You know the quickest, easiest way to push my buttons? Overhear an instructor standing in an arena yelling, use more leg, add leg, MORE LEG. Tear my hair out. Please, please, don’t add more leg.
A horse is standing quietly, when suddenly he starts to stomp his feet, wave his tail about and get really agitated. Why? Because a fly, midge or mosquito is biting him. He gets quite rattled, because it nips, releases, nips, releases, nips. How much weight, power LEG does a fly have? And yet, magic that, it gets a reaction. The fly gets more reaction than you do, and yet, he uses less leg.
The grumpy old pony mare who is queen in the paddock marches up to the great big dopey cob, with a scowl on her face and he speedily moves away from the hay pile. Did she use any leg? Add leg? MORE LEG? No, she pinned her ears back and marched with purpose, and he believed her. (Probably because the first time she demanded the hay and he didn’t move fast enough, she turned around and kicked him, fast, in and out… She certainly didn’t slowly add more leg.
Something goes bang of the road, and your horse shoots forwards. Did the bang USE MORE LEG? Ummm, no. It got a reaction, it held his attention – it wasn’t an irritating kick, kick, kick on his ribs.
A horse is more than capable of moving off the slightest possible signal, even just the change of your breath, so what possible reason could you ever have of using more leg? Make the signal louder?
Someone walks up to me and asks me to take a seat…. But, they are speaking French. I don’t speak French. They see that I am not reacting in the correct way, I’m still standing. So, they yell louder that I should sit. They yell louder and louder, but I’m still standing. Shouting at me louder, won’t help me understand French. The challenge is that I don’t understand, not that I don’t want to respond. And me yelling back in English that I don’t understand won’t help either. If the French speaker pulled the chair out and swept his hand across it, inviting me to sit in a manner that I could understand then we’d both be happy.
I was teaching a lesson recently, where the rider was flap, flap, flapping their legs on the poor horse’s sides. The horse was busy ignoring her and she was busy nagging. “Why are you flapping so much with your leg?” I asked? Because her instructor was always yelling, use more leg, more leg. There were other elements involved – the rider was not balanced and so was blocking the forward movement, and the horse was an elderly schoolmaster who was great at tuning out the rider. Watch, I said, as I stood by the horse for a few moments. I pushed my hands firmly against the horse’s shoulder, and after a second, he pushed back. He was happy leaning into a constant, non-demanding pressure. After a minute of me trying to push him over, of leaning more and more heavily against him and him not moving, (of me “adding more leg”, and him leaning into it) I gave up. And instead I started to tap his shoulder, just a niggle, like a fly landing on him, and look at that, he moved. I had his attention, and it was that pressure that had him moving his feet. It wasn’t adding more pressure at all (using more leg) – he weighs 5 or 6 times what I do, no human could physically move a horse in a way that he doesn’t agree to be moved to. It was in getting more reaction, that he moved.
So, what is the answer?
We humans all have a finite amount of leg to use. If you go into the gym with a child and a bodybuilding man to do some weightlifting with your legs, you’d all reach a limit. Maybe the child could lift 10kg. Maybe you could do 30. Maybe the weightlifter could do 50. But we all have a limit. “Using more leg” is going to hit a limit somewhere, and pretty much means that only big hefty men could ride horses, because how would the small legged child get her pony to move? And, your horse can feel a fly, why, oh why, would he need a 20kg thump in the ribs to get him going?
As one of my lovely pupils puts it, “if you want your horse to respond like a ballerina, why would you treat him like a rugby player?”
What do you need? You need MORE reaction from LESS leg. Think of your leg as an irritating fly – you whisper a leg aid, quiet the leg, whisper it again. And if you don’t get a reaction, then you give a sharper leg aid or a flick with a stick to say HELLO, reaction, then you make your leg quiet again. But please, please don’t use more leg…
There is a lesson on leg aids and the use of legs on the www.kudaguru.com for members.