Lazy, unmotivated and unexcited. No, I’m not talking about your husband!
One of the most common complaints I hear from riders is that their horse is lethargic, lazy, drops out of the pace, or simply feels lacking in energy and is unwilling to try. You may have received judges’ comments such as “horse needs to be more forward” or “needs more activity”. So, what is really going wrong and how can you fix it?
In a nutshell, the problem here is that your horse isn’t ‘in front of your leg’.
What is ‘in front of the leg’ and why is it important?
In front of the leg means that when you stop actively riding and just sit quietly, your horse then keeps going by itself. In other words, your horse is self-motivated. You’re not having to remind your horse to sustain a level of energy or activity, therefore enabling you to sit quietly and spend more time feeling your horse and keeping them in balance.
Conversely, behind the leg means when you choose to sit quietly, the horse stops or slows down and doesn’t keep going by itself.
Having your horse in front of the leg is one of the most important foundation concepts in all horse riding activities and is the key to unlocking your horse’s full potential. Teaching your horse to try hard, put in all of their effort and then in turn reward them for it, is one of the most fulfilling feelings in horse training.
On the flip side, not having the horse in front of your leg is not enjoyable. The horse spends most of its time trying to get out of work, complaining about putting in effort and in some cases taking this negative attitude and turning it into behavioural issues.
A horse that is behind the leg is usually created by a rider who is either gripping with their legs, or over-using their legs aids without getting a reaction, therefore numbing or dulling the horse to the expected responses from the leg. The horse gets used to the feeling of the legs bumping on their sides and start to ignore these signals. Teaching your horse to be behind the leg can also come about by accident in your training system, e.g. making downward transitions by going from legs-on to legs-off.
Run a self-assessment
To assess whether or not your horse is truly in front of the leg, you’re going to have to do something that most people would rather not do, and that is to be brutally honest with yourself.
If you’re trotting around the arena and you take your leg pressure off (or just stop applying a repetitive aid), what happens? If your horse slows or stops, that’s telling you that you’ve inadvertently trained your horse that legs off = slower or downward transition. Horses that have been trained this way are behind the leg and if kept in this system will always require constant motivation to keep going.
Once you’ve gone ahead and done the self-assessment, what next?
If you’ve discovered that your horse is behind the leg, don’t despair, it’s a common problem, and as much as you have trained it INTO your horse, you can also train it OUT of them!
Firstly, you need to assess whether you have the physical capabilities to be effective with your legs i.e. the co-ordination and/or muscle memory to be fair but firm with these aids. If you think you need some work in this area consider doing some all-important work off the horse. Assess what skills you need to improve by standing over a bag of feed on the ground. Stand over it and use your heels on the side of the bag like you’re on your horse. You will quickly be made aware if you have the skills or not. If the answer is that you need to do more work, then repeat this exercise daily until you feel coordinated enough to replicate it on your horse.
Another tip in improving effectiveness of your legs, is to ensure you’re riding with a relaxed leg that’s long and hangs around your horse. Once you first sit on your horse, and if it’s safe to do so, let your feet hang out of the stirrups and stretch your legs as long as you can. Do this for about 5 minutes. When you take your stirrups back you will feel that your legs are longer, more relaxed and you are sitting deeper. That’s the feeling you have to try and maintain for the entire ride.
How to use shades of aids to get your horse in front of the leg
Let’s use the example of a horse that’s behind the leg in trot. When you’re trotting around, repeat that exercise of taking the pressure off your legs and riding quietly without pushing forward. Your horse will slow, and at that moment you need to apply the softest version of your leg aid, as a gesture that you would like a reaction. If there is no reaction and your horse continues to slow or ignore your gesture, swiftly after the first aid – apply a second aid that is firmer, quicker and ongoing until he/she gives you some acknowledgment. If the second response is similar, then this is where you have to be firm (but fair).
Apply what would be the most annoying irritating aid, with your legs and keep it going until your horse gives you a positive forward thinking ‘over’ reaction. In this instance, spurs or a whip can be used in an irritating fashion. If you choose a whip, I wouldn’t use it on the hind end but on the shoulder. I also don’t recommend using spurs or a whip to inflict pain. A horse won’t respond in a positive way to an aid that creates pain. It’s much more effective to use a softer version of the aid, be persistent and firm enough that the horse will search for a way to remove the annoyance. There will be times that you will need to ride through what is perceived as bad behaviour, but it’s simply the horse seeking a way to get rid of the annoyance. You as the rider, acting in a firm but fair way, need to remain diligent and poised to reward or repeat, all depending on the horse’s response.
The key to effortless riding is having the discipline to keep your horse in front of your leg, which you can achieve through clear communication, using shades of aids, and having clarity in what you are asking your horse to perform when you apply an aid.