Iron Sides

Want to know the best way to ruin your horse’s responsiveness to your legs? 

It’s not a problem I would have thought many people needed to solve, but, by the looks of what I so often see at modern dressage competitions – at every level – there appears to be a lot of demand for this sort of thing.  And fortunately for those who want it, it’s super easy to do, and takes remarkably little time. 

Just keep two things in mind:

Use your legs often to remind him what you just asked him to do

Avoid ever escalating the pressure of the signal when his execution lacks enthusiasm

Very soon, your horse will become completely desensitized to leg pressure, and will begin accepting your legs as signal for whatever he feels like doing in the moment – which, like humans, is typically “less”.  Eventually, you’ll be required to keep squeezing and kicking pretty much all the time – just to keep him doing what he should have been doing to begin with.

If, instead, you want to avoid desensitizing your horse to the leg, making him responsive to the most subtle indications of the calf area on your leg, carefully avoid “nagging” him with the same aid when he’s unresponsive – instead, escalate the aid immediately.

Here’s why:  By default, your horse comes with a pretty exceptional brain that is constantly assessing the best way to anticipate his environment.  He will use and remember information that is relevant to that end, and discard that which is not.

Horses are especially adept in reducing precedents.  That is to say, they consider and reflect upon any chain of events leading up to anything particularly pleasant or unpleasant.  They have an uncanny ability to work their way up any chain they are able to perceive.  Not being particularly adept statisticians, correlation is causation to the horse.

Thus, if, every time I touch him with my right calf – and receive less enthusiasm than I desire – I then escalate to using my right ankle, and (still receiving less enthusiasm than I desire) subsequently touch him with my right spur (at which point he is going to move), he will quickly associate my first indication to his final response.  And, over a very short period of time, he will begin to skip to the chase – responding to the gentle pressure of my right calf with the same enthusiasm he initially offered the spur. He is no fool.

On the other hand, if I touch him with my ankle to ask him to move out initially, and then keep doing the same thing to remind him to keep going, what he observes is that I’m going to keep kicking him regardless of what he does.  Nothing particularly pleasant or unpleasant follows in his mind.  My legs have become, simply, a meaningless background noise with which he must contend (and can ignore) with when I ride.  Again, he is no fool.

If you are consistent in this practice, you will find a waning need for escalation, increased responsiveness, and avoid creating a horse with mute sides.