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.
What You'll Learn Today
Primary Position And Role Of The Legs
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?
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:
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 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.
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.
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.