Understanding Leg Aids

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Riders communicate with their horses using horse-logical pressures we call aids. The 'natural' aids include the hands (reins), seat (weight), and legs. Riders use a 'circle of aids' to create a corridor of pressures that asks a horse to perform a specific combination of gait, rhythm, pace, direction, and other nuances.

Even though riders do not use one natural aid in total isolation from the others, discussing leg aids separately can help riders understand their options for applying leg aids and how those options influence the horse. The rider's right leg pressure influences the horse's right hind leg while the rider's left leg pressure influences the horse's left hind leg. The basic leg influences are:

  • Leg on—driving
  • Leg on—keeping, or
  • Leg off.

Driving leg pressure asks the horse for movement, for energy. Keeping leg pressure asks the horse to hold or maintain a shape or direction or gait. When a leg is off the horse, there is no pressure from the leg on that side.

These basic influences are further refined when leg is applied:

  • Unilaterally—one leg driving, one leg keeping
  • Bilaterally—both legs driving, or
  • Variably—the leg pressure varies from stride to stride.

The ability to vary a pressure is one of the primary differences between an aid and a cue. Whether the leg is used as a driving aid or a keeping aid, the degree of its pressure can vary. When we teach beginning riders, we use little pictographs as tools to explain which combination of aids riders use for a given movement. The reality is that these visual recipes provide only limited information because they cannot illustrate variability.

Our green horses receive extensive groundwork until they develop a full understanding of corridors of pressure and how to respond to them. When we start them under saddle, the first ride occurs in a small arena that limits the horse's ability to move too far too fast. The rider leaves the reins alone and waits to see what the horse offers. Depending on the horse's personality, it may amble away from the mounting block, offer a trot, or even strike off on a canter. As soon as the horse moves, the rider softly applies the correct leg and seat aids for whatever the horse offers. Gradually, the horse makes a connection between the feel of a specific corridor of pressures and a particular gait. And gradually, the trainer introduces rein aids for a full circle of aids.

As the horse's understanding of aids increases, variable leg pressures allow a sophisticated conversation between horse and rider. For example, a dressage rider can ask the horse for a working trot, medium trot, collected trot, or extended trot. In order to communicate which trot she wants, the rider has to do more than just drive with both legs. Did the rider use the appropriate degree of pressure? Did the rider use the right degree of driving or keeping from each leg? The horse's response is the rider's primary feedback. The degree of pressure that the rider uses will depend on the horse's training level, personality, and physical sensitivity. The rider's end goal should be to communicate with the lightest aids possible, invisible to those watching.

The rider can vary both driving and keeping pressures depending on what she wants the horse to do at a specific moment. For example, if a horse starts to 'chase' around the arena, quickening his steps rather than lengthening them, the rider can keep the driving leg pressure on just a little longer to slow the horse's rhythm rather than driving in the rhythm the horse is moving.

Whenever a rider creates a corridor of aids, it is important to leave an opening for the horse to release the energy she creates with her driving leg aids. For example, in the leg yield left the rider increases the pressure of the left leg asking the horse to move away from that pressure. The rider's right (outside) leg is back and keeping, suggesting an opening to the right to the horse. The horse picks up the left hind and moves it both over and forward instead of just forward. The outside rein (right rein) inhibits the forward motion slightly and redirects it forward and sideways, while also maintaining straightness in the horse's body.

Some riders are confused about whether they should apply leg pressure at the girth, behind the girth, or way behind the girth. Ideally, the rider would like her driving leg just behind the girth, but the conformation of some horses and the leg length of some riders make this difficult. The most important thing is that the inside of the rider's lower leg should be able to make contact with the horse's side. The rider should think of stretching her leg down and around the horse's side. There should be no gripping or tension. The rider has to have her seat and upper body in the correct position in order to control the position of her lower leg.

The rider's basic position is more important than exactly where her leg falls on her horse. Ideally, a plumb line dropped from the rider's ear will pass through her hip and ankle. The critical thing is that she needs to maintain the correct position of her thighs and hips so that she can give leg aids with the inside of her calf, not the back of the calf. The thigh should lie flat on the saddle. In order to use leg aids correctly the rider must not grip with the thigh muscles or the knee. Gripping with the thigh muscles or the knees locks the hip joint. The hip joint is the rider's shock absorber. If the rider locks her hip joints, she cannot follow the horse's motion and, therefore, cannot apply leg aids effectively. The upper body or torso must remain stable in order for the lower leg to stay stable. If the rider has to move around to apply the leg aids that movement interrupts her balance and her aids will not be clear to the horse.

Leg aids are just one of the natural aids we use to communicate with our horses. The 'circles of aids' we create with them are much like the sentences we construct from individual words to communicate with friends. As the rider develops an independent seat and the horse gains an understanding of the many variations possible in aid pressures, they can work together to write poetry in motion.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

When I left the Manor I had accumulated almost 2000 hours in the saddle under some of the finest instructors in the world. I was a new person, full of the confidence that comes with realizing a dream. I now have a solid foundation to continue on my own, to set new goals and realize new dreams.
Kelly Lagos: 2005 Riding Master VI Graduate