Sylvia Loch: Learning the language of legs *H&H VIP*

  • The more I train riders for dressage, the more I wonder what happened to normal riding school practices.

    Today’s dressage riders often have highly talented horses but how many know how to ride them in a comprehensive way? Too much is expected too soon, and if the building blocks of equitation are not employed, the horse cannot possibly offer what is requested. Like us, he can only learn step by step, which is why the traditional exercises and their aids are so important. But are they being taught?

    Good riding is nothing to do with how good your horse is. Neither is it to do with stickability or courage across country. What concerns me is the lack of knowledge about quite simple requests such as riding a good circle, a proper turn, a clean canter depart or a simple rein-back.

    However talented the horse, he can hardly perform these requests in a balanced manner unless the rider’s aids are correct. While hands are a minefield, there should be no excuse for a lack of knowledge concerning the placement of the rider’s legs. Everyone can learn that; yet many have little idea. As the instructor used to call, “Whole ride — turn down the centre line”, did they not also add, “Inside leg at the girth, outside leg behind”?

    This is basic stuff and I learned it from an ex-cavalry officer. But these people were often sneered at by those who knew better, and I gather there are even fewer people today who teach the how and the why, as well as the commands. It’s all draped in mystery — or do some instructors not know themselves?

    Matters like the position of the rider’s legs are a case in point. Hip to heel is great while practising on the lunge, but too many seem stuck there. And if the rider’s hips are not well forward in the saddle, heaven help the horse.

    The legs should be fluid and mobile. Basically, legs further back places more pressure under the front of the saddle, which can block forward progression, but assists the rein-back. Lower legs hanging in the vertical and lightly applied at the girth stimulates the intercostal nerve. Used in isolation, the inside leg encourages bend while the outside leg behind the girth assists sideways movement and encourages canter depart. And so on.

    ‘Feeling’ your way

    Simply put, every aid exerts a weight shift, but if it is to complement the horse’s balance, we need to know when it’s appropriate. That’s how we build that essential quality of “feel”.

    Nowadays, there is too much obsession about outline, which generally leads to what we in the profession call “hand riding”. It concerns me that the language of the legs is not being sufficiently taught long before a rider enters the dressage arena. It would be very sad indeed if have we reached a stage where people will “do dressage” having never learned those basic principles. Not so long ago the weight aids were part and parcel of basic horsemanship — burned into the rider’s subconscious.

    Back to basics

    So when a new student arrives for a dressage lesson, it often becomes necessary to give a riding lesson first. I am happy to do this, but I know of several trainers who feel this is not their job. Unfortunately, the horse is often blamed for not responding to his rider’s requests but how can he when he is only following his natural instinct to move under their balance? And how many riders recognise that something as simple as failing to drop the inside leg in a turn, may force the horse to fall out on the opposite shoulder?
    As Podhajsky once wrote: “It is never the horse’s fault…” How right he was, but how many riders and their teachers take that on board?  For the sake of the horse, we need to reinforce this message to all riders. Time for the textbooks again.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 29 December 2016