Riders often believe they are using their legs, but as an observer, it’s clear to see space between their leg and the horses’ sides. The correct stirrup length plays a big role in the ability of the rider to use their legs comfortably. If stirrups are too long, the rider is constantly reaching for them as they ride, straightening their legs until they feel contact. In order to make contact, they reach with their toes and by pointing their toes down; the rider develops a habit of leaning forward. If the stirrups are too short, the rider places too much weight in the stirrup which can contribute to knee pain at the very least.
When riders become unbalanced, they press on the floor of the stirrup as a preemptive measure to keep their seats in the saddle — but the more they press with their feet, the more it lifts their seat out of the saddle, beginning a negative cycle.
One way to test how effectively you have been using your legs and seat is to ride in a small area such as a round corral or round pen and secure your reins around the horn of your saddle. Your reins should be available to use in case you feel out of control. Without using your reins or hands, ask your horse to move forward. When you put your left leg on to turn right, does your horse respond by turning in the direction you have asked, or does he speed up? Now, urge your horse into a trot, then sit deep as you exhale and remove your legs. Does your horse stop or continue moving forward? If your horse continues to speed up or move forward, this will reveal that you are riding with your hands only.
I’ve never deliberately set out to train my horse to ride bridleless; however, the more consistent I am in riding with my seat and legs, the lighter I can be with my hands. Periodically, I will secure my reins and test how consistent I have been with my cues. Using my seat and legs only, at all gaits I should be able to change direction, transition my speed both up and down, and come to a full stop with a backup. This helps me better understand what areas I need to target for improvement back in the arena.
If you have only used your hands as an aid, in the beginning your horse will not respond to your legs and seat. One common complaint I hear from riders when they put a leg on to turn is that their horse speeds up. Remember that horses learn to respond according to the release, not pressure. What typically happens when a rider begins to use their legs for more than just a “go forward” cue, the horse will speed up when asked to change directions. As the horse increases his speed, the rider releases their leg which further embeds the cue to the horse… speed up. Whatever you release, you teach.
When I ask my horse to turn to the left, I add pressure with my right calf and use my left hand to tip his nose in the desired direction. If he speeds up, I will sit relaxed in the saddle and keep applying pressure with my right leg. If I need to, I will direct him into a smaller circle to control his speed, but will only release my leg when he yields to the direction I have asked as well as slows to the original speed we were going when I first applied the cue.
Whether you are riding a young colt or an older horse that is resistant or unfamiliar with leg cues, this is going to take several repetitions and consistent releases at the correct time for your horse to understand. Similarly, if you are new to using your legs, this will take time in the saddle repeating the exercise until you develop timing and feel so that you can release when your horse has given the slightest effort in moving off your leg.
It’s always an illuminating experience to have a friend video you as you ride. Many people are unaware of how they balance on their horse’s mouth, lean forward in the saddle, or incorrectly use their legs. You may have an image in your mind as to how you ride, but seeing yourself may prove to be a different story. Be willing to change — you will be rewarded for your effort.