Education vs. Strength

Use degrees of pressure to get your horse to respond to light aids instead of wearing yourself out with nagging leg and rein aids.

Many riders don’t differentiate between using the leg and using the spur. To them, the two go hand in hand. Soon the horse becomes dead to the nagging leg–spur combination and stops responding. Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Are you as strong as your horse? Of course not. Then why do some riders use so much leg until they are completely worn out yet their horses are still not going forward? They use their spurs inadvertently every time they use their legs, sometimes going so far as to make spur marks on their horses.

This is unfortunately quite common. Many riders don’t differentiate between using the leg and using the spur—to them, the two go hand in hand. Soon the horse becomes dead to the nagging leg-spur combination and the result is a lack of response and a spur mark that sometimes can actually draw blood. A bloody spur mark is cause for elimination in a dressage show.

A well-trained horse will move away from the leg, either forward or laterally, whichever is asked for, without exhausting the rider. If your horse will move away only from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s leg or the equivalent, then he needs to be trained.

My friend and mentor George Morris is demonstrating the result of the take and give of the hand in elastic, small intervals and the educated use of the leg to encourage the horse’s hind legs to step: a lighter horse and self-carriage. Amy K. Dragoo

An Educated Leg

I am in favor of using a spur if applied in an educated way, not indiscriminately. I have never left a spur mark on a horse and would be upset if I did. Instead, I ask the horse to move forward from my leg with light, active pressure. The lower leg, below the knee, is to what I am referring. If the horse responds by going forward, I ease my leg pressure and let him travel forward by himself.

If he doesn’t respond, I use more active leg pressure and add a cluck. The next step, if needed, is a quick prick with a spur as a backup. Still no response? I add a stick behind my leg in conjunction with the leg and the cluck so the horse associates the leg with the cluck, spur and stick as he goes forward. He then should stay in front of the leg with minimal pressure and, if needed, little reminders. I like to teach this supportive leg as opposed to the constant nagging or kicking leg. The horse must be trained to accept these aids.

The end result is balance with the horse in front of the rider’s leg.

I once heard trainer Frank Madden say that he works on the “asking, telling, making” premise. I like that progression and use the terminology often. In this case it is leg, cluck and spur and then the stick in that order. Asking is done with the leg and then adding a cluck. Telling is with the spur, and making happens with the stick. These aids are used consecutively—if one doesn’t work then you go to the next one.

I came across an example of a rider using the wrong leg or misusing the leg recently. I was teaching a beginner and she was unable to keep her horse cantering. He kept breaking to the trot. She squeezed with every bit of strength she had but couldn’t keep the horse going. She had been misusing the leg aid—making it stronger and stronger without getting a response until he eventually tuned her out.

I hopped on and though this rider was many times stronger, I had absolutely no difficulty maintaining the canter. How did I do it? I used my leg lightly yet actively (no spurs) with degrees of pressure while maintaining contact with my leg. I also kept my hands soft and my balance consistently in the middle of the horse. It is more feel than strength.

An Educated Hand

The same goes if your horse pulls you or lays on your hands for support and you continually take hold of his mouth. This numbs his mouth and inevitably, he’ll lean on your hand even more. Or if he’s looking for support and you oblige him, he will expect you to hold him up instead of carrying himself. Working on the knowledge that it takes two to pull, I don’t have to tell you who will win this tug of war.

In the case of pulling, go back to the asking, telling, making method.

Asking translates into closing your hand, telling involves using the hinge in your arm and bringing the closed hand back toward your waist. Making is adding your body weight by bringing the shoulder behind the vertical.

Once your horse responds to any of these steps, you must give or release with your hand, which will reward him for doing the correct thing and encourage him to give the same response the next time.

The Result: Self-Carriage

The result of the take and give of the hand in elastic, small intervals and the educated use of the leg to encourage the horse’s hind legs to step under is a lighter horse and self-carriage. Again, employing degrees of pressure instead of nagging, dull aids will result in a more responsive horse.

Upward and downward transitions are perfect exercises for reminding the horse to respond to legs to go forward and hands to come back. Asking the horse to back up is an additional reminder to respond to hands. This is not to be done in a punishing way but in a nice rhythm in a straight line for about four steps, followed immediately by moving forward into a working walk. Patterns in all of your schooling, such as circles and serpentines, not only keep the work interesting for your horse but they help balance and soften him, encouraging self-carriage.

All of these drills must be trained and practiced with educated hands and legs—not brute strength—and never with temper. The result will be a more highly trained and responsive horse who is eager to please and easier to ride.

Trainer, judge, clinician and author Holly Hugo-Vidal is based in Milton, Georgia, at her farm, Pacific Blue. Growing up in New York, she trained with horseman George Morris, who instilled in her a belief in solid basics and a demand for excellence. With her former husband, Victor Hugo-Vidal, she ran the successful show barn Cedar Lodge Farm in Stamford, Connecticut, learning from Victor’s ability to help anyone with a desire to accomplish his or her goals. Her next mentor was show jumper Rodney Jenkins, who provided her with lessons in reading horses and creating in them a desire to please. She is the author of the book Build Confidence Over Fences! To purchase it, go to

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.

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