Sunday, August 7, 2011

Working Towards Softness - Riding the Hind Legs

Dawn and I have been doing some lateral work at both the walk and trot - we've started with leg yield, just trying to get a good step or two at a time with the least aids possible.  Doing this work has made me think about how important it is to ride the hind end of the horse rather than the front end.  There's so much horse in front of us when we're in the saddle - the head, neck and shoulders - and that's what we see (particularly if we're looking at our horse's head rather than at where we're going!), and we're holding the reins, so it's natural to ride the front end of the horse.  I also think many of us are taught to ride using way too much hand (I know I was), and to pay too much attention to the position of the head and neck and not enough attention to the "feel" of the horse's movement and the softness or lack thereof.  There's also a (in my opinion bad) practice in certain disciplines of driving the horse from behind into your hands (I was also taught to do this) - that's a great way to get a horse that's braced from nose to tail.  Depending on your discipline, you may ride with contact or without it, but the role of the hands should be to give direction and to allow the motion, and to set boundaries (which need some elasticity) to the horse's head and neck position - but not to pull or force the horse's head into a particular position, or to act like a fifth leg and hold a leaning horse up.

My objective with my horses is self-carriage, where the horse's core is engaged and the top line is relaxed, with the result that the horse can move effectively, with softness.  This requires that I ride the hind legs in terms of their activity and engagement.  I try very hard not to push or drive with my legs or seat - I want my aids to be soft, not heavy - if I need to get a horse moving forward that isn't responding to a soft leg aid I add a secondary cue like a crop on my leg or the saddle (that's what I've been doing with Pie and to get Drift past his balking) - if I up the aid, I'm only training the horse to respond to that stronger aid rather than the soft aid I want the horse to respond to.  Also, pushing or driving with the legs or seat tends to create a brace in the rider's body that the horse will then brace against and also restricts the horse's motion.  I'm a big believer, with a horse that understands basic softening, in doing lots and lots and lots of transitions and also figures - circles, spiral in/out, serpentines, etc. - to help the horse learn to carry itself without my pushing with my legs or seat or pulling with my hands.

Helping the horse move more effectively also requires that I feel where the hind legs are and what they are doing - this allows me to "ride" the individual hind legs to time my cues when a particular hind leg that I want to do something is in the air so that the horse can more easily respond in a correct manner - this is useful for all sorts of things: canter departures (if you time your cue correctly when the hind leg needed to initiate the canter is in the air, the horse will take the correct lead, immediately), lateral work where a hind leg should step under (rather than the front end moving over and dragging the hind end along) and even turns or corners where I want the inside hind leg to step under, and halts - riding the hind legs is a great way to get square halts without the horse falling on the forehand.

So, when I'm asking Dawn to leg yield, at the walk I was focussing on the (outside) hind leg that I wanted to step under and lift her to the inside.  At the walk, the horse's barrel swings from side to side - when the barrel is swinging away from your leg (toward the middle of the horse), the barrel is getting out of the way of a hind leg that is stepping forward.  So to time my leg aid to ask that hind leg to move under, all I had to do was to follow the barrel as it moved away from my leg toward the middle of the horse, applying my leg aid, and voila!  the hind leg would step under and carry her sideways.  I also had to be sure to "allow" her motion by creating an opening for her to move into on the other side by not restricting with my leg or hand - if I think of my moving my own legs in "human leg yield" that feel is communicated to her. The same idea applies at the trot and canter, although learning where the hind legs are as the horse is moving takes some practice - having a helper on the ground practice with you as you say "right" (hind) or "left" (hind) as a hind leg leaves the ground can be very helpful.

It's fun riding the hind legs - all that wonderful power from the hindquarters is at your disposal and you can send it wherever you want - sure beats riding the head, at least in my book, in terms of how it feels and the results. (I've added this post to the "Working Towards Softness" sidebar.)


  1. Well, I read it, but you are miles ahead of me. What I mean is, I have no clue what you're talking about most of the time. But I am teachable, and at some point, I hope to be at a point where I read this stuff and go, "Oh yeah! I do that!"

  2. Leah - I think it's easier when you can see it demonstrated - I certainly had no idea about most of this stuff until I saw it. But sorry it wasn't clearer :(

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful response to my question about Doc's head carriage - this post is also helpful. I need to take lessons from you!!

  4. I have found it easier to get in tune with the hind legs when I ride bareback. I can feel the motion of the individual legs with my seatbones.

    Now if I could only do it under saddle... :)

  5. Great explanation, Kate! And timely for me, too.

    Sometimes I realize what a newbie I am, but posts like this add a little more to my tool belt.

  6. I know I should picture in my head when each hind leg is stepping, but I simply feel it instead. Guess I've been riding long enough that I don't have to think it all out--although I do occasionally ask at the wrong time. *S*

    Well explained, however, and a reminder to us all that the hind end is the key and if it's engaged the front end just kind of goes along correctly as well.

  7. Great post. Although I strive to time my aids with the hind legs, I'd like to do it more easily and intuitively.
    Sounds like you're making great progress with the leg yielding.

  8. It sounds like you're making real progress. Sometimes it helps to learn the feel of each leg separately by closing your eyes and concentrating. Glad you're feeling well enough to work the horses in this heat. I'm basically hiding in the house.

  9. I just saw a Julie Goodnight episode where she was helping a rider learn top give cues to back up not just with her hands but with her hole body. The rider had a good natured, very trained mare who would do anything she was asked. Which was good because the rider looked like she was still a beginner. It is SO USEFUL to see and read about how other people handle their training. In any case, this rider was obviously only thinking of the front end too. eacy mistake, but it is always good to use legs and seat. You know it can be done! Thanks for such a useful post.

  10. Amen. I love this post. The belly swing is an invaluable epiphany.

    Unfortunately, I think that many riders, like you and myself, were taught to push the horse into a brace and then abandoned this technique when we learned that there really is another way. I wish there was a way to learn it the first time, but then I would not appreciate the difference.

  11. thanks for the tutorial! Power from the hindquarters is so vitally important in every discipline... though in my 17.2 hh part draft gelding, he is powerful, but it can be hard for me to get him to tuck his butt up underneath him, i.e., executing a flying change, when he wants to switch only the front.

    good food for thought... thanks! Corinna

  12. I have (thankfully) strayed long and far from much of what I was taught growing up.

    I'm a much more casual rider than I used to be due to physical challenges - muscle disease - but my brain works just fine (well, mostly ;o) and I'm having to come up with more creative ways to improve my riding because I can't fall back on the physical. I'm with Val on the belly swing; handydandy info there. I love the way you puzzled this all out and wrote it down for the rest of us (thanks for sharing some more great stuff! :o)


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