What’s the Difference?

Posted by in accurate, Blog, equestrian, fingers, get your horse going, get your horse listening., hand position, hands, heels down, hocks, how to keep a contact, interesting schooling, keep a contact, keep sessions different, keeping your horse busy, knees, no school, positive thinking, transition problems, transitions, trot walk trot in a test, walk, walk and trot exercises, walk to trot, walk trot canter exercises on May 26, 2012


How do you ask your horse to go from halt to walk? From walk to trot? Most riders will shorten their reins up, shuffle about in the saddle a bit and then put their leg on. But which part of your leg do you use? And for how long? And how on earth does your horse know the difference between walk on more actively and trot on?


Thankfully your horse isn’t a computer; he sees the grey bits between the black and the white. Over the years he’s learnt to translate this mixture of arms, legs and seat shuffling and come up with the correct answer. Most of the time. So is he really lazy? Tense? Or just doing his best?


Consistency is the key to all good schooling. It doesn’t matter what aids you use to tell your horse to do something as long as you do the same thing every time. But the less you have to do the easier it is for you to remember and the easier he’ll find it to understand.


There are two parts to your leg. The upper part is made up of your thigh and knee. Better than any rein aid it’s the best brake you have. It should rest against your horse at all times but never tighten unless you want to slow down. Think of your upper legs as a clothes peg – the harder you push into the saddle the slower your horse will go.


Your lower leg is made up of your calf muscle and heel. Because your horse has a circular barrel your lower leg should hang down his side and drop straight towards the floor leaving a gap between him and your heel. Ride like this and your calf muscle will stay in contact with his side giving him support and encouragement. Your heel will stay away until you need to correct him or give him a clear order.


When your heel is off your horse’s side your toe should point forwards. This puts the side of your leg against him. Look at the inside of your chaps or boots. The inside should be dirty/worn not your heel or the back seam.


If you’ve been taught to wrap your leg around your horse then it’s likely your toes will stick out to the side. By trying to get your lower leg in and around him your hips, knees and ankles get tense. (This may also mean you draw your leg up as you use it – are you forever losing your stirrups?) Next time you ride try thinking ‘heel out’ rather than ‘heel down’ and feel the difference it makes in your seat and leg.


When you change things in your usual position it’s to be expected that they’re going to ache. It will pass if you keep at it! Hanging your leg down away your horse’s sides and keeping your toe to the front gives you an extra lower leg aid to use and it also puts the side of your thigh and knee against the saddle ready to be used as a very effective brake.


Many dressage tests ask for a transition to walk from trot (walk one horse’s length) and back to trot again. If your aids are clear and effective it will have a huge effect on your marks. Even if you don’t fancy trying your hand at dressage wouldn’t you like your horse to really understand what you’re asking – every time?


Transitions are all about leg aids. Your contact or rein length shouldn’t change unless you’re allowing your horse to stretch or riding free walk on a long rein. There should be no need for you to shorten your reins up before a trot transition. Nor should you allow them to slip through your fingers as you go into walk. Every time you pass A and C make a point of shortening your reins up. Eventually you’ll get so sick of doing it you’ll hang on to them!


The way you hold your reins varies depending on whether you’re riding an upward or downward transition. Your thumb should remain clamped down on top of the rein and your first finger to keep hold of the contact. Your 2nd and 3rd finger should relax if you want to go up a pace and tighten if you want to go down. (Think of squeezing a tennis ball hard when you’re slowing down and allowing it to open again as you go up.) Your knee and thigh do the rest.


If you’re asking your horse for more energy in a pace tighten your fingers around your reins as you would when you’re asking him to slow down. Keep your upper leg relaxed against the saddle and use your lower leg. A stronger squeeze with your calf muscle should be enough but if he doesn’t react use both heels together until you get the reaction you want. A restrictive contact tells him not to go up a pace and the extra leg you use will push his hocks further under his body creating more energy.


Practise these aids by riding large in trot and asking for transitions to walk between E/B and the next corner markers. Remember your contact should stay the same. If a transition is between markers wait until your horse has passed the first marker before pressing your knee and thigh into the saddle. Tighten your fingers around your reins and keep your thigh and knee tight on the saddle until you feel him step into walk. When you’re certain he’s understood relax. After three steps use both heels together once. That’s all he should need to tell him to trot. If he doesn’t go first time give him a tap with your whip directly behind your leg. Do that every time and he’ll soon learn.


This takes practise and patience. Ride at least ten on each rein. Every horse is different, some react quicker than others, but you are the same rider and should be every time. The sooner your horse learns that the better his transitions will be.


Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

For a detailed look into how you can improve your dressage score (for any test) check out the third book  in the Get Started series or upload your video onto the forum under ‘Show and Tell’  and I’ll give you my thoughts.

Improve your horse’s response to your aids with Teach Yourself 1, work on your canter problems with Teach Yourself 2, get his attention with Teach Yourself 3 and slow him down or calm him down with Teach Yourself 4

If you have any questions get in touch via the forum or email me at lorraine@schoolyourhorse.com My advice is free so why not try me? Check out the replies so far to see if they might help you with an existing problem.



  1. May 30, 2012

    Super blog as always. Very clear and helpful. The only area I would differentiate on is where you speak of the aids once you have already made your upward transition. I give alternate leg aids with the lower leg at the walk, and apply the aids simultaneously at the trot and canter unless I am on a circle and am trying to drive the hind quaters in or out at the same time. Its a small point, and not really the key point of your article.

    I find your pointers around your hands really good- the importantance of driving into a soft hand in an upward transition.

    I ride very much along the lines you write about.

    I’m curious to know when you think its important to use seat and weight.


    • Lorraine May 30, 2012

      Thanks, Tanya. I know exactly what you mean by alternate leg aids in walk. I have written a post about it. http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/2011/03/27/perfect-timing/

      I think you hit the nail on the head re key points of the post. I’m a fan of focusing on a few things. It’s the way I teach. I like to give key things that people can remember and work on. It’s a method an old trainer of mine used and it worked so well I took it up! I’d be doing an Advanced Medium and she’d just say “Ride forward – don’t pull back” and that was that! Previous trainers had given me too much to think about and in the end I lost faith in myself. So that’s the theory 🙂

      I’ve written a few posts about seat – the most recent – http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/2012/01/28/are-you-sitting-comfortably/
      I haven’t , as yet, gone too deep because I often think riders try too hard when they really need to concentrate on their balance or hands first. I always advise people that a still seat is far less distracting/unbalancing for a horse than one which is going against the movement. As you can probably tell I’m very ‘into’ contact and leg!

      Having said that I personally like to teach my horses to slow down and move on from the seat before the leg, thigh or hand. I use the position of my seat bones for canter aids, flying changes and lateral work. Like everything really. If you are clear in what you are doing your horse will be too.

      Thanks for your comments. It’s always good to chat and compare notes 🙂

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