A Different Leg Cue

“My horse won’t go forward!” the rider says. Many trainers respond with the traditional battle cry, “More leg!” What does that mean exactly? What part of our leg does the horse need more of? Surely not more thigh? Have you seen me in white breeches? Are my knees supposed to flap in and out? How would I use the middle of my leg more? No, that can’t be it. Maybe twist my toes out and pump my heels? We fall back to where most of us learned to ride: western movies. The posse gallops across the screen with legs clapping with each stride, chap fringe flying. Are my legs supposed to grip and release as I stand in my stirrups? That can’t be right. Racehorses go forward with no leg at all, the jockey perched on top with a leg shorter than a saddle flap. No one tells them more leg! They go to the whip, even as research shows it doesn’t make the horse go faster, raising that heavy race whip above their heads and whacking it down hard.

Most of us kick-kick-kick because it seems the least-worst-still-bad option. Soon the horse’s flanks are dead from the constant nag-nag-nag, so some itty-small spurs might help for a while or maybe a whip, not that you’d use it as a jockey does. You’d think our level of sheer frustration would send the horse on. When we pull our heads up and look around, there is that one rider we always see in our mind’s eye. She looks like she is doing nothing at all but her horse is positively dancing beneath her. The crazy part? It might be a jumper or a reining horse, a soft trail horse crossing water or a dressage horse in an extended trot. So, it isn’t the breed or the riding discipline. Dang.

Forward is the gold standard. Striding out in a relaxed gait does cure most of what ails a horse and rider. It improves a horse’s balance, it allows him to process his emotions better, he relaxes. When he is moving on, we tend to use the reins less to correct, so now we are mentally quieter, our body follows his movements without us noticing. That’s the hard part; when things go well we don’t question why, but that’s where the answer is for when things don’t go well. If we focused on what works rather than what’s wrong, the entire conversation changes. The foundation of that, any horse will tell you, is that rhythm heals and balances. A break of rhythm, especially with our legs, makes the stride hesitate. Tension kills flow, and that tension starts as much with the rider as the horse.

We’ve been taught to accelerate our cues. We think that horses will respond to pressure, so we threaten the horse to make him go forward with the fear that if he doesn’t take a small leg cue, a big nasty thudding heel will heave into the soft part of his flank, that place that wolves attack to disembowel them. In fact, horses don’t release to pressure, they resist it. When you look closely, is the horse tense in his ribs, tight in his back? Is his poll tense even if his neck is down? It’s what we’ve been taught, but does it work? How does a punch in the gut inspire a horse? How did we kill the horse’s primal instinct; how did we get to this place with an animal whose first defense is to run?

Please take your horse at his word. There are two basic reasons a horse doesn’t willingly go forward: Pain or the fear of pain. Can you know definitively that your horse is free of pain? No, we can’t. Horses are stoic and humans can’t always diagnose a clear problem, but not going forward is a symptom of pain. Not all pain looks like a limp. Arthritis is often found in young horses, and as horses age, we know they lose muscle and strength. Pain can look like tension or resistance, making us think we have a training issue when the horse is being as clear as he can be. Believe him.

Do we do better helping our horses deal with their fear of pain? I wish we could just promise to behave and horses would trust us. Most problems come from cues that are too big, rarely from cues too small and that path to earn a horse’s trust is narrow and not very forgiving. We can’t cue them to not be afraid any more than we can stop someone from worrying. We are each responsible for ourselves, but we can choose to go slow and give the horse time to self-soothe. We can give the horse time to think without threat or intimidation. All too often, that louder leg cue happens as the horse is trying to balance some conflicting thoughts or cues, and that leg cue seems like a punishment for reasoning out a question. Don’t we want our horses to think?

Let’s reframe the idea of more leg to a more sensitive leg. Is it possible to engage a horse’s mind with a leg but not intimidate? Can the pressure be a call and not a push? Can a leg invite a horse to dance? Does the idea engage your mind? See how curiosity works? 

Start here: Use your calf to listen to your horse’s ribs. Is he breathing? Is there a swing to his stride? If not, lighten your legs. Let them float on your horse’s ribs. Feel your thigh go soft. Wait for it. Feel air under your knee, lengthen your stirrups so your feet hang free in the air. Trust your seat to hold you in the saddle. When you release your body to his stride, his stride will release forward and soften. Because in the same way that tension cues tension, release cues release. It’s our challenge in the saddle to release a defensive posture and demonstrate a better option, like relaxation. 

A warning: When the horse does go forward, whether it’s too fast or too slow, our hands must not correct him. If we lose balance and pull back, we give a conflicting go-stop message. He is right to be fearful and confused. Also understand that over-steering might feel enough like a one-rein stop or a correction. If your horse goes forward, let that be enough. Ask for one thing at a time and then say thank you. He has to be moving forward before we interrupt him to ask for something else.

Like Fred with Ginger, we must lead with quiet confidence, to allow our partner to shine. Here is what we humans confuse. Forward movement shouldn’t feel rushed. A horse shouldn’t scurry like a varmint. Gliding over the earth, a horse should feel loose in his back, his stride should swing, his barrel flexing from side to side between our calves. His stride should grow longer with relaxation, confidence visible in his rhythm. Sit tall. Horses are royalty in the animal world. 

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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24 thoughts on “A Different Leg Cue”

  1. Years ago I rode regularly in quadrille lessons with a classical dressage trainer (I was really a complete beginner, but we did very well competing in entry level quadrilles at local shows). I wanted to take seat lessons on the lunge, so a friend lent me her gelding (who would have bucked me off in a second had I been using the reins). This trainer was hyper focused on rotating your thighs inward – the gelding was very unhappy with my riding and kept swerving in at the trainer.
    A friend suggested that I poke my chest out (I have collapsed my upper body forward, inward and slumped my shoulders all of my life). Suddenly the gelding quit threatening the trainer, stayed out on the circle, and provided a huge flowing trot! I still struggle with my posture, but it was such a clear indication that my riding was impeding his ability to go forward (and now I understand – causing pain too).

  2. Perfection, Anna. I think much of our tension occurs when trainers tell us — “Get him moving! NOW!”
    We have to reset those patterns in our heads and in our bodies — and reeducate.
    A very good trainer I worked with would say: “OK, he’s thinking about it, give him the time!” Sure enough — he would
    go forward, but in a relaxed transition; aren’t those the best?

    We don’t need to be in a rush.


  3. With my horse nearing 33 years of age and having EPM a year and a half ago, I have not ridden in that long, and this post is eliciting all kinds of muscle memory right now as I can feel the sensation of calves laying along his barrel. 🙂 My best teachers have been the three horses I’ve ridden over the past 16 years. Keil likes my legs to lay along his barrel, with contact but no gripping. Cody the QH likes no contact – he was trained to go if you touch him with your leg (at age 2 mind you) so riding him means keeping leg off so he can move forward without anxiety. He’s gotten better over the years and can tolerate a little more contact but honestly, he’s a horse that if you squeeze your legs will bolt forward. Imagine how much that teaches a rider about sensitivity! I have learned a LOT about my legs riding him. Salina our goddess mare was such a schoolmaster for the rider – she would always do exactly what you asked first, ie respond to crude aids with crude response, and then she would graciously do what she knew you meant to ask and teach you that no, you do not have to yell with the aids, butterfly kisses are best, as are subtle seat cues. No hands needed! If only I’d had longer with her as my teacher! Another thing I discovered is that alternating between riding with half chaps, without them, with heavier breeches, with thin riding tights allowed my legs to feel a lot of different things, and to refine what I was doing. It amazes me how much of this is in my body even sitting here typing. I can feel the sensations of my legs on these horses, the precise ways that worked for each of them. Final thought – oh how important it is to go forward as the remedy for almost everything – and yet how our brains tell our bodies to curl over, grip, pull back, slow down, putting what feels better to the horse in opposition to what feels better for us in tricky moments. Especially if you’re on a forward horse with a lot of impulsion! A big forward trot will fix everything for Keil Bay, and oh, how I worked to get confident and comfortable with that in the early years with him. I rode him enough years to learn that the big flowing trot was easier to ride, if I just trusted him and my muscle memory (from riding when I was young, with balance and abandon) whatever glitch needed fixing, the big trot fixed. I wish I could transmit the actual sensation in my legs right now, the soft contact between calf and barrel, feet resting in stirrups with no pushing down, to the degree that in certain parts of the stride I can feel the stirrup sort of floating around my boot, secure but no force or pressure. It is hard to imagine that I’ve had my last rides with my favorite teacher, Keil Bay, but that I can still FEEL them so viscerally is such an amazing gift.

    • Great comment, Billie. I think the reason I love to describe riding when I’m writing is just what you say, I get to relive the ride. I always hated tall boots because I wanted to feel them breathe.

    • This reminds me of my first ride as an apprentice on a truly light reining horse. I was just to walk him out, and I laid the inside leg on much too heavy to move him laterally. He went right into the wall of the indoor, dragging my outside knee bump-bump-bump along the boards of the wall. Had an awful bruise and learned how to back the heck off!

  4. “Fred and Ginger”. This is perfect. You’ve summed up how I feel anyway! I listen to lessons and I hear “more leg” and I always think Noooooooo. But I’ve never heard ANYONE say otherwise. Through trial and error, I’ve found less leg works nearly every time. It may take awhile for a horse used to being over asked to trust it? I discovered the rope horses (I’m not a western rider, but these were the best dang dressage horses I ever rode) I got to exercise were so tuned in I not only didn’t need big cues, I didn’t need traditional cues. For these guys to pick up a canter, your leg wasn’t involved. You drop your inside hip slightly. That’s it. One day, I did the half-halt (basically holding my breath for a beat) pre canter cue, and just thought “canter”as I breathed out. Perfect transition. I began to try using so much less for everything. It was fantastic. We had a blast. Their owner was thrilled at how tuned up/in they were and also used less. I’m not a great rider. I make tons of mistakes, some of them quite appalling. If I can do this, it’s not in some mystical world of top-riderness. It’s within the reach of any mostly adequate rider who might not fall off at the trot, who listens well. Seriously. Not being modest. Love love love how you described this!

  5. Thank you. The ideal for me is calf only. A trainer had me ride a horse a few weeks that did not want to go forward. I won’t ride him again. And he becomes very agitated when saddled. Definitely a pain issue which they should know. As you know, I have a VERY forward little mare who I have been confusing (as you mention above) because out of my fear I have been “holding her back” with my hands trying to get her into a rhythm instead of using my seat by posting slower, which of course slows her down and frees my hands! A vicious circle sometimes, Anna, due to rider error! One must think all the time — but not too much — ahhh!

  6. I once had the privilege of riding an enormous schoolmaster who was used for Sealed Knot events. I wasnt far along in my riding journey and assumed big horse = big aides. I thought I asked for trot in the corner of the school, clearly not as I got the most incredible canter. Learning to dance with these awesome partners is definitely about finesse.

      • I had to comment, Carolyn. I was fortunate enough to experience the same recently. The guy I was on went from a walk to a canter and it was like being carried on a cloud. And all I had to do was sit further down, give a tiny aid, and we were gone. It was amazing. “See??” I told my mare, “That’s how it’s done!” We’ll keep working…


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