Lately we've encountered a surprising number of riders who insist that previous trainers (all in dressage) have told them not to use their leg aids to drive their horses forward or to achieve a half-halt to slow down. Surprised by this, we've encouraged these riders to disregard that advice and to actively use their legs.
Several of them have said they're amazed—and relieved—at how much more relaxed and willing their horses have become after they've started using their legs.
We've always believed that riders should use all their aids, including leg aids, as lightly as possible but as strongly as necessary. So, puzzled by the no-leg-at-all advice, we decided to investigate.
We began by asking Margaret Freeman, a popular S-rated dressage judge and our Associate Editor, if she'd experienced the no-leg theory. Her observation confirmed this troubling problem:
"Picture a horse coming down the centerline to halt at X or G. One thing the judge sees that most people don't see is the straightness of the halt. I often see horses cross their legs going into the halt (usually at training level, but it can happen all the way to Grand Prix). This is caused by more hand than leg, so that the horse crashes on its forehand and has to cross its front legs to regain balance.
"Since I judge 2,000 tests a year, which means 4,000 centerline halts, I often glance at the rider's legs before the halt—away from the horse, toes out, toes in, spurs in, no spurs, light and straight, etc. I can almost always predict the quality of the halt well before it happens by the position of the rider's legs."
To The Classics. Next we went to Lt. Col. A.L. d'Endrody's classic book Give Your Horse A Chance. The French master observes that riding and training a horse can become an existential experience, a feeling of oneness. But that feeling doesn't happen quickly with a young horse. It takes years of training, often requiring aids that are not at all existential. (See Bertalan de Nemethy: The Jumper Perspective.)
D'Endrody writes that contact between the rider's legs and the horse's sides creates the essential connection between the two.