horse leg yielding

Leg Yields – The How, When, and Why

I love leg yields. They are the most basic lateral movement, and for that reason, an incredible tool for green horses and riders new to dressage.  To do a leg yield is not real hard, but does require an understanding of a few somewhat complicated concepts.  Most people can relatively easily understand the concepts and how to do a leg yield, but then find carrying it out to be slightly counter-intuitive, which is what makes leg yielding such a great exercise. Once it “clicks” for a horse or rider, it’s like a big light bulb turns on, and from there the rest of dressage starts to fall into place.

The concepts that a leg yield requires a horse or rider to gain an understanding of mostly hinge around the use of the outside rein. When asking for a leg yield, the horse should be gently flexed away from the direction the horse will be moving in.  Alone, flexing the horse gently in either direction is not hard, but when adding the leg yield, the idea of bending the horse into the *outside rein* becomes critical. As the rider asks for the first steps of leg yield, just closing the inside leg is again usually not difficult for the rider, but riding from the inside leg to the *outside rein* is usually a light bulb moment. Then, after the leg yield is finished, straightening the horse not just by ceasing to ask with the inside leg, but also straightening with the *outside rein* is the final ah-ha!

What a Leg Yield Should Look Like:

When the horse does a leg yield, his body will move both forward and sideways, so if he is parallel to the long side of the arena, he travels a line diagonal across the arena.  Let’s say, for example, we are riding a leg yield from the quarter line (half way between the center line and rail) to the rail, tracking right. The horse starts on the quarter line, traveling straight forward, body parallel to the rail. The horse flexes gently to the right, filling the outside rein.  The rider can best influence the inside hind leg to move sideways as it is in the air stepping forward (vs when it is planted on the ground and the outside hind is stepping), so if the horse is walking, as the front left leg steps forward, the next step will be the right hind, and if the horse is trotting the front left and right hind step at the same time, and this would be when to ask the right hind to step under the horses body to cross in front of the left hind. As the horse moves sideways, his body stays parallel to the wall, he maintains the right flexion and contact in the left rein. When the leg yield is finished, the rider straightens the horse with the outside rein and may close both legs to send the horse forwards.

horse leg yielding
Leg yield- horse is flexed right but basically straight through his body, his right hind steps in front of and across his left hind.

Here is Remy doing his first attempts at leg yields. He is about 15 rides off the track here, and as you can see, just starting to understand contact in a dressage sense (vs what he knew at the track) and is learning to go on the bit but is not yet consistently there.  He already understands to move away from the pressure of my leg and move under my weight, and I am using the leg yield to help him to understand going on the bit by coming over his back, versus asking him to go “on the bit” by putting his head down (a common error).  Here his leg yields are not show ring perfect, but really darn good considering his lack of strength and training (both for dressage vs what he had for racing).

Common Errors and “Ah-ha!” Moments:

Most riders are taught to ride with their inside rein by pulling it to turn the horse. And in the first leg yield attempt, most riders will pull the inside rein for the inside flexion and then apply the inside leg to move the horse sideways. And, obediently, most horses will swing their nose to the inside (following the inside rein) and go sideways through their outside shoulder (since they are not bent into the outside rein), haunches trailing to the inside instead of inside hind stepping under the horse’s body and crossing in front of the outside hind.

Usually if the rider notices this happening, they are aware the front end of the horse is moving away from the inside leg faster than the back end of the horse, so they pull the inside rein in an effort to stop the horse from running through the outside shoulder. This is the counter-intuitive part.  Only when the rider takes a hold of the outside rein can they catch the outside shoulder and keep it under the horse, straightening the horse so the inside hind will step under the horse correctly. The first time the rider pulls the outside rein and feels the inside hind leg step way under the horse’s body they usually go “Ah-ha!” and they understand what is meant by “inside leg to outside rein”.

The same thing will happen trying to end a leg yield. A novice rider will try to stop the sideways motion of the horse by pulling the inside rein (sending the horse through his outside shoulder) instead of straightening him with the outside rein, and again, this will be an “Ah-ha!” moment when the rider gets it right.  Once the rider understands this idea, the more difficult lateral work will fall into place, as well as more basic work like bending and making circles and good transitions.

Other Uses and Variations for Leg Yields:

Leg yields teach a green horse about moving away from the inside leg, stepping into the outside rein, lifting the back and stretching into the contact, and allowing the rider to influence the hind end instead of the horse just throwing the shoulders around, as many horses try to do both through ignorance and as an evasion.  Leg yield can be used to teach a rider all the same things.

During the leg yield, the rider often learns:

  • the feeling of the horse lifting his back under the rider
  • the rider learns to feel where the shoulders and haunches of the horse are (moving sideways, moving forward in a straight line, haunches falling to the inside, etc)
  • the rider learns how to put the horse on the bit by riding the back end of the horse and bringing the horse’s back up, which creates a round horse reaching into the bit
  • the rider understands the use of diagonal aids (inside leg to outside rein), which can then be used for a half-halt and all future lateral work

Leg yields can also be used on a circle, where they help a horse learn to bend correctly (into the outside rein) vs either following the inside rein in to make the circle smaller, or folding in half at the withers instead of bending correctly, which is usually followed by drifting through the outside shoulder to make the circle bigger. Leg yields into corners can help horses that want to fall onto their inside shoulder and “motorcycle” around corners, or dive in to cut off a corner completely.

Ending leg yields is also a useful exercise for both horse and rider, and again reinforces the importance of outside rein contact vs just drifting away (endlessly) from the inside leg.  This can be done on a circle, say by beginning with a 10 m circle, leg yielding out to a 15 m circle and remaining there for twice around, then leg yielding out to a 20 m circle, and so on. This can also be done by leg yielding from the center line to the quarter line, or quarter line to *just inside* the rail (horses/riders that don’t understand the outside rein seem magnetically sucked to the wall, which acts in place of the rider’s outside aids, and have a very hard time riding almost-but-not-quite on the rail – try it!).

An even more difficult leg yield is to go from the rail to the quarter line, straighten for a few steps, then continue to leg yield to the center line, straighten again, then continue to the next quarter line, straighten again, then finish the leg yield on the rail across the diagonal from where you started. By straightening the horse for a few steps as you do this exercise, you may not make it across the full diagonal (unless your arena is very long or narrow), but more important training is accomplished than just allowing your horse drift all the way across the diagonal even once the quality of the connection (from the inside leg over the back to the outside rein) has been lost.

An easier variation of the leg yield is to ride it along the wall, with the horse’s body positioned at an angle to the wall, haunches stepping on the track to the inside of the rail. This is easier because the wall blocks the horse from going forward instead of forwards/sideways, making it easier for the rider to figure out how to coordinate all the aids, and it also gives the rider a visual reference point to determine if the horse is going sideways or not… if the front legs are on the rail and the back legs are not, then the horse can’t be going straight forward! But if the horse bends his neck towards the wall, and yet those hind legs don’t step off the rail, then he’s just going forward with his neck bent.

I also love leg yields for a horse that is spooking at something that isn’t scary, as a way of evading work or making the rider nervous. By bending the horse away from the scary object (sometimes a shadow in a corner, a mounting block, a chair, etc) and leg yielding towards it, the rider remembers to RIDE past the object, and by taking control usually gains confidence.   The horse’s mind is also occupied by the rider’s aids, so the horse has less mental energy left to think about things to spook at.  And, if the horse tries to spook anyways, while he’s in the position bending to the inside of the arena and around the rider’s inside leg, the horse is unable to run through his inside shoulder when he spooks, usually making a far less dramatic spook attempt.


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