The legs are the connection between the rider’s seat and ankles, and as such are one of the most important elements of attaining true relaxation and suppleness on a horse. Together with the ankles, they are the base of a rider’s position.
PUTTING WEIGHT IN THE LEGS
To begin with, one should think of the legs as being the repository for most of the rider’s weight even though one’s weight may, in reality, be in the seat. Indeed, in some cases, all of the rider’s weight will be in the legs, and not the seat, depending on what one is doing while riding. However, I believe it is helpful to think of your weight being not so much in the center of the horse’s back, but down into your legs and down the horse’s sides no matter the activity. This allows the horse to know where you are, and to be able to receive your aids clearly, while it also enables you to feel the movements of the horse effectively and to anticipate his next actions. It will allow you to ride more balanced and will eventually allow you to attain a deeper more effective seat that is so necessary in dressage. A weighted leg will also help you to be more balanced and less likely to unconsciously lean side to side. Mentally placing your weight in your legs will allow your upper body to relax and create a more supple and natural ride. You can achieve this mental weight by thinking of your legs as being two long bags of sand; long and heavy sandbags falling down around the horse’s sides and molding themselves to the horse’s sides.
As with 80% of riding, this is a mental concept and if you can develop the right image and idea, mentally, you will be able to “feel” the weight drop into your legs. This is where the idea of a soft, relaxed ankle, discussed in the first article is important. For you to place your weight DOWN into your legs, and DOWN around the horse’s sides, you must be able to have a relaxed ankle, or else the stiff, resistant ankle will “push” your weight back up, again. If your weight is in your legs, draped down the horse’s sides, and your ankles are soft and relaxed, then you WILL have a good heel position for your discipline. This is often what is meant when instructors tell you to “drop your weight into your heels.” While this is a common way of explaining this, I have found it more effective, particularly for those wishing to ride more than one discipline, to use the concept of relaxed ankles in conjunction with weighted legs (as opposed to weight in the seat). What the the heels need to do will depend on the discipline and the length of stirrup. By mentally placing your weight in your legs and maintaining a relaxed ankle, you will automatically have the base you need for what you are doing.
Hunt Seat riding, for example, requires a shorter stirrup. Jumping is an integral part of Hunt Seat riding, and the shorter stirrup allows the riders to raise themselves out of the saddle for the jump. In this discipline, the weighted leg will keep the rider stabilized laterally on the horse, it will bring the rider back into the saddle when needed. The concept of weighted legs is critical when the rider’s seat has no contact with the saddle. When the ankle is relaxed and all the weight is in the legs, the weight will continue down the horse’s sides and will naturally push the heel down. The rider’s heel attains a dropped position by the weight of the legs. They are not forced into it by the rider actively thinking about pushing them down, which often causes tension in the legs and ankles. In Hunt Seat, the legs retain a bit more tension, or less relaxation, as they need to grip the horse’s ribs more firmly to provide more security during the flight phase and any cross country jumping or fox-hunting and also to raise and hold the rider in the jumping position.
Dressage riding, by contrast, does not have a need for the rider’s seat to lose contact with the saddle. In this case, the weighted legs, draped down the horse’s sides, pull the rider deeper into the saddle because of the longer stirrup length. The ankles remain relaxed, but the heels will not drop down as far, it is not as necessary that they do, since the rider maintains closer contact with the horse and does not lift entirely out of the saddle. For this reason, the rider’s legs will remain much more relaxed, though the muscles are still engaged. The longer, more relaxed, weighted legs allow the rider to communicate more subtly with the horse, and will allow the rider to more easily feel and respond to the horse, since the legs are, at all times, soft and supple. This is not to say that they do not ever do any work, Dressage is a lot of work, though it is subtle. What it means is that the legs are not required to provide the extra effort of supporting the rider above the saddle along with communicating with the horse. Any tenseness in the legs will often result in tenseness in the horse.
Western riding will also have a longer, more relaxed leg. This discipline also requires the rider to maintain contact with the saddle, so the applications of the longer, more relaxed leg will apply here, too. In many specific western disciplines, such as reining and cutting, long weighted legs are essential to keeping the rider in the seat.
THE POSITION OF THE LEGS
Next, lets look at the position of the legs in relation to the rest of the rider’s body. The legs are a connection between the feet and the pelvis, and should function the same way when one is on a horse as they do when one is on the ground. By that, I mean that they hold the pelvis directly above the feet when walking and standing. This is what they should be doing when you are on the horse. Balance is the same, no matter where you are, so if you cannot balance with your feet out in front of you when standing on the ground, or if you cannot balance with your feet back behind you, then you cannot do so on the horse, either.
There are several ways of determining if your legs are positioned correctly. One is to have someone place a straight line, like a lunge whip, from your ear, through the center of your shoulder, through the center of your pelvis, and just touch the back of the heel. Another way is to stand straight up in your stirrups and shift your feet and legs around until you can stand there without holding onto the horse’s mane, then gently sit down without moving your legs. Ideally, your legs should be positioned so that if the horse suddenly disappeared from under you, you would land on your feet and stay balanced above your feet. When your legs are positioned correctly, they not only hold you in a balanced position, but also act in conjunction with your ankles to absorb the motion of the horse’s movement. The hip joint, knee joint, and ankle joint need to “accordion” as the horse moves, so these joints must all be flexible and relaxed, yet at the same time firm enough to stay in place and support the rider, if needed.
The problem here is that we tend to think of being on a horse as “sitting” on a horse, when in reality, we actually straddle the horse. If you were straddling something, lets say a small ditch, you would instinctively use your legs to hold your pelvis and upper body directly above your feet, even if you were to bend your knees. However, when you sit in a chair, your legs no longer feel they need to support the body, your feet go out in front of you, and you sit back on your buttocks. Think of how many times a day you “sit” like this. Habit is a VERY strong thing. If you mentally think of yourself as “sitting” on a horse, then your body will assume the position and the legs will take a coffee break, the same as when you “sit” in any other situation. Remind yourself when you mount your horse, that you do NOT “sit” on a horse, you STRADDLE a horse. This will go a long way to solving a variety of problems.
When you find your knees creeping up and your lower legs and feet creeping out in front of you, stop the horse. Take your feet out of your stirrups, and, one leg at a time, move your entire leg out away from the horse, so that no part of your leg is touching the horse. Bring your knees down and underneath you, as they would be if you were standing, then let your legs gently fall back against the horse’s ribs. Remember to mentally place your body’s weight down into your legs. (Or mentally hang sandbags off of them, or fill them with sand, whatever works for you.)
A very good exercise is riding without stirrups. When you take your feet out of the stirrups, drop your leg as far down as you can. Try to get your knee underneath your hips. This may involve some rather painful stretching in the groin area, but persevere; if those ligaments are tight, they will just have to stretch. Take care that your riding situation is such that you feel confident enough to maintain a relaxed position. If you are not comfortable or are inexperienced with working without stirrups, do nothing but walk the horse. If needed, have someone lunge you at the walk, or lead you. Slowly work up to being able to lift yourself an inch or two out of the saddle using your inner thigh muscle without losing your long, heavy leg, i.e., bringing up your knees or swinging your lower leg. Lift yourself up slowly, hold for a second, then slowly lower yourself. The raising and lowering will help train your legs to stay still and quiet and use the correct muscles when you post. When you are comfortable and have a consistent, steady leg, then try a few steps of a slow jog, or trot. Do just a few steps, and as soon as you feel any tension in your body, or feel your legs move out of position, drop back to a walk and get organized, relax, and try again. (One thing that I feel I should mention is that your spine will need to be supple and relaxed, especially when you are riding without stirrups, though we will focus on this at a later time. Suffice to say that you must relax your spine to take up the motion of the horse since at this point your legs and ankles cannot act as shock absorbers when they are not in the stirrups.) Work up to being able to ride without stirrups while the horse has a nice working trot. Always think of your legs as being the heaviest part of your body, pulling you downward into the saddle.
When you put your feet back in the stirrups, try to do so without moving your legs forwards or back. Depending on the length of the stirrup, you may need to close the knee joint, but the trick is to do so without losing the hip-to-heel line. I find it helpful to think of straddling that ditch again, and picture how your knee angle would close if the ground moved upwards while your body stayed in the same space.