One of the most common problems we come across is the horse who won’t go forward from the leg. Given that riders are frequently told to kick the horse with every stride, it’s not surprising that many horses tune out this irritating habit, and become switched off. Switching them back on again, provided there are no underlying physical or medical reasons for their lassitude, can be surprisingly easy. Nicole has written a two part article on this topic for Intelligent Horsemanship’s Listening Post, and also was featured in Your Horse magazine dealing with just this problem.

The Listening Post articles are reproduced here below:

Dealing with a Problem Kicker

Kicking is considered one of the worst vices a horse can have, particularly if it’s habitual. We’re so concerned about being kicked that “don’t walk behind a horse” is one of the first things we say to children or people unfamiliar with horses. Yet fortunately, being kicked by a horse is really rather rare, and usually only happens when we shut down their other options.

The same is not true of the horse’s chances of being kicked by a human. The “problem kicker” I’m writing about here is the rider.  Whether it’s one who uses their legs only rarely or the one who incessantly nags, I’m questioning whether kicking of any sort is ever really appropriate, or has any part in the sort of finessed riding we would all aspire to…

I’d like to define “kicking” in terms of the amount of force used, rather than a particular action of the leg. So to kick would move a football, for example, and it could be either a bit punt across the entire pitch, or a little nudge, but the ball would move.  Looking at it another way, I would consider anything more than the sort of touch you would use if you were tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention to be kicking. I was going to write “anything more than is necessary for the horse to notice”, but I realised this paves the way for people to thump their legs against their distracted horse’s sides, and that’s not what I meant at all. If you do tap someone on the shoulder and they don’t appear to notice, you don’t immediately resort to thumping them (I hope), you’ll find another way to attract their attention.

I think perhaps that for people who ride schooled horses (I’m using the term very loosely here to mean an established horse, ie, not one who’s only just been backed), the oddness of the way in which we’re often taught to use the legs (strongly, repetitively, and inwards) isn’t that apparent. But you only need to be the first rider on a few youngsters to realise that there’s not much intuitively obvious about these leg “aids”, as commonly taught to the horse. The same is true for the action of the bit, and yet not true, in my experience, of the action of the seatbones. Once a starter is happy with the concept of a rider on board, and isn’t being led by a handler (so perhaps the second or third backing), they very often seem to “get” stopping and turning by the use of the seatbones, but the required response to the legs needs to be taught. If a youngster does move forward when they feel the legs against their sides, it’s usually very rapidly and clearly because they were surprised by the legs.

So what I’m asking the reader to consider here, is what the role of the rider’s legs should really be, and exactly what we want to be teaching the horse about these possible “aids”.

I’ve mentioned that I would consider anything other than a very light tap to be inappropriate, but I would also add that the number of taps is at issue, too.  Continuous use of the legs does not fit into the “release of pressure” model, and we work very much on the basis that the ground rules shouldn’t suddenly change because we’re on board. If we expect the horse to lead politely beside us without pressure on the head, is it too much to expect the horse to move forward under their own steam whilst being ridden without continuous pressure from the legs?

During the riding lecture on the Foundation course I always introduce this notion of the self-propelling horse, and almost always someone is incredulous. What I suggest is that the horse should be trained in such a way that one “please go forward” request, whether delivered by the legs or some other means, lasts until another request – say to stop, or go up a pace- is made. So if you were only working in walk for an entire hour, there would be one request made at the start of the ride, and it wouldn’t need to be repeated – at all. If you made ten transitions to trot, there would be ten of the very lightest leg taps, and no more. If you made a hundred upward transitions there would be a hundred requests, but you would never within the pace be using the legs to say to the horse “please keep going, that’s it, continue moving your legs, that’s right, another step, ooops, you’ve slowed down, please go on, that’s it, keep moving”. Once the horse was moving as requested there would be no further conversation from the legs, and they would never be used as a reminder. In this way, we’re asking the horse to take responsibility for their actions, and also giving them a chance to fail, two key IH concepts, applied in a ridden context.

Some people love this idea, and only want to know how to make it happen, because they know it isn’t the case with the horses they ride, and they hate the constant nagging they feel they have to do just to get the horse to move. Don’t worry, there are detailed instructions on how to get this desired response coming up in the next issue! Other people have a more fundamental problem with the concept. They feel that the strong use of the legs is simply an integral part of riding, and being asked not to use them takes away one of their key tools. I’ve even had someone ask “but if you can’t kick, how can you make a horse jump a fence?”. I wasn’t sure where to start with this one. But I am clear that you can’t make a horse jump a fence, although strong leg aids might sell the case to him a bit, and that if a horse wants to jump, the use of legs against his side, whether gently pressing, lightly tapping, or brutishly thumping, is in no way necessary to him being able to launch his body off the ground, and in the case of  thumping or hard squeezing, could be positively detrimental. It sounds mad when written out, but people have claimed to have an epiphany moment when we’ve pointed out to them that horses manage to move across fields on their own – even reaching quite impressive speeds and clearing obstacles – without the benefit of a rider on their back pressing their heels into their sides… I think perhaps this idea derives from riding bikes, which really do have to grind to a halt unless we keep pedalling (or are going downhill, of course) that makes us feel that somehow horses can’t move without constant input from the rider, but we only have to look a little closer to see the fundamental difference, and to work out that horses have their own legs and muscles and cardio-vascular systems, and are perfectly capable of moving without us.

Sarcasm aside, I feel so strongly about this because I feel that it’s one of those many unexamined assumptions about riding, and it’s an assumption I feel a lot of horses would like us to re-evaluate. Of course, I’m not claiming to be somehow morally superior to anyone in this. I’ve been a riding instructor for long enough to have shouted “leg, leg, use your leg!” more times than I care to count in my earlier days, and even now, years into pretty intensive training to improve my own riding, I still have an annoying default that would bring my heel up and into the horse’s side if things aren’t going too well in one way or another.  But for years now I have been riding with the most minimal leg signals, and the joy of having a forward-going horse that I don’t have to cajole is such that I would really like to share the method with as many people as possible. I’m sure that the horses appreciate it too!

Another little issue we need to quickly address is the whole using the legs to steer thing. I’m not fundamentally against this approach – indeed, a horse that moves sideways away from the leg is very useful when opening gates, for example, but I feel that for most riders, most of the time, all the stuff about bending the horse around the inside leg and pushing the horse across the school in some lateral movement is counter-productive. The horse isn’t clear, often, whether the leg means go faster or go sideways, and the exaggerated movement of the rider’s leg destroys the rider’s alignment and often disrupts their balance. This is a big topic and for now I just want to say that during the process of teaching the horse to respond to a very light leg aid and to stay self-propelling, it’s better that the legs aren’t used to steer, and that if the horse doesn’t respond brilliantly to direction from the rein, it’s probably best not to sweat precision of movement for the moment. It will be something that can be looked at later. If you already steer from the core, seatbones, reins and thighs, hopefully you should be able to continue doing that!

So am I saying that you would never use a strong leg aid, that there are never situations when it is appropriate to “support” the horse with the use of the leg? Not at all. In fact, that’s part of the point. If you don’t have to kick the rest of the time, imagine how seriously the horse will take it when you’re coming into a drop fence and you feel him back off, and you do dig in your heels and say “go on!”. If the horse is fully accepting of the concept of being responsible for their own forward motion, and consistently does so, then if you feel a questioning hesitation a little touch wouldn’t be out of place. It’s just that the use of force with the leg introduces stiffness and risks unbalancing the rider. It’s not at all common for a calm horse to have the idea of “keep going until there’s a new request to the contrary”. (There are plenty of nervous horses that keep going like steam trains, but it’s clearly adrenaline, not training, that is fuelling this forward motion, and a horse that doesn’t stop and stand when asked is also missing out on the basics).

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