with Patrick King
More Leg, More Leg, More Leg…. It’s a trap!
When seeking refinement and precision in our horsemanship, we desire a horse that is light and responsive to the leg aids. It takes seemingly no effort to guide them, control their energy, or position their body. However, we often see riders kicking and pushing their horses with their legs. We often hear trainers and instructors referring to a horse as “dead sided” or “dull”. This is really just an excuse for needing to “use more leg”, “kick harder,” “push more,” etc. That entire mindset is a trap. We need to use the horse’s natural sensitivity to our benefit, rather than hindering our horsemanship by using progressive desensitization to ultimately teach a horse to ignore leg aids.
Progressive desensitization, simply put, is the process of exposing the horse to a stimulus (in this case the leg) in increasing amounts without triggering a response. By riding with the idea of “more leg, more leg, and more leg” the rider does nothing more than desensitize the horse to the desired leg aids. We can’t make a horse light to the leg aids by using heavy leg aids. It’s as simple as that.
But how, then, do we teach a horse to respond to a light leg?
First, the rider must understand the difference between the primary aids and secondary aids. The PRIMARY AIDS are the aids of the body (in classical terminology, these would be referred to as the natural aids). In our recent article, The Ideal Ratio of Aids, we discussed SEAT as 80%, LOWER LEG as 18%, and HAND as 2% of our communication while riding – those are the primary aids. The SECONDARY AIDS are the tools such as the whip, crop, quirt, mecate, spur, or end of the rein (classically, these are referred to as the artificial aids).
Second, the rider must use the seat and leg to REQUEST and the whip to REINFORCE that request. We train the horse by teaching him that if he responds when the seat and leg do THIS, then the whip won’t do THIS. Fairly quickly, the horse will start to focus on the primary aids and he will, in essence, teach the secondary aids not to come into play. The rider should release the aids in the MOMENT the horse is ready to respond. This rewards his effort. We preserve the sensitivity in the horse by allowing him to make the decision to respond to the primary aids and use secondary aids to reinforce the initial request.
A misunderstanding on your horse’s part would require SUPPORT from your secondary aids, NOT STRONGER primary aids. The moment we add more to the primary aids (the “more leg” mindset) the horse becomes dull. A well-timed secondary aid will enforce the efficacy of the primary aids and the result is a much more focused, attentive mount. The rider is responsible for giving the signal with their aids, and the horse is responsible for making the change requested. Consistency is very important here in order for the horse to learn what is expected. Together, the rider and the horse are working to heighten the sensitivity to the primary aids to the point that the secondary aids become unnecessary.
Third, the rider must learn how to use the aids in conjunction with the horse’s footfalls. If we want him to move with more energy, we need to speak directly to his driving hind leg to increase the speed. Ideally, the rider will ask the horse to respond to the primary aid at the right moment in one stride, and then IF NECESSARY apply a secondary aid in that next stride to support the initial request.
Finally, the rider must determine how light or responsive they would like the horse to be. I like horses to respond with a very light request from my seat and leg and I will ONLY use my seat and leg aids in that manner. If the horse does not respond, then I will reinforce with my secondary aids. I will always resist the temptation to use more leg or seat at any point.
A well-timed tickle from the lash on the end of a dressage whip is usually plenty of reinforcement to illicit a response. Sometimes it is the subtlety that is surprisingly effective. If the horse is simply ignoring the leg aids altogether, then the rider may need to move beyond a tickle with the whip, which is appropriate so long as it helps the horse. After several attempts, the horse will seek that subtle suggestion from the seat and leg aid.
Thus, the trap of “more leg, more leg, and more leg” can be avoided by thinking about better timing, more tact from the aids, and reinforcement when necessary. Our horses will be thankful for the subtlety and clarity in our communication – and we will come closer to achieving the goals of precision and refinement in our horsemanship.