Beginning Ballet

Leg yielding sounds fancy-and it looks elegant-but trainer Kelly Hall shows just how easy it is to get your horse to move diagonally.

It’s one of the prettier movements we do with horses. you may have seen it in a dressage demonstration or on a video. Both horse and rider are looking straight ahead, but they are somehow floating effortlessly in a diagonal direction.

Or perhaps you’ve seen pictures of this exercise from straight on. Both the horse’s front and hind legs are crossing each other like “X’s.” Why the heck isn’t the horse tripping himself at every stride?

In either case, you shake your head. It looks way too fancy and much too difficult to try. And why would you want to? Actually, there are many reasons to learn this particularly lovely training exercise.

Kelly Hall, of Hall’s Performance Horses in Fort Collins, Colorado, uses leg yielding extensively to produce good riding horses and better riders. No matter what style or discipline you ride, leg yielding not only teaches your horse to respond better, it’s also a powerful tool for strengthening his back and hindquarters.

As you prepare for this lesson, here are some essential tools.

Arena Fence. An arena fence or wall is useful for the beginning of this training, but as you and your horse improve, it will be important to do the exercise away from the rail, out in a field or in the middle of the arena.

Saddle. “It doesn’t matter what kind of saddle you have,” Kelly says. “It’s not whether you ride an English saddle or a western saddle. It’s how you ride the saddle you have.”

What Do We Want To Do With Leg Yields?

For the horse:
• It teaches him obedience.
• It teaches him to move away from leg pressure.
• It gives you control to keep him straight if he tends to drift.
• It helps teach him to shift over when you open gates from
the saddle.
• It gives you control over his shoulders and hips for
teaching lead changes.
• It makes him stronger, more supple and responsive-
lighter and softer in his face, jaw, and body.
• It’s the first step in teaching “collection,” strengthening his back and loin so he can step under his body more deeply.
• If a horse drops his shoulder when working a cow, this gives the rider a tool to square him up and makes him safer to ride.

For the rider:
• It teaches you how to teach your horse all the things above.
• It teaches you how to use different parts of your body at the same time so you can coordinate your aids.
• It teaches you how to use your leg effectively and not rely so much on the reins.
• It gives you the satisfaction of learning to do something really neat.
• It teaches you how to dance the ballet with your horse.
• It’s just plain fun.

Bit. Kelly notes: “It’s not the bit, it’s the hands. You must give immediate release when the horse responds correctly.” A snaffle bit is generally best to begin with, but remember that, “Even a basic snaffle bit can be severe if you’re too quick and forceful with your hands.”

Leg Protection. Bell boots and leg wraps will protect your horse’s legs from possible over-reaches or bumps as he’s learning.

An Observer. Until you get the feel of this movement, it helps to have a person on the ground watching so you’ll know for sure if your horse is really stepping under with his hind legs, is straight, or is running through the shoulder. It’s also useful to have an extra set of eyes observing your body position.

What Exactly Are We Trying To Do?
Kelly describes leg yielding like this: “Your horse moves briskly forward at whatever gait you choose. As you press your leg against his side, he keeps his body nearly straight, but shifts his direction of travel to 10 o’clock (if you’re pressing with your right leg) or 2 o’clock (if you’re pressing with your left leg).”

Easy Does It
This exercise can be absorbing, but Kelly cautions not to overdo it in any one session. “You don’t want to spend your whole 30 minutes of riding doing nothing but leg yielding. Do 5 minutes and quit. Go do some other things and then come back to it. Do a little bit and go straight. Eventually, you’ll get to where you can do big sections of leg yielding at a long trot, but it takes time to build the horse’s strength and coordination to do that.”

Kelly starts both colts and riders the same way, by getting all their ducks in a row. She wants riders to have their reins, body, and the horse’s speed set before they start work. “Your contact with the bit is close, but not constant or heavy,” she says. “Remember always to give an immediate release of any bit or leg pressure to let the horse know when he has done the right thing.”

Down the Hallway
Leg yielding exercises begin by walking the horse briskly down a fence line. “I envision riding down a hallway with many doors around me,” Kelly says. “The biggest, most important door is the one in front of me. That’s where the head of the horse is. We want that door open! We adjust how much energy is going through that front door, but it’s always open.” To keep that door open, position your hands well in front of your horse’s withers as you maintain an energetic walk.

Say we’re going to begin by leg yielding from right to left. “Pull gently on the right rein, lifting the jaw a little bit and bringing your horse’s nose toward the fence. At the same time, put your right leg against the horse’s side, slightly back toward the back cinch,” Kelly explains. This will “close the door” on the right side of the horse, then you can push lightly with your right leg to ask him to move his hindquarters over to the left.

“You want to keep the left side doors open: the shoulder’s door, the ribcage’s door, and the haunch’s door,” Kelly notes. Taking your left leg off the horse’s side is going to “open” those doors, giving the horse an idea as to where you want him to go.

He may not understand what these new cues mean right away, especially if you’re not used to giving them and are unsure how far to bring his nose over in one direction or how much leg to use to push his hindquarters in the opposite direction.

“You may have to use a really strong leg cue to make him step over at first,” Kelly advises. “But remember to take your left leg completely off his side so the left door is clearly kept open as you push with your right leg.”

If your horse gives you even half a step over, reward him by releasing the pressure so he can go forward again. Just ask him to give a little bit at first, just a single step. Maybe you just feel him shift his weight over, as if he’s thinking about getting off your leg. That’s even a great beginning. Then go forward again. Praise him-he’s trying to figure this out.

When he’s moving briskly forward again, bring his nose toward the fence again, pressing your right leg against his side and taking the left leg slightly away from him. Ask for another step. Then go forward again.

Your goal at this early stage is to have the horse’s body almost straight. “He should be pointed toward the wall at an angle, like one of the hands on a clock,” Hall says. “Your ideal will be to have him at 2 o’clock or 10 o’clock. He should keep moving in rhythm, not changing speed, for as many steps as you ask.”

If your horse is doing the exercise correctly, you won’t have any doubt about whether he understands. You’ll feel the hind leg driving into that diagonal motion. Your ground observer also will see your horse’s legs crossing each other so that-from the back-the legs will seem to form triangles.

Feel the Flow
If you don’t look where you’re going, chances are you won’t get where you want to be. Looking down at the horse’s head or neck is a common rider error while doing this exercise, but there’s a better way.

“Get into the habit of looking ahead and learn what it feels like when your horse’s hindquarters move over and the hind legs cross,” Hall advises. “What we see with our eyes can be deceiving. Feel is truthful!”

The finished product should be a horse who moves with his nose and body in alignment. “All you can see is a slight bit of his shoulder leading. You want him driving from his rear end. You want him giving in the face and moving forward, coming across smoothly and making big steps,” says Kelly.

But no one starts out with perfection, and very few of us end up there. At any point-but especially at the beginning of these exercises-you may find that the degree of bend your horse maintains is all over the place. Sometimes he may seem stiff as a board. Sometimes he may bend around like a wet noodle. Be patient with him and with yourself as you both build strength and coordination while finding your balance.

One side will almost certainly feel stiffer than the other. Just like people, most horses are right or left handed. Work more on the stiffer side until both sides are equally supple.

Although leg yielding will eventually help you to sit up and keep your spine straight over the horse’s backbone, the horse isn’t the only one who may show some odd postures at first.

“At first you may have to lean a little bit toward the leg that you’re using to push the horse over to make sure you’re giving a clear signal,” says Kelly. However, she cautions that there is a tendency to lean too far to one side, which closes both doors on either side and confuses the horse.

You’ll also want to guard against leaning too far forward, which puts weight on the horse’s shoulder, causing him to lose balance. Nor do you want to close that front door by pulling your reins back toward your body instead of keeping them out in front of the horse’s withers. This is why it’s extremely helpful to have that friend on the ground watching you to gently help correct any positional problems.

Front & Back Ends in Sync
It’s fairly common for a horse new to this exercise to move along at a sort of an angle, but not really give a feeling of pushing off with that hind leg. If so, the horse is probably “running through the shoulder,” even though you may just be walking.

“He’s lost his balance a bit. He’s running through your left door. His shoulders are going too fast for the rest of his body, faster than his hind end can catch up,” Kelly explains. “He may be reaching big with a front leg, but not doing much with his hind leg. That’s not what we want. A big step in front isn’t as important as one behind.”

So, how do you slowly close that door? If you’re leg yielding to the left, you’ll take your left rein and gently pull straight back toward your left hip. You may need to pull in a downward direction, more toward your knee, depending on the horse’s response. This will slow the horse’s left shoulder.

But be careful! Although you’re moving your hand back, you still want both your hands to be well forward of your body so you don’t close the front door. You want the horse to continue moving forward.

“My right leg tells my horse where to go, to yield off my leg,” Kelly explains. “My left leg is passive, but it’s there also. If your horse’s energy starts dying out, your left leg is there to push him forward. Once the energy comes back, take your left leg off and let it be passive again.

“That’s how you keep your horse light and responsive,” she continues. “If you keep your leg on all the time, it’s like closing the door. Your horse says, ‘Wait a minute! You’re telling me to get over, but my door is closed!’ “

Next (Diagonal) Step
When your horse is moving reliably off your leg in both directions, it’s time to move up to a trot. Because of the rhythm and increased forward motion, you and your horse both may find leg yielding easier at the trot. If you’re more comfortable sitting the trot, then sit. If you’re more comfortable posting, then post. Keep in mind, though, that you’re starting over with an entirely new gait, so you’re going to teach the whole process again, progressing in small increments.

Sometimes when people increase speed, they react by pulling back more on the reins. “Don’t pull back!” Kelly emphasizes. “Keep your hands out in front of you because that’s keeping the door open.” You can still pick up on the bit with your hands staying well in front of you. Just shorten your hand position on the reins.

Softening the Face
Leg yielding helps teach your horse to give in the face, softening his response to the bit. It’s also a neat way to work on getting your horse to learn to give you “one jaw at a time.” Instead of taking hold of your horse’s mouth and saying, “You’re going to give to me now,” you can introduce softness slowly during a leg yield.

As the horse learns to move away from your leg, ask him to soften by lightly closing your fingers on the rein as if you were squeezing water out of a sponge. The horse will usually comply without too much trouble, not knowing what you’re asking until he’s already doing it. “It’s kind of like going through the back door,” says Kelly.

Big Wide World
With leg yielding, eventually you’ll want to move away from the fence or wall. Starting back at the walk, come around a turn, keep your horse straight from head to tail and ask him to move away from the wall on the diagonal for a step. Then go straight again. Proceed in the same way you worked the horse along the fence, asking for an extra diagonal step each time and working equally from both directions. Remember to keep the horse nearly straight and those hands forward so the front door can stay open!

You can do leg yields at any gait. Keep in mind, however, that keeping a good, cadenced rhythm is more important than speed. “It doesn’t matter what speed you’re going, just keep it the same all the way through,” Kelly says.

Learning something new to both of you is probably not going to progress without the occasional frustration. “If you get in a bind, quit for a while,” she advises. “It’s not a big deal.” You can always go back a few points in the exercise and begin again. “Go forward. Get parallel to the fence and get your ducks back in a row before you ask again. Just ask for a little bit. Quit. Go forward. Ask for a little bit again. Go forward. When you start getting it back at a walk, trot a little bit. Move over. Go forward.”

Eventually, as your cues and the horse’s strength improve, you and your horse will be dancing a beautiful ballet. “And that’s how we go,” says Kelly.