What Does ‘In Front of the Leg’ Mean?

brett parbery dressage performance dressage training rider effectiveness Apr 26, 2022
What does ‘in front of the leg’ mean?



Lazy, unmotivated and unexcited. No, I’m not talking about your husband! One of the most common complaints we hear from riders is that their horse is lethargic, lazy, drops out of the pace, or simply feels lacking in energy and is unwilling to try. You may have received judges’ comments such as “horse needs to be more forward” or “needs more activity”. So, what is really going wrong and how can you fix it? In a nutshell, the problem here is that your horse isn’t ‘in front of your leg’.


In front of the leg 


What does 'in front of the leg’ actually mean? More importantly how do you achieve it so you can unlock effortless riding?

In front of the leg means that when you stop actively riding and just sit quietly, your horse then keeps going by itself. In other words, your horse is self-motivated. You’re not having to remind your horse to sustain a level of energy or activity, therefore enabling you to sit quietly and spend more time feeling your horse and keeping them in balance. Does the horse stay in a rhythm and not stop or run away? Does the horse understand that it’s their job to keep going by themselves?

Conversely, behind the leg means when you choose to sit quietly, the horse stops or slows down and doesn’t keep going by itself.


Why is it important?


Having your horse in front of the leg is one of the most important foundation concepts in all horse riding activities and is the key to unlocking your horse’s full potential. Teaching your horse to try hard, put in all of their effort and then in turn reward them for it, is one of the most fulfilling feelings in horse training.

On the flip side, not having the horse in front of your leg is not enjoyable. The horse spends most of its time trying to get out of work, complaining about putting in effort and in some cases taking this negative attitude and turning it into behavioural issues.

A horse that is behind the leg is usually created by a rider who is either gripping with their legs, or over-using their legs aids without getting a reaction, therefore numbing or dulling the horse to the expected responses from the leg. The horse gets used to the feeling of the legs bumping on their sides and start to ignore these signals. Teaching your horse to be behind the leg can also come about by accident in your training system, e.g. making downward transitions by going from legs-on to legs-off.


Run a self-assessment 


To assess whether or not your horse is truly in front of the leg, you’re going to have to do something that most people would rather not do, and that is to be brutally honest with yourself.

If you’re trotting around the arena and you take your leg pressure off (or just stop applying a repetitive aid), what happens? If your horse slows or stops, that’s telling you that you’ve inadvertently trained your horse that legs off = slower or downward transition. Horses that have been trained this way are behind the leg and if kept in this system will always require constant motivation to keep going.

Once you’ve gone ahead and done the self-assessment, what next?

If you’ve discovered that your horse is behind the leg, don’t despair, it’s a common problem, and as much as you have trained it INTO your horse, you can also train it OUT of them!

Firstly, you need to assess whether you have the physical capabilities to be effective with your legs i.e. the co-ordination and/or muscle memory to be fair but firm with these aids. If you think you need some work in this area consider doing some all-important work off the horse. Assess what skills you need to improve by standing over a bag of feed on the ground. Stand over it and use your heels on the side of the bag like you’re on your horse. You will quickly be made aware if you have the skills or not. If the answer is that you need to do more work, then repeat this exercise daily until you feel coordinated enough to replicate it on your horse.

Another tip in improving effectiveness of your legs, is to ensure you’re riding with a relaxed leg that’s long and hangs around your horse. Once you first sit on your horse, and if it’s safe to do so, let your feet hang out of the stirrups and stretch your legs as long as you can. Do this for about 5 minutes. When you take your stirrups back you will feel that your legs are longer, more relaxed and you are sitting deeper. That’s the feeling you have to try and maintain for the entire ride


Shades of Aids


Essential Aids

If you break it down, you need to be able to achieve four key types of transitions in dressage:


Upward transitions


  • Active and forward transitions within the pace.
  • Downward transitions.
  • Balancing and collecting transitions within the pace.
  • For these four outcomes, we need four clear sets of aids. 


Upward transition aids are the ones you use to get from halt to walk to trot to canter. Take some time to think about what your own personal upward transition aids are. They are personal and there is no right and wrong, but you do need to have a clear idea of what they are so you don’t confuse your horse by using them for other reactions.

Once your horse is in a pace, you’re then either usually training the pace to improve it by frequent adjustments, or training gymnastic exercises for suppling and obedience. You should aim to make frequent adjustments such as asking your horse to respond quicker to you, asking them to try harder within the pace, or alternatively, responding to your half halt to come back into balance or collect the pace.


Activity within the pace transitions


Responses for activity within the pace begin from your leg. Here are my aids for activity within the pace:

  • More activity in walk: alternate legs on the girth in the rhythm of the walk.
  • More activity in trot: both legs on the girth.
  • More activity in canter: inside leg on the girth.


Downward transitions


Downward transitions are canter to trot to walk to halt. If you have an issue with your horse ‘falling’ into downward transitions, or beating you to them, your job is to work on the preparation for the transition (rather than the transition itself). The preparation is the use of the half halt (see below).

For a good downward transition, your horse needs to be in front of your leg in the preparation. This is the most important part of the transition, and if you haven’t already, I’d recommend you read this training article about being in front of the leg.

The series of half halts that you use in the preparation for downward transitions creates the same responses that you need to achieve and sustain collection as your horse gets stronger and more educated.


Practice the preparation!


Prepare your horse, then move out of the preparation, and repeat. Then you choose when the transition happens, and that could be in 2 steps, or in 50 steps. You’re searching here for that feeling of balance, collection and being in front of the leg. Then the moment of downward transition comes through your downward transition aid.

Brett's downward transition aid is a signal down one rein, usually the outside rein of the flexion, or if he is on a straight line it’s the last outside rein. He accompanies the signal down the rein with a soft low tone voice aid which helps the horse determine the moment when the transition is permitted.


Balance and collection aids 


To rebalance the horse, Brett's half halt aids begin between his shoulder blades, go down through his core and into his seat. If there is no response he will reinforce the half halt aid by using both reins together. Remember the half halt is complete once the horse is rebalanced or shown a response of collection. There’s no need to over-ride the half halt.


The important of using 'Shades of Aids'


 When using an aid – any aid – it’s important that you have several shades of the aid at your disposal – softer, little bit stronger/quicker, stronger/quicker again – and as soon as you get a response, reward your horse with pressure removed and soft gentle voice praise. Having these shades of aids, like turning a volume knob, is vital to create the kinds of reactions that are essential in dressage.

 ACTION: Take a few minutes to jot down your aids. Do you have a crystal clear structure of aids?


How to use 'Shades of Aids' to get your horse in front of your leg 


Let’s use the example of a horse that’s behind the leg in trot. When you’re trotting around, repeat that exercise of taking the pressure off your legs and riding quietly without pushing forward. Your horse will slow, and at that moment you need to apply the softest version of your leg aid, as a gesture that you would like a reaction. If there is no reaction and your horse continues to slow or ignore your gesture, swiftly after the first aid – apply a second aid that is firmer, quicker and ongoing until he/she gives you some acknowledgment. If the second response is similar, then this is where you have to be firm (but fair).

Apply what would be the most annoying irritating aid, with your legs and keep it going until your horse gives you a positive forward thinking ‘over’ reaction. In this instance, spurs or a whip can be used in an irritating fashion. If you choose a whip, don’t use it on the hind end but on the shoulder. Also don’t use spurs or a whip to inflict pain. A horse won’t respond in a positive way to an aid that creates pain. It’s much more effective to use a softer version of the aid, be persistent and firm enough that the horse will search for a way to remove the annoyance. There will be times that you will need to ride through what is perceived as bad behaviour, but it’s simply the horse seeking a way to get rid of the annoyance. You as the rider, acting in a firm but fair way, need to remain diligent and poised to reward or repeat, all depending on the horse’s response.

The key to effortless riding is having the discipline to keep your horse in front of your leg, which you can achieve through clear communication, using shades of aids, and having clarity in what you are asking your horse to perform when you apply an aid.





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