Monday, June 22, 2009

Mouthy Monday

I got HOC to write a little on the term "in front of the leg", it's a term I like to roll around in my mind without really understanding it. I think it fits in with what we've been talking about.

In front of the leg

Whatever discipline we ride, I believe there are some common base requests we have on our horses.

We want them to move in balance with the rider.We want them to be obedient to the aids.We want them to move in such a way that it makes them comfortable to ride.And of course, we want them to be safe. At least as safe as a horse can be.

Mugs asked me to write something about the term “In front of the leg”, and in addition she said “geared towards us western nerds”. As I have never been in the saddle of a western horse this makes things a bit complicated to me, but as I believe we have the same base requests on our horses I will make a try anyway. And it would be very nice to get a discussion going here with some input from the western nerds as well as the dressage ones!

To me, the term “in front of the leg” means that I want my horse to always think forward when I am in the saddle. So it comes in under the base request “obedient to the aids”.

It does not sound too difficult to achieve, does it?

Problem is, that as with most things that sound simple, they really aren’t when you look more closely into them.The setting here is that we simply do not want the horse to move forward, we also want the horse to move forward with quality. In balance, and while it is being comfortable to ride on – that is with a swinging back and active hind legs.

So when I ask my horse to go forward, I don’t want the horse to lose its balance and increase speed, getting on the forehand. I want it to keep the balance and rhythm. I want it to keep a soft contact on the bit, without tensioning or bracing. The horse is just to lengthen or shorten the strides, depending on the rider’s aids, while keeping the outline. He is to be energetic but relaxed. Here I believe lays the challenge. Forward is not always good. Not if you ride your horse out of rhythm, or out of balance, or if it tenses up.

(Mugwump interuptus) Thinking forward, especially on some of the pluggy, poky horses who com in to our lives is a good concept. I'm translating this as if the horse is correctly and happily moving out without needing my leg to keep him moving, but still balanced in the hands he is ahead of the leg?

Dive in here you dressagers, this really ties in with the "horse happy with their job" theme.

Here's a cool story from

There's a quote in Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a quote which I would willingly tattoo onto myself if only I had the space. 'For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another...'. This quote came to haunt me, one sunny afternoon, sitting in an English lecture at University.

Whilst the lecturer had been talking, pacing from one side to another, I watched his feet. Half-pass on the right rein, then piaffe; a nervous, jerky step on the spot that made the brown leather of his shoes squeak. Then side-step, side-step, across the diagonal, then a pivot, and on he marched on the opposite rein.

I thought back to two weeks previous. Another Easter, another month at the stables.

Becky was moving in with her boyfriend and his kid. They were waiting for the council to allocate them a flat.

Maria was married; came down to pawn off her baby to us while she rode her mare.

Becky's sister visited, proudly showing us her second child. 'I wanted a girl, but once you know it's hard to feel disappointed.'

Nat, after a three month hiatus, was back with our boss' son, staying on site till they found a cheap flat nearby.

As we sat, smoking, eating, drinking tea, dogs sniffed around us, playing dead until they had us in fits of laughter and we felt honour bound to give them some crusts.

We got up with the dawn, often staying at each-other's houses. Mornings were spent feverishly creating mental lists of things to do, tack to clean, horses to vet. Or, more often than not, hungover, grimly recounting the events of last night whilst clutching cups of tea to our heads.

By 8am Becky would slink off to attend to the dogs , and me and Nat would set a goal to finish mucking out.

By ten, itching to ride, chucking the last slabs of hay into boxes and slinging water into buckets, the lunge line would appear and so began the unenviable task of exercising the babies.

Razor, an appropriate name considering his huge neck wound, would be done first. A colt, he had quietened considerably after the accident. Syringe, bute, bowl of warm water, paper towels. We would gingerly approach. 'ewwwwww. it's got even more pus than before.'

I would try, unsuccessfully, not to look, then watch with fascinated horror as black, crusty scabs and pus were picked off and the wound was drained by catheter. He seemed to take a secret pleasure in being a martyr, enjoying the attention he received from two females. 'Bless your cottons, Raze, you're such a good boy.'

Next was Tulip and Levi. Levi, Nat's showjumping prospect, dances around like the goon he is, a swinging trot punctuated by fits of bucking and snorting to worry his owner; 'you'd better not do that while I'm on, Levi.'

Tulip, a barbie-esque palomino, quietly accepts her western saddle, always circling the lunge at a floating trot, however hard we try and make her jog.

Lighting the first of many Lucky Strikes, we mount, taking the gravel path at a trot and turning right onto the road. As usual, the horses snort in alarm at the motorbike in a driveway they pass every day.

The woods, which will later blaze red and gold at sunset, are a soft green. We stop on occasion, listening for quad bikes or tree-cutters, but mostly let the horses pick their way through the undergrowth.

Tulip babyishly climbs the banks, unwilling to muddy her feet in the swamp. Levi, the eternal prankster, hops over logs and randomly breaks into canter.

Both washed down, we turn to the next two: DJ, a potential racing arab, and Reg, another jumper. I ride DJ, excitedly jogging on the spot due to a rigorous fitness regime and too many oats.

As Reg, a 17hh giant, extends up the hill, I urge DJ on in two-point position, my hands almost by her ears. The ride is fun, filled with laughter.

I take most of it at a canter, the incentive to catch up increasened by Nat's endless stories. They are filled with tales of drugged-up horses, shady deals, randy showjumpers. I recognize names I've heard at the World Cup Qualifiers, Hickstead, even the Olympics. I tell her how envious I am. "Well stay here then! You could borrow one of mine, I'll teach you how to jump proper. I reckon you could qualify for 1.10m at Hickstead by the summer."

Back in the lecture room. The sun, instead of energizing me, as it does at the stables, fills me with a leaden sleepiness. I suddenly realize where I am.

Surrounded by my own existential crisis, I realize everyone is moving on. Having babies, moving in with boyfriends, starting business ventures. Where am I? What am I doing here, and why? For a terror-stricken ten minutes, thoughts of my road in life, the path of higher education I've taken, the very bad mark I've just received for my essay, and my incredible debt ,flood my brain.

Looking down at the quote sheet, I see it. 'The past shelters us on one side, the future on another.' The future. Settled once more, I lean back a little in my chair, letting my mind drift to a world ten years from now, a world populated by huge barns, a cross country course, solariums, horse walkers, and a couple of big, powerful eventers whickering in their boxes. There's still time.


  1. In front of the leg - the horse carries himself/herself. He doesn't lean on your hands expecting you to hold his head up, they don't lean on either of your legs, drifting to the inside or outside. They move freely forward, carrying themselves just as you carry yourself. When you ask them to speed up, they don't go into a teeth jolting pony trot or seem to fall forward, they push from their hind legs and extend their stride. Just random thoughts from a dressage rider who used to barrel race.

  2. To add just a bit, I've always found that when I have a horse in front of the leg, there is never a lag when I ask for forward (or hesitation, etc) it's imediate, more like they're waiting for it. This seems to hold true for me whether I'm taking a dressage lesson, riding bareback in shorts, or playing cowboy polo (think broomball while riding western horses).

  3. Loved the story -- it convyed the scariness and excitement of taking a different path.

    In front of the leg -- I didn't really notice how well-trained my old schoolies are until I started riding a green mare. She does all kinds of things beside go straight and respond to cues. Its never a dull moment.

  4. Levin...What an enjoyable story! Thank you. Was your education in writing, by any chance? You express yourself very well.

    In front of the leg: another of those terms that can be confusing, but once you identify it you never want to ride any other way...

    mugs said "if the horse is correctly and happily moving out without needing my leg to keep him moving, but still balanced in the hands he is ahead of the leg?" By "balanced in the hands" do you mean balanced over his feet also? A horse can be on the forehand and not always feel all that heavy in your hand. To be balanced over his feet while carrying your weight he has to shift some of his weight into his back legs; it feels like what you described doing with your horse when heading up a hill. (Thinking uphill is a good way to feel it.) It should feel like there is more horse in front of your leg than behind, and as HOC said, that he can move his legs faster or slower or sideways or stop at your request without first having to pause and rebalance.

    It also has the element of being "hot off your leg" with the horse responding instantly to a soft request.

    (I wish I could explain better what's in my head! I'm sitting here waving my hands in between typing.)

  5. In cowboy world we talk about drive. We drive the legs under our horse. So I think when the horse is "ahead of our leg" we would call it "driven up".
    The essential idea is the same. The motors in the back and the steering is in the front.
    Am I right?

  6. That's pretty much exactly how I've seen it broken down in dressage technique but in simpler english. Motor's in the back implys impulsion...steering in the front implys a balanced horse. When you have both you should have a horse in front of your leg.

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  8. I'm not entirely sure if my current thoughts tie in accurately to the "in front of the leg" discussion and I'm very very new to western style riding so feel free to correct me if I'm talking out my butt here, but my perception of "in front of the leg" has a lot to do with western pleasure horses in the jog either moving their legs quickly and taking short strides, or moving their legs slowly whilst taking a long, like what Mugs says about the hind end being "driven up", how is it possible to be driven up when with front and hind legs take mincing little strides, sort of like a much lesser extent of the "death trot" and there is no drive of implusion, just a strung out horse with legs everywhere?

    I'm explaining very badly what's going on in my mind here. To me in front of the legs is an abstract enough term that I have a hard time explaining exactly how I interpret it and understanding others understanding of it.

    Am I correct in saying that the more tradtionally correct way for a pleasure horse to move is with long slow strides? It seems to look so much more elegant, comfortable and relaxed than the short, quick strides I've been seeing in local shows lately - that I do have been guilty of, although I seem to have pinned down a wonderful exercise for getting my mare to slow without shortening.

    I feel like I've just tried to explain how purple tastes...

  9. What a beautifully written story Levin. That was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  10. Great Story!

    I have another question. Off topic a bit. I finally got the guts to take my 4 year old out on the trail. We did this last weekend, and the weekend before.

    the first time he did very well. Except for one part. There was a bridge. I said go...he said NO WAY! I said...Yes you will...then he reared...I brought him back down. and asked again to have him cross, and he did. We did mostly walk, with some trotting on this ride. Nothing else. I was just too chicken to canter.

    The second time he also did well, except for a couple of parts.
    There was a mishap at the bridge again. this time, we ran across some other horses. he went across no problem. then he got excited. All the other horses were behind us. and he thought it would be a whole lot of fun to run up a steep muddy hill with all these other horses behind him. I held him back, pretty hard, which he dosn't like when I get on his face either. we made it to the top of the hill with him almost trotting, then I made him stop and wait for my buddy who got behind the other horses at the bridge.

    Well he reared again. this time, because he wanted to go, and I was hanging on his face.

    As far as breaking him of the rearing, I have had two peices of advice. I can either start carrying a bat or something to that liking and whop him over the head the next time he goes up, Or I can "pull him over and get ready to step off"

    I don't really like either of these answers. I was wondering what the folks here might think. I am also going to email the guy who trained him and ask what he might suggest.

    A one reined stop wasn't an option going up that hill. That was my first instinct. Just thought I would add.

    Thanks everyone. Sorry its so wordy.

  11. I don't do pleasure, I have too much of the go-fast in me, but I have done it.
    Correct me if I'm wrong, pleasure folk, I've been out of the loop for about 12 years...BUT I do believe a long, fluid sweep is desired in the gaits.
    I was taught to create a deep push from the back, which lengthened the horse’s stride while maintaining the slow speed.
    The muscle control on a good pleasure horse was phenomenal. I always thought of a horse pushing through the surf when I was on a quality pleasure horse.
    So I'm thinking a pleasure horse in front of the leg would be moving with long deep strides and even cadence without the rider having to push with her legs every stride.
    I also know from watching video of my friends exceptionally well bred paints and having gotten to ride a few decent pleasure horses back in the day, a good pleasure horse is born, not made. They travel long and low and their legs sweep like a pendulum on a clock. It's in there from the day they hit the ground.
    Pleasure is not my thing, but like the Morgans in my old barn I can appreciate a beautiful horse when I see one. It's a weakness I guess.

  12. Jess, rearing is something a horse always does for a reason and a lot of the time if you can figure out the reason - which you seem to be doing fine - you can avoid the situation altogether. For example when he didn't want to cross the bridge, you could probably give him a little time there and he'd do it fine, you just need to let him make his own mind up about it. There's a nice Martin Black article here on managing fear into courage that covers more or less what I would do.

    With the second situation, that's harder to work around, but he's probably rearing because he feels like you're pulling on his head and leaving him nowhere else to go. A horse that is concerned needs to move their feet and you can't expect him to stop from doing that, the best thing you can do is direct it so that they are moving in a way that you have some control over, but on a narrow or steep trail that may not be easy. If it were me I might be thinking to find some easier trails to get started on. Also if other riders are concerning your horse they'll probably be amenable to helping out if you explain the situation and ask them to give you a little time or space.

  13. Right on! "The past shelters us on one side, the future on the other."
    We expect the horse, at every stage of training, to be "in front of the leg." We expect that to mean balanced and on-the-bit, even as we are asking them to go beyond their comfort zone as they carry us. How many of us can say we have the same courage, in our riding as well as how we go about living life? We people are able to plan a future for ourselves and our horses, we can only partially explain these plans to our horses and hope we are able communicate enough to them as we go along.
    My lifelong horse (now 15, who has been with me since he was 5 months old), has, like me, always been a bit "behind the leg"-a bit of a lazy streak, but mostly "what advantage do I gain by doing what you ask?" When we understand the reason, we are both willing to move forward.
    My horse is finally getting the concept that moving forward is always the right answer. I don't care if it's a death trot or unbalanced canter. I reward him first, then ask him to come back and balance.
    I'm still trying to learn the same lesson for myself--that moving forward is always the right answer even if you make mistakes because you can only plan the future so much.
    Sorry this was so philosophical and non-specific.

  14. Glenatron: very helpful comments, and a good article referenced. thanks.

    You said: "rearing is something a horse always does for a reason and a lot of the time if you can figure out the reason... you can avoid the situation altogether"
    I handle rearing by riding strongly forward, turning, or using the bat but my own fear may be a contributing factor. Remembering this will help me look beyond my own response. Avoiding the situation would be better.

  15. Esquared said: ” there is never a lag when I ask for forward (or hesitation, etc) it's immediate”.
    I agree on that.
    What I am looking for is that the horse should have so much forward drive that a softening of the reins is enough to lengthen the stride. Same goes for upward transitions; forward motion without hesitation and with active hind legs.
    I want the feeling that the horse is growing up through the withers.
    Like stillearning said, an uphill feeling where it feels as if there is more in front of you than behind.
    Littledog – interesting post with the parallel to our own life! And I agree with you. In the learning phase, the horse has to accept that an aid to go forward always means forward. But when I hear the phrase “in front of the leg” about a horse, I connect it with a horse that has a surge to move forward but in balance and rhythm, with active hind legs.
    I find this an interesting discussion, because it is very easy to push a horse out of rhythm and balance, particularly a young one. And some riders ask a bit too much because they want to get more movement out of the horse than it has strength to handle at the time. The result is that you get a horse that is losing its balance in turns, gets uneven in the rhythm or drops on the forehand in transitions. Or gets tense.

  16. Thank you Glenatron. Very helpful. I am looking forward to what Mugs has to add.