The holy grail for an eventer is to achieve a harmonious and energised performance in all disciplines. You know when you have it, and in the dressage phase, in addition to your own perspective, you also need to appease the judges.
Although it is required in all phases, a correct way of working has its foundations built during flatwork sessions, where we try to work ‘leg to hand’, and achieve thoroughness and forward-going energy. But do we really appreciate how important ‘leg to hand’ is, and how it should be the mantra of our riding life? Are we clear on how to achieve it, or what it’s supposed to feel like?
What is thoroughness?
Let’s firstly look at that term ‘throughness,’ a typical horsey term. It is what we see when a horse is on the bit. There is overall harmony and a release of the neck and jaw, so the rider’s contact with the bit and in turn the horse’s mouth feels light and effortless. The horse’s hindlegs are engaged under the body, and the rider has a soft connection with the horse’s mouth as a result of riding leg to hand. The horse’s quarters, back, neck and poll are relaxed, and it maintains self-carriage. This may only be achieved for small spells early in the horse and rider’s education, but with correct training, improves.
What is ‘leg to hand’?
A simple way of explaining this term is that it means creating energy with your leg and supporting it with your hand. There should always be a surplus of forward motion starting from the hind leg, over the back, topline to the bridle, and into the rider’s hands, via the bit. By creating power from the hindleg, pushing it forward and then supporting it with the seat and hand, you should feel like you have an elastic ball of energy underneath you waiting for your next signal.
If you think of a horse working towards collection, which is what it is to be truly between leg and hand, the energy created from the hindleg is pushed through to the bridle but also contained, creating impulsion, suspension and cadence. Obviously the majority of horse riders aren’t aiming for 5* eventing or Grand Prix Dressage, but just observing the Ingrid Klimkes of this world helps create a lovely image of the forward energy that they are feeling in their hand, and the readiness of the forward motion.
Hanging on to forward motion
The phrase leg to hand is also often reiterated by trainers and riders, because people sometimes make the mistake of not riding forward, especially those with sharp and fiery horses. If you (conversely) ride hand to leg, you’re not creating any energy but are hanging on to a forward motion and this tends to stop any impulsion. If this sounds familiar to you, then transitions are your best friend. Whatever the horse, you need to be able to get your leg on and be able to push them from behind, otherwise you have no true forward motion to turn into impulsion.
Using the hindleg
Getting your horse actually established at working from your leg into your hand is not something you can achieve overnight, but will be the product of a lot of hard work and discipline. You need the horse to be using their hindleg efficiently in order to create the energy to start with, and a lot of lateral work helps this. Whether it is leg yield, shoulder-in or travers – these all require your horse to step underneath and carry their weight on their hindleg.
The more you do, the stronger your horse will get, and the easier they will find it to use their hindleg efficiently. Use half halts in your lateral work to re-balance and reset, as this well help remind them to utilise their hind quarters and not fall onto the forehand. You can never do too many transitions, so add them in to your normal schooling session, along with some lateral work to help keep the horse’s reactions sharp and in front of your leg. When you have the horse using their hind leg and they’re properly in front of the movement, you should then be able to ride them up to your hand, and feel a nice, supple connection to the bit.
A tool to aid communication
The bit itself is a tool to aid communication and should be as comfortable for the horse as possible. We want to reduce as much pressure in the horse’s mouth whilst taking in their facial conformation.
I really like a bit called the Bombers DC Morgan – it isn’t dressage legal, but is often chosen for jumping. I am pictured here riding ‘On The Brash’ with this bit, at Aske Horse Trials. The unique design of the Bombers DC Morgan is the swivel element, which allows the mouthpiece to be placed where the horse finds it most comfortable; the small top rings pivot, which remove poll pressure.
The Bombers DC Dressage Swivel is also a super bit to try. This version is dressage legal; both versions removes many pressure points from the horse’s mouth and poll. Both bits are available in the standard sweet iron, titanium or Bomber Blue. There is a useful video of Bomber introducing the DC Dressage Swivel here.
For more information on these products visit Bombers’ Facebook page and for Bombers Bits stockists, contact Distributor Equine Management on 01825 840002.