Learning to use natural aids, such as your seat, legs and hands, is key to riding correctly, and is better for your horse. The more clear your cues are and the less you rely on spurs or a crop, which are unnatural aids, the more enjoyable and safer your rides will be. By being consistent and rewarding your horse with praise, your horse will pick up the new language of leg cues quickly.
Your horse’s history influences his response to leg cue training. If he's an ex-racehorse, for example, how he responds to leg pressure will depend on how much training he’s had as a riding horse instead of just a racehorse. Race jockeys ride in very short stirrups, so the horses don't feel much leg pressure along their sides. If your ex-racehorse has not had much riding variety, he could be extremely sensitive to the feel of your legs. He must learn it's okay to relax with normal leg pressure, so do a lot of walking without asking him for anything except getting comfortable with the feel of your legs.
Start on the Ground
For a young or untrained horse, proper training starts with you out of the saddle. With a halter and lead rope, stand next to your horse’s shoulder, holding his lead rope. Place your other hand where your leg would fall naturally with you in the saddle and apply light pressure. If he doesn't respond by moving his hind end over, apply more pressure. As soon as he responds properly, release your hand and praise him. Repeat on his other side. Do this until the response to pressure is immediate.
In The Saddle
When you ride, apply pressure one leg at a time to ask your horse to move away from your leg. So, for example, when you apply pressure with your left leg, he should move to the right. As you do this exercise, your outside leg, or opposite leg should be supporting him with slight contact -- not as much as the other leg -- to help his body stay straight.
Next, ask him to bend around your inside leg to go in a circle. Start walking -- or tracking -- left. Pick up your left rein while pressing your left leg at the girth area. He should respond by bending and making a circle. Then, repeat in the other direction. Horses usually are better at one side than the other, so if your horse resists one side, exaggerate the rein pressure so you can see his nose and ask him to “follow” his nose. When he bends successfully, be sure to release the pressure on the rein.
If your horse doesn’t know verbal cues for walk, trot and canter, teach him these on the lunge line. After he responds correctly to your voice cues, use them under saddle with the correct leg cues; the amount of leg pressure you add should correlate with the gait. So, you will add light pressure with both legs for the walk, slightly more pressure for the trot, and more pressure for the canter. For the canter, however, you will have uneven pressure on your outside leg, which not only cues your horse more clearly for the canter, but tells him you want him to canter on the correct lead instead of the counter-canter. Move your seat bones with your horse's moving, slowing and speeding up your movement appropriately. Your seat and legs always should send your horse the same message.
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.