“Dead to the Leg” / Not “Going Forward” Issue

This post somewhat follows the one I wrote last month (click). Here I wanted to reflect on something which I often hear from riders and which goes a little bit like this: “If I don’t give him three or four whacks to start with he just drags along for entire lesson. I hate doing this but it works and he just goes great afterwards” or I really don’t want to kick her so hard but I have to or she just won’t go“…

Understanding what to do and how to do it is the key for the rider to progress. What about the horse…?

I am yet to meet a rider who says “I love that bit at the beginning when I have to whack him properly so he goes well later” or one who says “I ride for the workout I get from booting her along, what a pleasure” so I thought it might be a good idea to write down the “what to do instead” suggestions…

There will be no quick fix recipe in this post, just reflections on where to direct our efforts when re-training a horse that became dull to the leg aids.


When dealing with a “dead-to-the leg” horse or pony it’s important to establish how we are going to get it to understand what is required all over again. It goes without elaboration that I don’t consider such horse stupid. Something happened either during initial training or further use of the horse which made him respectively confused about or unresponsive to the “go button”.

There are so many different training methods out there nowadays that it’s easy to get confused oneself and become unsure as to what system to follow and therefore what might be a good approach when fixing things. I personally am more of an animal science enthusiast and prefer to go with horse friendly equine behaviour science angle with a pinch of open mind added in for good measure.

This helps me decide if I “like” any new training method if I get to try one as well as let’s me mix and match what I see works well in whatever systems I come across be it classical, modern, Parelli, Monty Roberts, Intelligent Horsemanship etc etc whatever names it got given.

I find this works very well because it eliminates illogical training methods and those based on over stimulation of the wrong motivational drives in horses, like fear.

Most often, the dead-to-the-leg horse was either:

1) Never taught to react to the leg touch properly in the first place

2) Withdrawn into himself due to incorrect leg use or abuse by the rider (not necessarily current rider)


3) Movement is uncomfortable to him due to crookedness or rider’s low level of riding skills

The leg aids, and rein aids, are generally trained by negative reinforcement. This means the horse learns that reward comes in a shape of removal of uncomfortable pressure. Leg wrapped around his belly and touching with pressure will relax if he moves. Pressure on the mouth will be immediately gone if he slows down or stops.

My advice would be to make a list of your beliefs connected with horse training. Anything that comes to your mind as to why your horse does or doesn’t do as it is asked. This little exercise, when confronted with behaviour science, should give you pointers as to where to start re-training…

In the process of figuring out how to make your horse be responsive to the leg, you will need to figure out what motivates him and to what extent. Not all horses are food motivated. Some just like to be left alone…if you have a horse that prefers peace of mind then you will have to learn how to be a very quiet, logical and sympathetic rider…If your horse climbs a roof for a carrot you might get away with bouncing about now and then yet provide a meaningful reward for desired [go] behaviour.

To figure out your own horses motivation and way of learning you can pick something new you can teach your horse to do. Chose something that you have no clue how to teach and give it some thought. Research it. Read on it. When I first did this with my own horse I decided to teach him to lower his head to the ground when he saw a bridle. He wasn’t into snacks at all but through trial and error I found out he really enjoyed being rubbed on the side of his head where cheek pieces go so that was my reward trick for him.

Teaching your horse something from “scratch” helps you understand his learning process. Here, a young rider is teaching her pony to move specific leg when it is touched with the stick and then immediately stop to a certain body stance and momentary pressure of a headcollar. The exercise helps her with being more precise with her aids when she rides.

Anything we teach a horse is about achieving a reward. The horse must understand how to obtain that reward and the rider must be clear what the horse prefers to be rewarded with.

This is where we move onto:


Again, there are many styles, systems, methods of riding but there always need to be one simple rule: the rider needs to aim to make her horse comfortable. If an action of putting the leg on the horse’s side in order to ask him to do something unbalances the rider and changes their weight distribution in such a way that it disturbs the horse’s way of going, the understanding of the aids suffers.

If the leg remains aiding after the horse moved, the understanding suffers.

If the leg aids act together with hand tension and body tension (99% of novice riders tense their hands and other parts of their bodies when using their legs), the understanding suffers.

Retraining responsiveness in the horse must generally be closely accompanied by re-training or up-skilling of the rider. It’s important that the rider is taught how to non-violently create certain level of urgency or energy in own body that matches the temperamental needs of her horse. This takes time and certainly requires giving up on “he needs a good whipping” attitude.

Horse watching
Horse watching (Photo credit: @Doug88888)


To sum up, “switching on” the withdrawn horse takes some studying of horse’s learning methods, some observational knowledge of the individual horse we intend to re-train as well as willingness to improve own equitation skills so our aids are clear. If we demand that the horse moves from small muscular tension in our legs against his body we somewhat demand that he reads our muscles like a blind person reads Braille…There are approximately 642 skeletal muscles in our bodies…The horse needs to learn not only to react when some work but not react when others work.

Dead to the leg horse either never learnt the alphabet or finds our story too dull to read. We need to find out which one it is and either get on with teaching the letters or learn how to be a more motivational companion.

To learn more about equine behaviour science see:


If you have any good books to recommend, links to articles etc please share in a comment 🙂 They don’t have to fully agree on what I wrote, there is always a space for good debate.

7 thoughts on ““Dead to the Leg” / Not “Going Forward” Issue”

  1. Reblogged this on The Rubber Curry Comb and commented:
    I know exactly where you are coming from. The biggest problem I face in the riding school is the combination of backwards thinking horses and ineffective riders. Horses are clever, they suss out who is effective and will make them go forwards and who they can cut corners and dribble around with.
    I usually start my lessons with halt-walk transitions to wake up both horse and rider and to get them in sync with each other. And yes I do have to speak to the riders about the effectiveness of their leg and when they need to back up the leg aid with the stick. Instead of your example of “several whacks” I find my clients nag with little pats of the whip and strokes with the leg so they end up working harder than the horse! It’s a fine balancing act!

    1. As you know, I really enjoy working with many of your horses but it’s true that it’s not easy to have responsive horses that also are unaffected by learner-rider struggles. I am going to stubbornly stand by my conviction that it is possible though 😉 It does take some changes to traditional “riding school” operation and it might not be possible where those changes are not welcome but I have seen it work with the right horses and the right approach. If few people can do it so can more.
      What’s needed is instructors who question the “old ways” and seek solutions beyond what’s widely known…

  2. I had an article published by Smallholder Magazine on just this subject, about motivating my Dales gelding to respond to the lightest of leg aids and to be more forward going using the clicker. It worked like a dream for us and totally changed his attitude to working with me and my attitude to him and learning to see things from his point of view. It’s here if you would like to read it: http://www.smallholder.co.uk/news/4803220.Motivating_the_native_pony/

    1. Thank you Helen! I did think about mentioning clicker training but I have never properly used it so couldn’t really give my opinion. I have read about its use on various blogs (including yours 🙂 and would definitely want to have a go with it one day. Off to read your article 🙂

    2. Just read the article – it’s really great 🙂 Almost makes me want to have a go right now!
      I was thinking about clicker trained horses of the right temperament being good for beginner/learner riders and after reading this I will definitely try it one day.

      1. Thank you very much, Wiola! I’m definitely going to try and arrange to have some lessons with you next year so I can let Bella finish convincing you then!!!! I’ve also got a 2yo Andalusian who I’ve been lightly clicker training since I bought him at weaning. If it wasn’t for clicker training I don’t think I’d even consider backing and bringing him on myself at my age but CT is already making him so attentive and focussed that I think there’s every chance he’ll be as easy as my Dales were! 🙂

  3. I look forward to meeting you next year Helen and perhaps you can teach me some CT techniques! It’s not a secret that I love Iberian horses so I am very much looking forward to meeting your youngster too! 🙂

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