A Little Less Squeeze Please!

One of the more misunderstood parts of riding, I am noticing more and more, and the apparent difference between good riders and the really great ones, is the application of the aids and how to relate them back into something the horse understands. This of course has plenty to do with feel and being able to understand what the horse is doing underneath you, translating it back to him and talking back to the horse in a way he understands. Seat is an aid that I see as the cherry on top – when you really GET IT. And that takes time…. And mileage…. And lots of practise…. What I am seeing though is a difficulty at a more basic level. Hands and legs.

For years and years instructors, like myself, would absolutely drill into our pupils – less hand and more leg – it became our mantra. For every bit of hand you use you should be using twice as much leg…. Ride from inside leg into outside rein…. Give with the hand…. Drive with the leg…. What we seeing more and more is a loose, flapping contact and legs that grip and grind at every stride. No hand and all leg. Of course what I love to see is hand, leg and MOSTLY seat!

As a good example, I went off to go try a young Friesian cross as a potential purchase for a friend and was told in no uncertain terms that I would need a crop as the horse was just absolutely dead off the leg. I politely refused the crop, firstly because the horse was very young and seemed a little unsure of humans and my gut said to just get on first. Once on the youngster, I realised quickly that this horse was by no means dead to the leg – it was dead to the grip! Any young horse starting out will be a little unsure, a little off balance and will favour comfort above all. If you applied a leg aid to the horse he would listen for all of a split second but if you kept asking with the leg, he would tense up, stop breathing and that would slow him to a crawl as he tried to figure out how he was going to keep moving, hold himself together and still try to focus on the task at hand. If you took your leg away from his sides and just stay with him for the first few strides, he was able to let go, breathe out and started striding out with much more confidence. Eventually, he started to relax mentally and a horse that was absolutely switched off to being ridden so early in his career already began to breathe, relax and pay attention.

Horses don’t like having someone’s legs wrapped around them in a vice grip. It is essential that the leg hang relaxed next to the horse’s side and ONLY is used in a small sharp tap and let go movement when something is being asked of the horse. We are seeing too many riders banging away at their poor long suffering horses in an attempt to create impulsion and go, when in fact they will only achieve the opposite. Forward movement starts in the mind, then the body - from a relaxed state and a desire to want to work, being sharp off the rider’s aids and being rewarded by a quiet conversation. I always tell my riders when I teach them about aids that when I am speaking to them loudly and I suddenly speak in a soft voice, their first instinct is to…? LISTEN HARDER! The same can be said of the aid, especially the leg. When you go quiet in the saddle the horse will instinctively try to work out what you want and listen harder. At first that can be very difficult, especially with a horse that has been used to tuning out the rider. When I first began work with Pee Wee, it took spurs and two crops to keep him going, but I decided early on that I was not going to use the same method and began to use less and less leg. In the beginning it was terrifying – his walk (never his best pace) would feel as though he was going to grind to a halt any second if I stopped tapping but guess what? He never did! I had to let go of the idea of pushing him forward into every stride so that he could decide to move himself and start finding a new confidence in being able to control his own body again.

The other problem I see so often with this all leg and no hand method is that riders will try to work a horse on no contact at all. Many younger riders I find are scared of the feeling of a contact as they fear they will hurt the horse’s mouth, but in truth, if there is no contact the horse will never be able to carry himself correctly and all his ridden work will just be wasted mileage on his legs and mind and have no purpose.

A horse needs to work over his body into a steady contact. When you ride your horse you make constant conversation with him through the hand. You ask, he talks, you answer and so it goes. Your rein is like a fine wire that goes right into his soul as it were – I realise how ‘hippie’ that sounds but that is the only way I can describe it. Where the leg guides, the seat controls, the hand communicates. Without a contact, the horse is lost – talking to himself. The rein aid is so sensitive that you should imagine yourself carrying razor blades inside your fist as you ride. That is how subtle the aid should be, but never loose. You should always have the horse at the end of your contact. An easy way to explain contact is while riding long and low. Too often you will see a rider asking the horse to work in stretch by simply throwing the rein away to the buckle. The horse usually responds by planking out the neck and settling into a sleep-walk. From there any instruction would be ignored until the rider snatches up the rein, the horse in shock at being awoken from his slumber breaks off into trot and the rider is left puzzled as to what the aim of such a seemingly pointless exercise could be. When you ride a stretch in long and low, you slowly let the bit go forwards and you allow the horse to follow the contact to the point where you want him. The walk stays active and the horse must stretch out over a raised shoulder. So I would collect up the walk slightly to increase hind leg activity, lift up the shoulder and balance the horse and from there, allow the contact to move forward. The horse is still on my aid. We are still communicating with each other and the way I know my horse is working correctly through the stretch is that in long and low, I can change rein on a figure of 8 and he stays on my aid where I want him. I can proceed to trot; he stays right there with me. I can canter out of walk on a long rein and he will easily slide into canter, keeping himself low and his frame intact. I can then halt out of that canter with him still long and low and he is active, engaged and listening to my aid. That is rein contact. Not a blind sawing, sponging and general flurry of activity, but rather a steady and consistent pressure that is electric with chatter.

An aid is only applied when needed. Then you stop asking. Having a busy rider on board must feel to the horse like being a passenger on an airplane seated next to a loud chatty Cathy. After a while you tune out her voice and nod your head absently while pretending to be interested in anything she is saying and praying that the flight will be over soon.

The point of this article, then, is to make the rider and instructor aware that sometimes a little MORE rein and a little LESS leg will go a lot further than endless kicking and sawing on a long rein while the horse prays that the ride will end soon and he can retreat to some quiet space. Let the horse move, let him breathe and let him decide to move while you guide and whisper and he will thank you for it!

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