Training Exercises: Teaching Leg Yield from the ground

Beginning Leg Cues

Well-trained horses uses leg cues, face cues, and seat cues to anticipate what their rider wants them to do. A really well-trained horse and rider can perform with leg and seat cues alone. That is the fancy “bridleless” horse you see at exhibitions.

Leg cues are used to tell the horse which part of his body to move which direction. Leg yields are used specifically to move him laterally. I am not a dressage rider. However, here is a picture of a friend riding Cadence (half Friesian- half Arab gelding) practicing a Side Pass maneuver, asking the horse to move off her leg and track to his left. Simply put, your horse will feel your leg or heel pressure on a certain spot on his body, and move away from the pressure (Yield) with that part of his body.

The horse learned during his ground training that moving away from pressure will end the pressure. This is central to his understanding under saddle that he should do the same: move away from the pressure.

Two legs pressuring his girth in a “neutral” position (neither forward nor behind the girth) moves him straight ahead. Right leg pressuring his girth (slightly forward of the middle) will move his shoulder away to the left. Right leg pressure behind the middle (just in front of the back cinch line) should move his hind quarters away to the left. Right leg pressure middle should help him move his rib cage away and/or help him move his whole body left (pictured).

The goal is to have your horse move his body off of a leg pressure so slight that a by-stander cannot even tell that you have moved your leg or requested any action from your horse. It is difficult for both the horse and rider at first. But, after practice, both of you will become fluid and much more relaxed. (Also see Contact)

It is the first stage of all precision riding. For weekend trail riders, it is important to be able to maneuver your horse away from trees on the trail, toward gates for opening, turning around in tight or dangerous places. An additional benefit: any horse being asked to “dance” by moving this way and that quickly and smoothly will also automatically collect and balance better. He will look more attractive, his physique and muscles in his back will improve, his attitude will be more engaged, and his ride will be smoother.
See Pressure Points of a Horse

This lesson uses several of the theories explained in other parts of this manual: Yielding to pressure, Release-Reward, Pairing Responses, and Fine-Tuning Responses. It also builds on Flex Training

I recently had the unpleasant experience of watching a horse being forced into fast turns with face and bit pressures only. The unfortunate green horse was having his face hauled to and fro and ended up with a very sore mouth while being “taught” to “follow” his face. He didn’t know what was being asked, and he fought the face pressure in a panicky attempt to get away from it. Had the horse (and/or rider) been proficient in leg cues, the whole scene would have been very different. He would have at least had a clue what to do with his body as his face was being jerked around.

Start on the ground. “The shortest distance between two points is through the ground.” You can haul on that horse till dooms day. However, when you are through, he will have a very sore (or hard) mouth, and you will have sore shoulders and arms. It will take at least twice as long, and he will lack willingness and finesse in every way. He will probably become a “head thrower”, a “bit resister”, and will never use correct carriage or balance.

Dragging a horse to and fro with his head will invariably drop his shoulder and cause his weight to be continually on his front, taking away all possibility of a properly balanced or collected movement.

Getting Ready Start in the round pen with a haltered and saddled horse. Standing facing his side with your lead rope bending his head slightly toward you, pick up the stirrup and see where the stirrup contacts the horse in a natural “neutral” position. Now pull the stirrup forward about 10″ and touch his side. Then push the stirrup back 10″ and note that spot. These areas are a little exaggerated at first so that he will get a clear picture of which parts of his body to move with which point. As you perfect the yields, the areas will move a little closer together and he will discern with more precision.

Disengage the Rear

Read More Ground Rear Disengage Details
Step 1: Rear
On the near side, grab the lead rope so that you can gently tip your horse’s face toward you. Using your left fist or knuckle (which is holding the rope with that little bit of tension), press into his side at the rear position (in front of the point where his back cinch would rest but not back into his soft belly. Stay in his ribs). Start with light pressure and increase until he moves away from it. Anticipate that he might move INTO the pressure at first, leaning on your fist.

If he refuses to move with side pressure, tap his rump with the popper end of the lead rope (which is being held in your other hand). Sensitive horses jump right away from the tap. Duller horses may need for you to build the intensity of the tap until they move. The goal is to start with minimal pressure, working up in intensity until you get a correct response. Remember that he learns from your release, not your push. The moment he moves his rear way (just one baby step will do), release the pressure and gently rub the yield spot until he stops moving his feet and softens his head and neck into the Flex. He is not finished until his feet are still and his face is softly flexing. Let him rest a moment or two. Then repeat the exercise.

Step 2: Rear Each time he responds, release your hand pressure AND tapping pressure immediately and rest. Resting is easier than working, so you will find that he will start to move more quickly with less and less pressure to get to the “sweet spot”: rest. Now train the other side. (see Two Brains)

As he gets better, note that you want the close rear foot to move IN FRONT OF (over the top of) the far foot. If he steps behind, it will not count as a correct disengagement. After he has moved away in any manner once or twice, don’t release the pressure until he moves CORRECTLY. We will SHAPE his new dance step into correct choreography and multiple steps as he gets better, faster, and lighter to the touch. Done correctly, you should be able to look at the ground and see that his near front leg has not moved. He has “drilled” a hole into the ground with that leg and walked around it with his hind end.

Tips: Rear Bending his neck is important. The more his neck is bent, the easier it is to move his rear around. If he starts to move away before you can give him a cue, do some flexing only so he does not always anticipate movement. Intersperse some rope-rubbing and de-sensitizing up and down his body with NO disengage between the moving exercises.

Disengaging the Front.

Horses generally stand with about 60% of their weight on their front. My experience is mostly with QH, Paints, Appaloosas, Warm Bloods, Friesians. It is generally easier to teach those breeds to disengage their rear than to get them to move their front away. The Caspian horses I work with move front and rear equally. And very sensitive Arab, Fox Trotter or other “hot” horse breeds are easier to move but take more finesse and even more precise timing.

Step 1: Front – Shoulder Tap Method The object is to get your horse to move his front end away from you, his near foot crossing over his far foot as he spins in a circle with his far-side back leg as the pivot point.

To turn your horse to his right, face his side just in front of his shoulder, holding your rope in your left hand. Raise your left arm and use that rope hand at his cheek to block his head from coming around toward you. (Lift his head a little. We want to take some weight off his front.) Begin to tap his shoulder with your right hand. Tap rhythmically and persistently until he moves away a step- not forward, not backward but away. If he tries any direction other than away, go with him and keep up the tap until he randomly tries the “move away”. Then stop immediately.

So that he doesn’t stumble or get clumsy trying to cross his feet over as he gets around, make it easy for him. “Set him up”. Have him standing with his close foot slightly ahead of his far foot. That way he won’t have to drag his near foot across the other (difficult and uncomfortable at first) or move forward to cross over.

A sensitive horse will get intimidated by the tap fairly quickly. A duller horse (or a horse you have really de-sensitized) may have to be really intimidated by the tap. You may have to raise the intensity to a much higher level including the noise of it. Or even get a small crop. Use the blunt handle to tap (feels more uncomfortable), or even the bat end (more noise) to “tap” with gusto.

Either way, raise the intensity of your tap until he moves one step away with his front. Stop the pressure. Rub his shoulder and neck. Accept the baby step and work from there asking for more steps as he gets more confident.

Remember, his near front foot should be crossing over his far front foot, and you should have made that easy before asking for the turn.

When he has mastered the touch pivot and turns with very little pressure, begin to touch further back toward his ribs. Move the touching position further and further back until you are using the leg-yield pressure point that will be used under saddle to move his shoulder over.

Front – Direct Forward Girth Pressure

The shoulder-tap method works fairly quickly on a sensitive horse. It is less effective for a dull horse. You may not get any movement by tapping with your fingers.

In that case, stand facing his side at his shoulder, hold your rope in your left hand. With rope hand still high at his cheek, press your right hand or the blunt end of a little quirt or paddle into his girth at the forward position (the armpit is a good place to start). Rachet up the intensity as you did for the rear disengage: light pressure, harder pressure, deep pressure until he moves his shoulder away. OR light pressure, then rhythmic bumps until he moves his shoulder over.

This is a fairly sensitive area. He will probably raise his head up a little as he moves over. Release and rub.

If he insists on backing up as you pressure, go with him until he turns his shoulder. Keep bumping until he stops backing and moves his front away. RELEASE.

As he gets better, shape the move more precisely. You want the close front foot to move over the top of the far foot. If he steps behind, it will not count as a correct disengagement (in order to step behind he had to back up). After he has moved away in any manner once or twice (first baby steps), don’t release the pressure until he moves CORRECTLY. Now ask for more steps.

Now, obviously, you are a little forward of the place your foot will naturally press. You will not be using a leg cue in front of his shoulder or even in the arm pit, but he’s beginning to understand this dance step. Pretty soon you will have him twirling away with only slight pressure at the shoulder. Still too far for your leg-foot cue, but getting there. Start gradually moving your cue back toward his girth and ask for more steps in a row and more subtle pressure: (Fine Tuning).

Done correctly, you should be able to look at the ground and see that his off-side back leg has not moved. He has “drilled” a hole into the ground with that leg and walked around it with his front end.

You can see that work on the ground gives the horse clues to your desires that he did not have before. Incorporate all of these movements into his daily routine when grooming, in the stall, while tacking etc. “Push” him around continually until he is soft and easy to move all of the time.

When you can get quick and soft response on the ground on both sides, getting lateral movement under saddle will be much easier.

I usually skip the middle girth cue at this time and concentrate on perfecting the front and rear. The middle cue will come when we ask him to bend his body and walk in a circle.

Rear & Front Leg Yields Under Saddle: The goal

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2 thoughts on “Training Exercises: Teaching Leg Yield from the ground

  1. My horse, Rodney, picked up pretty quickly on spinning his rear, but he WILL not, in any case,
    put is back foot over the other; he uses his front feet and back feet to spin, and not just move his rear. I waited for more than ten minutes just spinning, and spinning, and spinning; He never even hinted at doing it the right way. Every time I release the pressure I am just reinforcing this habit. Is there any way I can fix that? I tried all the advice in this article, and nothing worked on him.

    1. Have you trained him on the ground with the rear-disengage exercises? That is the first step for sure. As you stand at his side (like when you tighten the cinch) gently push your fist into his rear ribs (furthest back red circle at the top of this page) with one hand, simulating your rear leg cue, while tapping his fanny rhythmically with the popper – first lightly, then more insistently, then TAP, TAP,TAP. When he takes one step away with his rear, stop tapping and let him rest. When he takes a step consistently, require the rear cross before you stop tapping. Don’t let his front come toward you. Stand your ground at the cinch (girth) while making his rear move away. You must teach this cross-over “dance step” on the ground before he will use it easily under saddle.

      Don’t try to physically push him. That usually results in your dragging his head around with you as you chase his rear – which causes him to bring his front feet around to travel with you.

      When he can do this well and lightly, taking several cross-over steps and consistently getting it right on the ground, then you can go to the mounted version.

      Mounted, stand him next to and parallel to a pasture or round pen fence so that his front feet have nowhere to go when his rear is asked to move away from the fence. This just takes away one option of movement, helping him to give you the correct response. Keep your reins up close (but not tight) to inhibit forward movement if he tries that. Put just a tiny bit of contact on the fence-side rein to keep that shoulder over.

      Using your leg and heel, give him the same pressure you gave with your fist to tell him to move his rear away. Allow him to shift his weight a little bit at first as he tries to figure out what you want. Restrain all forward movement or shoulder movement away from the fence. He will usually figure it out in about 5 seconds or less. If he does not move or tries to do anything but disengage his rear, correct his position back to the parallel stance and start over. If he moves his rear properly just one step, take your leg pressure off and let him rest with praise.

      If he refuses to move, pick up your popper or a short bat or a crop and tap his fanny gently like you did on the ground – keeping your leg pressure steady. This probably won’t be necessary if his “dance step” has been perfected on the ground (and it may take your fence-hand off the rein), but I have had a horse or two that needed the added cue a couple of times. Just touching their fanny reminded them of what it was I wanted them to move.

      As you have figured out, it does no good to “spin and spin and spin” wrong. It only teaches a bad habit. Take one baby step as success and build on it – one crossover step at a time. You MUST RELEASE the moment you get one step.
      You may need a spotter on the ground to tell you immediately when he has moved correctly.

      Here is a great video that demonstrates the fence exercise. She does not concentrate on the cross-over, but your horse will offer it if he has been using it on the ground. Do pay attention to how gently and firmly she handles the exercise. If your horse is a hotter breed who fidgets and dances around, your job of timing will be harder. You MUST catch the right move and release for a stand-still immediately. If your timing is off, your proper response will be muddy and imprecise.

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