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Horse Dressage

Improve Your Horse’s Leg-Yield

A useful training tool for both horse and rider, the leg-yield while horse riding supples the horse through his hips, croup, lower back, and shoulders. Leg-yielding teaches the horse how to move away from the inside leg to create bend in the body and step under his center of gravity.

The U.S. Equestrian (USEF) Dressage Rule Book describes the leg-yield as follows:

The horse is kept almost straight, except for slight flexion of the poll away from the direction in which he moves, and the inside legs pass and cross in front of the outside legs with the forehand slightly in advance of the quarters.

Ali Calkins demonstrates a correct leg-yield on Emma, an 18-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse mare owned by Nancy Biglin. In the leg-yield, the horse travels with their body mostly straight (without bend) along a diagonal path. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

You can use the leg-yield in many types of exercises to establish a better connection from inside leg to outside rein. Lateral work improves connection, balance, and suppleness. It also gives you more insight on where your horse may be struggling with tension in his body. The leg-yield is typically ridden at the walk or trot.

This movement is introduced in First Level dressage and is an important prerequisite for both the horse and rider before moving on to advanced lateral work.

How To Ride the Leg-Yield

When performing the leg-yield under saddle, I prefer to start in the trot since the exercise has the tendency to compress the horse, so the forward impulsion helps keep him moving sideways more steadily. With a more forward and sensitive horse, it may be better to start in the walk.

Sitting slightly more on your inside seat bone, keep your shoulders level and pointed in the direction of your horse’s shoulders with your hands parallel to each other. Your eyes should be looking straight ahead with the destination of the leg-yield in your peripheral vision.

Incorrect: The mare’s neck is turned and she pushes out the opposite shoulder, running through it. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

Beginning on a straight line—either the quarterline or centerline—first ride straight and forward before beginning this move. Keeping your horse straight through the neck on the outside rein with a little inside flexion, press with your inside leg slightly behind the girth in the rhythm of the trot.

Be sure to keep your outside rein contact steady, as you may need to half-halt if your horse begins to rush or his shoulders drift too far over. Your outside leg does not come off, but stays on softly as what I call a “forward guiding leg” to prevent your horse from falling abruptly sideways. The inside flexion encourages your horse to stay soft in his jaw and poll throughout the movement.

When you are first learning to leg-yield, give yourself plenty of time to reach the wall. Moving on too steep of an angle may cause your horse to lose straightness and balance.
I recommend beginning the leg-yield about a quarter of the way down the line you start on and finishing on the wall before the next corner. For example, starting the leg-yield between D and L, and finishing at H or M.

A quick glance down to check that your hands are parallel and in line with the front of the saddle pad will prevent overbending your horse’s neck. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

When you arrive at the wall, your outside leg closes and your outside hand comes into the neck to ask your horse to travel straight and then prepare for the bend in the next corner. You may feel that the corner becomes easier to ride as the leg-yield pushes the inside hind under your horse’s center of gravity, creating a greater degree of bend.

Troubleshooting Rider Errors

Here are three common errors when riding the leg-yield and how to fix them.

1. Incorrect riding position: During the leg-yield, it is important that you remain balanced in the center of the horse’s back. Commonly I see a rider swinging or rocking her hips or dipping one shoulder. The leg-yield is a relatively straight movement; you must continue to think of traveling a straight line with your body to help the horse maintain balance.

Often the reason for the position issues is that your horse is not responding to the leg you are trying to yield away from. In this instance, I would recommend carrying a whip or wearing a small spur to assist and reinforce the aid, if needed.

A good visual is to picture that you are leg-yielding to multiple lines close together; travel on one line straight and just move a few feet over to the next line, and the next, until you have finished at the wall.

2. The horse’s neck is crooked or pulled in the opposite direction of the leg-yield: In this case, the horse does not leg-yield, but rather pushes through the opposite shoulder and falls sideways.

You must remember to keep your hands parallel to control your horse’s neck position and to keep his shoulders from drifting. I often tell my students to glance at their hands and use the front of the saddle pad as a reference to keep their hands parallel.

It’s an easy visual for you to see from the saddle if one hand or the other wants to drift forward or back. By keeping your hands in this position, the contact of the outside rein prevents your horse’s neck from overbending and gives him a steady connection to push his inside hind leg into.

Pulling on your outside rein too much will bend your horse’s neck, allowing the opposite shoulder to
pop out. Photo by Amy Dragoo.

3. The horse turns on a diagonal line rather than moving sideways: For this issue, I like to set up pairs of poles or cones parallel to the side of the arena. You should only need about three pairs when leg-yielding from centerline.

Depending on the length of the arena, place the first pair about a quarter to a third of the way down the arena somewhere between centerline and quarterline. Set them a comfortable width apart to trot your horse in between them, maybe 4 to 5 feet.

Set the next pair another third of the way down the arena the same distance apart, and the last pair on the track at the far end of the long side before the corner.

To ride this exercise, begin your leg-yield from centerline to the first pair of poles. Close your outside leg and send your horse straight through the poles. Leg-yield again to the second set and proceed straight through the poles again. Finish the leg-yield between the last set of poles at the track.

By breaking up the leg-yield, you’ll understand how to use your outside leg to guide your horse straight in the leg-yield to prevent him from turning to a diagonal line.

Take your leg yield to the next level with Part Two of this series.

This article about the how to improve your horse’s leg yield appeared in the June 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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