, scraping forward and back, etc., you will cause your horse to move awkwardly and make him a nervous wreck. Riders who are constantly, inadvertently driving with the seat are said to have an “electric seat”. That is uncomfortable for the horse, tiresome for you and makes the whole experience a lot more challenging than it needs to be.

Should your knees point forward or out when riding?

Your inner thighs (not the backs of your thighs) should make contact with the saddle or the horse’s back. Your knees should face forward. Your toes should point forward, and your heels should be slightly lower than your toes and well away from your horse’s sides. Even if you are riding bareback, strive to maintain this leg and foot position.


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