“My Legs Go Where?”, from Dressage Unscrambled, published by Half Halt Press, 2009


            About thirty years ago, before any of us knew what having a horse “on the aids” was all about, someone first showed me leg yielding. “You just put your inside leg behind the girth,” they said, “and you push the haunches over.” We couldn’t do it very well since the horses were, at best, on passive contact, and we had no concept of “pushing and receiving aids” or the horse being in lateral balance. At the time it didn’t mean all that much to me. We had more important fish to fry – like getting to the cross country course.

            Then in the fall of ’72, I witnessed a rather amazing spectacle. Col. Nybleaus of Sweden conducted an FEI Judge’s Forum at the American Dressage Institute in Saratoga, NY. Nybleaus was a major proponent of leg yielding, while ADI was a bastion of Spanish Riding School emigrees, all firmly planted in the non-leg yielding camp. I remember, as a very humble novice dressage rider, sitting in a lecture room as tweedy, nattily dressed older men with European accents pounded their fists on the table, pointed fingers, and shouted back and forth, “Your ideas will be the death of classical dressage!” “No, yours will!” And so on.

            The argument ran: why move your leg behind the girth and teach the horse to move over with him looking back the way he’s coming from, when later on, the leg in the same position will be the aid for half pass? Isn’t this just a contradiction in training that only confuses the horse?

            The next day in the arena I was watching an ADI instructor schooling a young horse. It was moving along the track on a shallow angle, forehand to the inside but not bent. “What movement is that?” I asked innocently. “This is shoulder-in,” was the reply. “But shouldn’t the horse be bent?” I ventured. “Well, of course!” was the answer, “but when we’re teaching them, we can’t expect them to learn to move sideways and bend at the same time. We do things step by step.”

            Upon hearing that explanation, I distinctly remember wondering what everybody was so stirred up about the day before.

            Several years later, with my eventing career sputtering along and my leg yielding career at a virtual standstill, I had some lessons first with Maj. Hans Wikne (from Sweden) and later with Col. Aage Sommer (from Denmark) and Col. Bengt Ljungquist (then the USET dressage coach and a former Swedish cavalry officer). All three insisted that to execute a leg yielding, one did not bring the inner leg back at all, but rather kept it at the girth.

            In subsequent years, as I began to ride with Louise Nathorst (then a young trainer from Sweden working in New England) and with Maj. Anders Lindgren (from guess where), the explanation became clear:

            To the Scandanavians, leg yielding is not just an obedience exercise to teach moving off the leg. It is also a suppling exercise during which the horse is invited to find his lateral balance. In the moment where he is de-stabilized laterally, he can also be re-balanced longitudinally.

Leg yielding is ridden forward to encourage the horse to step up under himself, not just to displace his hips to the side. And, most significantly, it is ridden with almost the same aids as for shoulder-in since it is the center of gravity that is being displaced, not just the hindquarters. The legs are placed the same for both movements – inner leg at the girth and outer leg behind – and only the relative proportions of the aids control whether the horse remains straight, bent a little, or bent as much as a classical shoulder in demands. If the outside shoulder pops and quarters trail, the inner leg is not drawn back. The advice, instead, is to make a half halt, using the outside rein supported by the forward-driving outer leg (still behind the girth) to make the shoulders “wait” so the quarters can catch up.

I have followed this advice for more than twenty years, using the leg yielding, not only for green horses, but to refresh and re-balance more advanced ones in conjunction with other exercises. It just makes sense!

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