The leg-yield is a basic training method that can be used with any riding discipline. Some the many nice things that leg-yield can do for you and your horse are:
• Suppling the horse’s top line.
• Directing the horse to remain reliably on the bit.
• Making the horse more attentive to leg aids.
• Helping the horse understand the connection of inside leg to outside rein.
• Creating more space under the inside of the horse’s midsection, thus allowing the inside hind leg to reach under more easily.
The horse will naturally follow the direction of the rider’s weight to maintain his balance without resorting to any other aids at all. A young horse that is not yet completely comfortable with the weight of the rider will be especially sensitive to any shift of weight to the side. You can make use of this tendency to start training leg-yields. If you place more weight in one stirrup while you activate the opposite leg, the horse will eventually learn to move away from that active leg.
Another natural tendency of the horse that will aid in training leg-yields is the tendency to drift away from the direction of bend. Add the pull of centrifugal force, and you’ll find that the easiest place to start learning leg-yields is on a large circle.
Start with riding a round circle, no smaller than the classic size of 20 meters across (approximately 66 feet). Since the horse should be looking slightly away from the direction of flow in a leg-yield, widen your inside hand slightly inside the withers while keeping the outside rein connected with the neck/shoulder. Place the inside leg slightly behind the girth and the outside leg back as well to receive the action along with the outside rein. Step into your outside stirrup and activate your inside leg. If the horse doesn’t quite get it, add a light tap with a dressage-length whip behind the inside leg.
When the horse takes a couple steps to the outside, then make the weight again equal on both stirrups and ride the horse forward on that new line, a circle that is now about 22 meters across. Reward the horse with a pat (with the inside hand!) and a ”good boy.” Depending on how much space you have, you can then repeat the same action and make the circle larger by another couple meters. Or you can point the horse back into the circle where you started and then leg yield out again.
You don’t want to leg yield into the circle because the horse would be counter-bent. Just point the horse back into the smaller circle before you start to leg yield out again. If your ring is only 20 meters wide to begin with, then start this exercise by pointing the horse down onto an 18-meter circle and leg yield out to 20.
It’s important, when leg yielding on a circle, that you keep the circle ROUND. Don’t let the horse drift away toward the short ends of the ring into a weird sort of egg shape. If the horse just drifts around on his own, he won’t learn to actually move away from your inside leg. Keep your connection with the outside rein and, if the horse starts to drift, activate your outside calf.
Resist the inclination to move your hands toward the direction you want to go, because it will take your outside hand off the neck and make the horse insecure, as if he had two inside reins. He needs the stability of the outside rein on the neck to feel welcome moving toward that hand. You want him to ”fill” the outside rein.
The same inclination may also lead you to cross the inside hand over the line of the mane. In that case the horse will likely go above the bit because the snaffle bit will then pinch the corners of his mouth. The inside hand should remain slightly wide of the withers.
As the horse becomes more responsive to the inside calf aids, you may no longer need to put weight in the outside stirrup to cue him sideways but instead can put more weight on your inside seat bone, which will increase the horse’s engagement overall.
Once your horse is comfortable when moving away from your inside leg on a curved line, you’re ready to try straight lines, moving on a diagonal across the arena while remaining parallel to the long side.
Start with the ”inside” or ”second” track, a line several feet in from the rail, just inside the usual track. Ride around the end of the ring, passing the center line, and turn onto the inside track. Ride straight, using the connection on your outside rein to keep your horse from being drawn sideways by the seemingly magnetic effect of the rail. When he’s willing to stay straight, then step into your outside stirrup while you activate your inside calf and maintain the connection with your outside rein and leg, just as you did before on the circle.
When the horse becomes comfortable with this idea from the inside track, the next time around the short end turn down the quarter line. After the horse goes straight for a couple steps, then leg yield to the rail. Continue this until your horse can leg yield from the center line to the rail.
A variation of the straight-line work is to change the bend and reverse the direction, moving from the rail to the center line. After the corner, make sure your horse is straight on the rail. Widen the hand that’s next to the rail away from the withers to make it the new inside hand, activate the calf next to the rail and step down into the opposite stirrup. Have your whip in the hand next to the rail in case the horse needs a light tap behind your active leg. Make sure you maintain the connection on the hand away from the rail, because it has to become your new outside hand.
You can pretty well leg yield anywhere you want in the ring as long as your horse maintains his balance. You can also do the work in all three gaits.
The leg-yield is useful for improving the balance in riding corners. Don’t think of a corner as a 90-degree angle but rather as the arc of a circle. Plan to cut the corner slightly, but as you enter the corner leg yield into it. You should be able to make a much deeper corner this way, while the horse more easily maintains his balance. This also helps the rider to negotiate corners without relying on the inside rein.
One of the most useful applications of leg-yield is to help the horse learn to go on the bit, again without resorting to active hand aids. When the horse yields through his rib cage under the rider’s inside leg, he naturally softens down across the withers. Any time a rider feels his horse start to stiffen against his hand and raise his head, he should be able to keep his hands still and just ask for a subtle leg-yield for a step or two. The horse should soften through his top line and into the rider’s hand.
If you find it hard to sort out the aids for leg-yield, start with the walk. If you feel real resistance in the walk or any tightness in the horse’s back that is more than momentarily, leave the leg-yield and move straight forward immediately. The ideal gait for learning leg-yield is the posting trot.
Most problems with leg-yield are created by a rider with equitation issues.For starters, keep your hands quiet. The inside hand should widen slightly off the neck but should never be drawn back toward the body or across the line of the mane. The outside rein should remain touching the neck. The idea is to create bend under the rider’s inside leg, not in the neck. If you have enough flexion to the inside to see the horse’s inside eyelash and the edge of his nostril, that’s plenty.
The horse should lower his neck as you start sideways. If he raises his head and stiffens, then ride straight ahead out of the leg-yield, rather than activating your hands, and try it again.
You should relax your hips and thighs so that your legs don’t clamp against the horse’s side and so that he can actually ”hear” your inside calf tapping his side. If you clutch with your legs, you block the suppleness.
Make sure you sit up straight. It’s easy when the horse starts sideways to break over your inside hip, but this will disrupt the horse’s balance. And, whenever you break over the inside hip you effectively weaken your outside leg because it’s pulled off the horse’s side.
In a proper leg-yield, the front and back legs both cross, with the forehand leading slightly. The horse is pretty much parallel to the line of the circle or the side of the ring. If the hindquarters lead or trail, then the rider should do a better job of receiving the energy of the stride in the outside rein, in other words apply a half-halt there.
The biggest danger in doing leg-yields for any distance beyond a couple steps is that the horse may come onto its forehand. If this happens, there’s also a chance that the horse may hit his outside leg with the inside hoof as it crosses over, especially in front. For this reason, we recommend the horse wear boots or wraps while doing lateral work.
You can place some version of a leg-yield nearly any where you want in the ring, if working in a field or even riding on trails. When working in a ring, you can leg yield on a diagonal, on a large circle, down the long side, on the short side, in the corners and on a square. The more you mix up different patterns, the more attention your horse will pay to your aids and the greater the suppling benefit.
Next month we’ll show you how leg-yield can lead to the next step in lateral work, the shoulder-fore.
Article by Margaret Freeman, a USEF ”S” dressage judge living in New York, where she teaches and does clinics. She is the associate editor of Horse Journal and on the editorial advisory committee of USDF Connection, has covered the equestrian events at five Olympics and will be in Hong Kong for the 2008 Games.