Most horses don’t move off their rider’s leg as well as they should, whether they’re sidepassing, two-tracking or simply moving forward. At every clinic I do, it seems that response to the leg aid is lacking the most. People’s horses just don’t move off their leg. The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way.
Ground Work transfers to Saddle Work
You are always training or un-training your horse. You have to be really conscientious that what you’re doing while handling your horse on the ground is going to make riding and training him easier. For example, maybe you’re grooming your horse or putting his blanket on and you press his side to ask him to move over. If he doesn’t, and you let it go, (then you’re lying to your horse). If you don’t follow through, you’re being inconsistent, and that will have repercussions when you mount up. You basically untrained him before you ever got on him. All of those little random moments really add up and mean something to a horse.
By not insisting that your horse respond consistently, you are sending him the message that it’s OK if he doesn’t always move over when asked. If you made him move over when you were putting his blanket on and cleaning his feet out, and you made him move around so there was an easy spot for you to get on, then there’s a much greater chance that when you want him to move off your leg, it’s actually going to happen.
The Dressage Whip vs. Spurs
Always reward your horse by releasing pressure the moment he moves away from it. When mounted, praising him for moving off your leg will eventually teach him to respond promptly the first time he’s asked. If you discover that you’re repeatedly kicking your horse with no results, you need to find a new way to get his attention.
I almost always try to carry a dressage whip with me because it comes in handy to tap a reluctant horse on the flanks to make him move. This is especially useful for horses that resent spurs. The whip can be a good way to sneak in the back door and find a new piece of real estate. Most western horses have been kicked a lot but haven’t been tapped by a dressage whip, so you’ll usually get a pretty good response.
The reason many horses don’t move off the rider’s leg is often that they’ve never been made to, so they get numb to it You have to find a way to get in there and wake that horse up and make him respond. I will use my leg first, then cluck, and finally tap with the dressage whip. After a little while, when you use your leg and cluck a little, your horse will move off.
In addition to waking your horse up, the dressage whip is long enough that you can use it while still keeping both hands on the reins to maintain control. If you put your reins in one hand to tap your horse on the butt, then you can lose control. If you can keep your hands on the reins while you tap him, then it usually works very well. However, make sure you don’t overuse the whip. If you overdo it right off the bat, then you’ll make your horse mad or unresponsive to the whip as well. I just try to surprise the horse, tap him and then leave him alone.
Remember, your horse’s reward for responding is being left alone. In order to teach him to respond, you must always promptly reward him. As soon as your horse responds the way you want him to, leave him alone because the last thing you do before you reward him is what he will remember. Then you can ask him again, and the minute he moves, you have to reward him.
You can’t get greedy and ask for four or five steps because your horse won’t equate the reward with the original cue, and you don’t end up with as light and soft of a horse. The way you make him light to that original cue is to leave him alone the minute he responds. I’ll give horses a release of pressure and a pat on the neck, and then I’ll ask for it again and again. Pretty soon they’ll string together a bunch of steps with no resistance or resentment, almost like it was their idea.
Separate the Front from the Back
Opening and closing a gate can be a practical way to teach your horse to move sideways away from leg pressure. Teaching your horse to move his front and hind end over separately before asking him to move his entire body sideways at once. You never want it to be too difficult. You want your horse to be successful and figure out what you’re asking. I’ll move the front end over a step or two, and then I’ll move the hind end over a step or two. I think that a lot of times, we forget that there are separate parts to horses, and you can move them as two separate parts in the beginning to make it more of a step-by-step process in their mind.
As always, remember to promptly reward your horse by releasing pressure the moment he responds. Then you can repeat the aid. If your horse isn’t responsive to leg pressure, use the dressage whip. You can use the whip to tap him on the shoulder and then tap him on the hind end – whatever you need to do so your horse learns to move away from pressure.
By breaking the steps down, reinforcing your cues and promptly rewarding your horse for responding, you have a recipe for success that will eventually create the responsive horse you’ve always dreamed of riding.
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This article was printed in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 8, Issue 9-10