Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

Putting Your Horse In Front of the Leg

by Lori Albrough

“Riding forward is the essence of correct training.”
~ Colonel Alois Podhajsky (1898 – 1974)
former Director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna

No matter what discipline you ride in or what level you ride at, your horse needs to go forward willingly from light leg aids. If you need to use strong leg aids to get your horse to go, or to keep him going, eventually you are going to be working harder than he is! When that happens, riding becomes more like work, and less like fun.

We call this phenomenon, when the horse does not respond immediately to a light driving aid, “behind the leg”. When your horse is behind the leg, you don’t have true influence over him, because he is deciding for himself whether or not he is going to respond, when, and how much. Even a hot and go-ey horse can be behind the leg. This type of horse can be covering ground forward, but he may have convinced you that you can’t put your leg on without him over-reacting, or he may just ignore the driving aids and set his own rhythm and tempo.

Were you ever told, maybe years ago: in the walk, squeeze with alternate legs; in the posting trot, squeeze every time you sit, or begin to rise; in the canter, squeeze once per stride? I remember this lesson years ago, no shame, that’s just what some people believed and taught. But you know what? By the rider taking over responsibility for maintaining the horse’s forwardness in that way, two things are going to happen. The first is the horse will get dull to the aids and start to tune them out. He can even get sour and cranky. You can just about see a thought balloon floating over his head saying, “Why is she telling me to go when I’m already going? Whatever!”

The second thing that happens with this strategy is the rider gets exhausted, and needs to take breaks really often. And the less responsive the horse is to the pushing, squeezing, and nudging, the more tired the rider will get, so the more breaks the horse will get. Soon, the horse will have the rider well trained to work really hard indeed, so he doesn’t have to!

Instead, we want to have our horses in front of our leg. When we do that, we require that the horse maintain the liveliness of his gait and his energy all by himself. We want to tell him to go, and in what gait, and have him stay that way until we tell him otherwise.

Training the horse to go forward eagerly from a light signal is a non-negotiable prerequisite to having the type of performance where it looks as though the horse is performing the movements of his own accord. For it to look that way, the rider needs to use almost invisible aids. For the aids to be invisible, the horse has to respond immediately to light aids. If you are using strong, frequent, long-held aids it is inevitably going to distort your position. This will make you look less elegant, be less effective, and take away from the “two bodies, one mind” ideal that we are after.

When a horse is truly in front of the leg, you have him thinking forward. He knows that a light leg aid means “I go forward!” and he will be eager to do so. This will make him a pleasure to ride. How do you train your horse to be this way? No surprise, it all starts with the rider.

First, you have to decide, and promise yourself, that you will not use strong, frequent, long-held leg aids ever again.

Then, from a walk, ask your horse to trot on by using a feather-light leg aid. If he surges forward immediately, perfect, reward him! If he gives you anything less than a 100% enthusiastic forward response, correct him immediately.

To correct him, you need to take his temperament into account, because what is enough for one horse can be way too much, or not enough, for another. So your goal in making the correction is that immediately after he ignored your light aid you either reinforce with your whip or kick him with both legs so that he jumps quickly forward into trot. Be careful to stay with him if he reacts by going really vigorously forward, because you don’t want to punish that correct response by getting left behind. If he canters on, that is great, just stay with him. You want your correction to have enough ooomph that the horse really leaps forward. If he just kind of speeds up a little, you need to amp up your correction, so he gives a big reaction.

Let him go for a while, then bring him back to walk, and wait until he is just going along normally, then re-test. The re-test is the most important part. To do it, you ask again for a trot by using a light aid. Now, honestly evaluate his reaction. Did he give you an immediate 100% enthusiastic forward response? If yes, great, reward him generously!

If not, correct him again, enough so that he really leaps forward. If you find yourself saying “that was better” or “pretty good”, then it’s not good enough. The response has to be immediate and 100%. Be that clear cut. The hardest part of this exercise is not in training the horse, it is having us as riders stay totally honest about the horse’s reaction. His response was either immediate and 100% enthusiastically forward (praise him!) or it wasn’t (correct him!).

It may come across as harsh to use a strong enough correction to get the horse to react that vigorously forward if he ignores your light aid. But it is far kinder to do this a few times to make a point, than it is to continuously nag, poke, and prod at the horse.

If you are consistent with this approach, and always remember to re-test until you get the correct reaction to your light aid, it won’t take long to train your horse to be in front of your leg. Stay honest and consistent in your approach at all times, because every time you are on the horse you are either training him, or he is training you. It is the kindest thing for the horse if you are consistent in your expectations and your reactions.

Once you have the feeling of a horse that is honestly in front of the leg, a horse who is thinking forward and immediately gives you a surge of power in response to your light leg aid, you will never want it any other way!


11 Responses to “Putting Your Horse In Front of the Leg”

  1. wendy satara wrote:

    Hi Lori, I am amazed how your blogs come at exactly the right time for me. I was riding my 17.3hh gelding this afternoon who has been so much work to get him in front of the leg. I have been doing lots of walk trot trans but he takes 3 to 4 steps to get there and just trots in a sub optimal speed. Being a large lad I give him the benefit of the doubt and allow him several trot circles to get up to speed, but i am so pooped he gets all the rest breaks! So new plan tomorrow! Go will mean go! thanks for your posts, always positive and kind, really enjoy them,will let you know how it works, thanks Wendy

  2. Mary wrote:

    Thank you, thank you for the excellent reminder! My horses have trained me well! Consistency is my biggest challenge! And to not be a nagging mother. You are so good Lorie, thank you for covering all of the important “little” details that are often taken for granted.

  3. Mariah wrote:

    I am really enjoying these articles!
    They are always so timely. After just a few corrections on our trail ride today my fjord mare was paying very careful attention to my legs. It was wonderful! Thank you for always breaking things down into easy little pieces.
    Thanks so much!

  4. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Thank you guys!! Mary, you are so right, there are no “little” details 🙂

  5. The Second Pillar : Fundamentals wrote:

    […] The one other fundamental quality for a rider that I would add to this brief list, is that of being clear and consequent, both with your aids and your expectations. This goes back to my ABC principle explained in the articles: The ABC’s of Training: Always Be Clear, and Putting Your Horse in Front of the Leg. […]

  6. Warm-up for a Supple Topline wrote:

    […] After ten minutes, take up the reins and go into rising trot, asking the horse to stretch forward-downward. To ask for this stretch, you must first have a one hundred percent forward enthusiastic reaction to the leg. When you give a squeeze with your lower calf, you need to feel a surge of power going forward. Without this forward surge, the horse’s energy is not going through his body towards the bridle, and using a rein aid won’t have the desired effect. That one hundred percent forward enthusiastic reaction to the leg is the first prerequisite to the concept of riding from back to front. For help with achieving this see my article Putting Your Horse in Front of the Leg. […]

  7. Juliane Deubner wrote:

    Hi Lori, I keep going back to this article. After doing a lot of outside rein/inside leg work with my 5-year old fjord (with the help of a dressage trainer) I found that my horse ‘got stuck’, meaning that he did not really want to move forward. I decided to go back to just riding him forward with contact but on a looser rein. I have started to use the advice in your ‘putting your horse in front of your leg’ article. He is getting better, responding to lighter aids. But I am not sure what to do if he starts going forward 100% ie at the trot, but then slows down to a slower trot instead of just going at the same speed. Do I use the light leg aid and then, if necessary, a firmer aid to speed him up again in the same gait, similar to what I would do when transitioning from walk to trot?
    Thanks again for your excellent articles.

  8. Lori Albrough wrote:

    Hi Juliane, yes you’re on the right track! Your go-forward aid won’t necessarily “last forever”, especially if he is a laid-back type, so if he loses forwardness, you give another impulse of energy in the form of your light squeeze, and you want to have the reaction of a nice forward surge. If that doesn’t happen, you will correct, whether that is a kick or use the whip or whatever works for him to get a huge leap forward. This is a correction, so it shouldn’t just result in what you asked nicely for, now he needs to give WAY MORE. It may require a series of quick kicks, rat-a-tat-tat. Make it memorable. You don’t want to be doing this every time. It’s just for training and making a point. The MOST IMPORTANT PART is then to re-test. Once things settle, can I give a light aid and get a nice forward surge? That is what has to work. Without the re-test we are just training them to need bigger and bigger aids to go forward, opposite of what we want. Hope this helps.

  9. mohammed wrote:

    Thanx for your information .You are fantastic.
    plz, What are the steps for shoulder in .When I make shoulder in , my horse makes shoulder for .
    plz tell me how to do it.
    thank you.

  10. Kara wrote:

    I relly loves this article! One quick question however, I ride hunters, and my horse is always so slow and uses a ton of leg, this is annoying on the flat but can get dangerous when jumping as he has fallen a few too many times after a fence. I wanna teach him to go in front of my leg, but I need to jump in spurs and I fell like I won’t be able to enforce a big reaction if I’m in the middle of a course. Should I just work on it on the flat, or will that not get me anywhere because he won’t learn to always be in front of my leg?

  11. "Give him more energy" - The Horse Forum wrote:

    […] to give a horse more energy if you don't have to pump them for it every step during the ride! Putting Your Horse In Front of the Leg SteadyOn is online now   Quote Quick Reply var horses=new […]

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