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How to ride a leg yield

At the risk of omitting the aids for your horse, here's how it's done.

Leg yield head-to-wallHow: If the horse is reasonably responsive to turns on the forehand, and will wait for you to tell him to take another step, he's ready to try leg yield.

I generally like to try leg yield head-to-the-wall first, because a solid barrier in front of your horse will make you less likely to hang on his mouth. However, if you're riding that one horse out of a hundred who runs backwards in response to leg pressure, avoid this method like the plague. There's nothing like a solid wall in front of that horse to give him incentive to back up!

Let's say you're tracking to the left (which means your left hand is toward the center of the arena). Starting at the middle of one short end of the arena, ride straight across the corner, directly toward the long side, at about a 30 degree angle to the rail (got your compass and protractor handy?).

Aim your body, and your horse, at the rail. About a step before he smashes his nose into the fence, give a half-halt, slide your right leg back, and ask him to step sideways.

The first time you try this, your horse will think you've lost your mind. He'll try to straighten out and go parallel to the rail, or he might literally bump into the fence and stop.

If he tries to straighten out, keep your left rein pressed firmly against his neck, keep your body aimed at an angle toward the rail, and ask again with your right leg. Avoid that temptation to pull on the right rein -- that will only make his shoulders fall farther toward the center of the ring.

If he's not clear about the meaning of your leg, go back and do a few turns on the forehand to remind him.

Ask for just one or two steps of leg yield to begin with, and then clearly ask the horse to straighten and go parallel to the rail. Be sure to always tell the horse to finish, rather than letting him fall out of the leg yield. He needs to learn to listen to your "don't do it anymore" aids as well as your "let's try this" aids.

If your horse gets stuck -- if he ceases all forward motion -- abort the exercise and try again after you've regained forward motion. Once he's stopped, he's not going to be able to produce a leg yield, and the absolute last thing you want to teach him is to stop in response to your leg.

Make sure that, if your horse get stuck, you didn't ask for too great an angle. Try again, and ask for less angle: a good leg yield at 15 degrees is better than a bad leg yield at 30 degrees.

One of the hardest concepts for many riders to grasp during the leg yield head to the wall is to shift both hands toward the wall. Our instinctive response is to shift both reins to the center of the ring, which might result in a great neck-yield. But it's your leg that swings the haunches off the rail. Your reins are responsible for keeping the horse's spine as straight as possible, and aimed at an angle to the rail.

Go back to our example of the horse tracking left during head-to-the-wall leg yield. Your horse will probably try to bulge his left shoulder through your left rein, so you'll need to keep a fairly firm hold on it. Imagine it's a broomstick that you're using to make a wall through which his shoulder can't escape. There shouldn't be so much backward pressure on the rein that your horse begins to bend left. You'll have to experiment with the balance between the backwards and sideways pressure on the rein. If one combination doesn't work, try another.

You know you're doing the head-to-the-wall leg yield correctly if you look down at your hands, and see that your hand nearest the wall (the right hand in our example) is away from the horse's neck and not pulling back. In our example of the horse tracking left during head-to-the-wall leg yield, your right leg and left rein will be the dominant aids. If you're really good, you can do this leg yield without using the right rein at all.

I used to tell my riders that, during the leg yield, the horse was bent slightly away from the direction he was moving sideways. While this is true, I don't even mention it anymore -- I just tell my riders to keep the horse as straight through the spine as possible. Most horses want to bend too much away from the direction of sideways motion, and most riders instinctively pull too much on the bending rein. Talking about straightness seems more effective than mentioning that slight bend.

If the horse bends into the direction of sideways movement, he's performing a travers or haunches in, and you're way ahead of the game! Presuming, that is, that you're riding it correctly. :-)

After your horse is comfortable performing 10 or so strides of head-to-wall leg yield, try riding the same movement, but don't ride all the way to the rail before you begin. Imagine, instead, that the arena has suddenly shrunk in width by 10 feet on each side. Riding your head-to-the-wall leg yield slightly away from the wall will test your aids.

At the trot, I only ride head-to-the-wall leg yield away from the wall. I don't want my horse to bang his knees into the fence.

Leg yield parallel to wallOnce you master head-to-the-wall leg yield, try leg yield parallel to the wall (see this page for a reminder). The aids are the same, but you don't have the physical barrier of the wall to help you contain the horse's energy.

Use the horse's tendency to drift back to the rail to your advantage in your first parallel leg yields. Turn down a quarterline (the imaginary line halfway between the centerline and the rail) and yield out to the wall. If you're tracking left, go past C or A, turn down the next quarterline, right straight ahead for a stride or two, and yield to the right. Don't try to go too much sideways -- you don't need to return to the rail sooner than the halfway mark. In fact, you don't need to return to the rail at all. If you get a few good steps from your horse, ride straight ahead. A few good steps are better than lots of mediocre ones.

Regardless of the gait at which you ride the leg yield, remember that your first priority is to the gait. You're not just doing leg yield, you're doing leg yield at the walk or at the trot. You must continue to ride the gait, as well as apply the aids for leg yield. Most riders, when learning lateral movements, get so caught up in the mechanics of the aids that they forget they're riding a horse. The horse, understandably, stiffens and slows down.

I don't get too excited if the horse slows down or loses his rhythm when first learning a lateral movement. If you're learning a new piece of music, or a new dance step, you probably go slowly at first, don't you? As long as you know your training job is not complete until you can ride the lateral movement in rhythm, you'll get there.

Lateral movements, like all suppling exercises, are a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. Your leg yields might not be very good to begin with, but do them anyway. If your horse's regular work improves, your lateral work has done the job.

Before you start

"Inside" vs. "Outside"

Direction of bend

Lateral work chart

Turn on the forehand

Leg Yield
 Leg yield parallel
 Leg yield head to wall
 How to ride

Shoulder in

Travers

Renvers

Half pass

Pirouettes

Pronunciation 101

Lateral work game