It was the shoulder-in that did me in. I had just started riding again after a couple years off, and I wanted to focus on my dressage as I got back into the swing of things. But try as I might, I simply could not seem to tell my inside leg what to do. It FELT like I was putting the leg on with all my strength, but in reality given my lack of strength at the time, it probably felt nearly imperceptible to the horse. It’s frustrating to feel as if your inside leg is doing nothing - in fact, the horse seems determined to lean and push against it, giving you that awful “falling to the inside on two wheels” feeling.
Accuracy in the dressage ring - the round, full circles, the straight diagonals, the perfect lateral work - stems from accuracy of the rider’s aids. Surely you know the feeling of a horse that simply loves to lean on the inside leg for balance. When this happens, it can be difficult - if not nearly impossible - to create correct movement. This concept transfers to any discipline: turning in the jumper ring, smooth lines in the hunter ring, excellent roll-backs in the equitation ring, and so on.
Of course, in terms of the inside leg, there are a couple of working parts to factor in here: the horse’s inside hind leg and the horse’s bend. The idea of the inside leg aid is to activate the inside hind and create a bend through the horse’s ribcage. As with any aid, this should come from a properly applied inside leg, not the inside rein.
Improving your aids and your horse’s response to them is key for getting your horse off of your inside leg. We tapped into the expertise of Grand Prix dressage trainer and coach Lauren Sprieser to bring you five days’ worth of help to fine tune your inside leg and get your horse properly bending.
Day One: Corner the Issue
“Start by doing everything you would normally do. That’s a good place to start. That may be your whole problem. If you’re hanging on the inside rein and you are begging and begging with the inside leg, then you are not setting your horse up for success anyway.
So test where you’re at. If I put my leg on and tell my horse to walk forward, what does he do? Does he march off like he’s been fired out of a cannon, or does he take his sweet time? Do his ears go back when my leg goes on? These are all basic questions of what the horse thinks the application of any leg means. On an educated horse, you can identify different aids by using different parts of your leg. Does he understand the concept of moving away from one leg? Test this - without relying on your reins - at the walk, trot, and canter as you warm up.
If you’re having trouble lengthening your leg to apply it or if you collapse through your own ribcage, take your leg aid off, readjust your position, then reapply it. Don’t just keep your leg on like a vice with no response. This will only deaden your horse to your aids.
Now take your horse into the corners of your arena. Does he expect to go into the corner, or have you allowed him to get by without truly bending through them?
One exercise I like to use to test engagement is to ride straight for a corner, transition down to one step of walk maybe five or six meters away from the corner, then pick up the trot again, then turn through the corner. It’s important that each of these happen as individual steps, not blurred together.”
Remember this corner exercise for later in the week, when you’ll test it again after implementing the remainder of the exercises.
Day Two: Turn On the Forehand
“The turn on the forehand is a much-overlooked exercise, but it’s just bloody wonderful for so many things. But here’s the key: many horses will respond to the aid for a turn on the forehand all at once, spinning around in anticipation rather than taking one step at a time. This negates the purpose of using the exercise to fine-tune your inside leg aid.
I would say it’s imperative in my mind to ask the horse to move only one step at a time. Most horses want to be left alone, and so you tell them and they want to tune you out and they’ll spin around because that’s the aid you gave them 10 seconds ago, not the aid you’re applying right now.
Ask yourself: is my horse responding to my aids in real-time? If the answer is no, then you may need to spend some time honing in on this. I will often work on the turn on the forehand from the ground, teaching the horse to respond one step at a time, one aid at a time.”
Day Three: Spiral Circle
“This is a good exercise for everyone and for every horse. Get on a 20-meter circle, then make it a 19-meter circle, then an 18-meter circle, and so on. You probably don’t want to go a whole lot smaller than a 10-meter circle at the trot and a 15-meter circle at the canter. Once you’ve made the circle smaller - again using your leg aids to create proper bend - begin to slowly spiral out.
When I ride this exercise, I want my horse’s bum to hit the wall first as I spiral out. This activates the inside hind and makes it work harder, while my outside leg stays in place to keep him from falling out through his shoulder. His ribcage should remain compressed around my inside leg as he spirals outward.
What is easy to do is to chuck the outside rein and say, ‘Jesus, take the wheel,’ and end up with a horse falling through the outside shoulder, but what I really want is for my horse’s inside leg to work harder. I am thinking that he is going to leg yield over from only the back end.”
Day Four: Head to the Wall Leg Yield
“This is my ‘get off my leg’ exercise. This encourages the horse to listen and respond to the leg in a way that says ‘engage’ instead of ‘go.’ Their head should not be overly flexed to the outside - this is how you’ll know you are using too much direct rein.
Coming down the long side, you’ll want to angle your horse’s body at about 45 degrees from the wall. The head should be facing the wall, and the horse should be leg-yielding off of your former outside leg (so, if tracking to the right, the left leg becomes the inside leg).
This exercise can be done at the walk or, if you’re feeling confident, the trot. But don’t sacrifice integrity for pace. Just as with the gym, where you may be able to lift 20 pounds correctly, but 30 makes you lose your form, slower can sometimes be better to truly get the form right.”
Day Five: Revisit Your Corners
“Now let’s test how well these exercises have paid off. Once again, track into your corners, using a walk transition for one step to encourage balance and redistribution of the horse’s weight to his hind end. How do your corners feel now? If you’ve spent some time refining your leg aid and your horse’s response to it, chances are you’re feeling more balanced and your horse feels more responsive to the aid. If not? Don’t get discouraged! Keep trying - as with any training program, repetition and true understanding of a concept is key. Over time, you will feel your balance improve and your horse will respond more accurately to these improved aids.
Working on the minutiae of the leg aids can help your horse become more sensitive to them and, as a result, react better and more quickly to them."
How did your horse improve over the course of this 5-day program? Let us know in the comments so we can cheer you on!