How to Use More Leg and Less Hands for Higher Education & Higher Performance

Use More Leg and Less Hands for Higher Education & Higher Performance

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For decades now horse trainers and clinicians, even barrel racers have been saying “use less hands and more leg” to guide horses. But how many of us, barrel racers especially, REALLY DO THIS?

We may develop our horses to a level where we can ask for and receive beautiful lateral movements, or we may be able to influence each part of our horse’s body (shoulder, ribs, hips) in just about any circumstance, BUT chances are that those lateral movements still require you to hold light rein contact to impede excess forward movement.

Chances are even greater that the body control that seems so “high level” wouldn’t REALLY hold up under any circumstance, and certainly not if we weren’t also supporting our horse with the reins.

When we started riding as kids, we may have been told to kick or squeeze to go, pull to stop, and neck rein to turn. Although I believe in the value of keeping things simple for youngsters, this is a time when bad habits develop – especially “overriding the front end” of a horse and PULLING them around to turn. It’s a bad habit in us, that creates even worse habits in horses – especially the tendency for them to stiffen and lean to the inside of a turn or circle.

Instead, what if we could PUSH the front end over with our leg for a square turn (like a pivot) and our weight slightly to the outside, rather than leaning into the turn and pulling? OR, what if we utilized our inside leg to teach and ask our horse to shape around it for a round turn?

The best use of our aids, are to influence the nose with inside rein contact, the neck with outside rein contact, the shoulders and ribs with inside leg contact, and if needed outside leg to influence the hip. Instead you’ll find that many barrel racers attempt to PULL the horse around a barrel, while leaning forward AND to the inside as they rush the turn, which leaves no option but for the hind quarters to disengage.

For advanced barrel racers, it may be easy to think of this as an issue that primarily occurs to beginner or amateur barrel racers, but hear me out – because it’s not.

The truth is, we don’t really realize how much we’re micromanaging, babysitting and over using our hands and under utilizing our body and legs until we STOP using them. In addition, even if our horse’s form isn’t suffering greatly, doesn’t mean it’s still not suffering (and creating delays on the clock).

Speed event horses especially often automatically jump to the conclusion that any leg cue or pressure means GO – NOW. Some sensitive horses with big motors by nature may tend to default to GO whenever they are confused or unconfident.

If we want to truly heighten our horse’s education and refine their development on the barrels (which will ultimately lead to faster times), our horses must speak a more advance language – and it’s up to US to teach them.

However, a rider/trainer that is not aware or that isn’t fluent in a language themselves, can’t possibly teach a student (their horses) to be a great communicator.

When it comes to using your legs more and your hands less, let’s define three basic leg positions:

1. Just in front of the cinch
2. Where the legs hang naturally
3. At the back cinch

This breaks the leg positions down very simply, but keep in mind that as you advance, you may educate your horse to the meaning of, for example, leg position 1 ½” or 2 ½”.

Backing with body language.
Backing with body language.

I use my leg in position one to ask for a back up, and also to ask for the shoulders to come around in a turn (a “square turn” especially).

I use my leg in position two on the inside of a circle to ask my horse tip their nose, yield their ribs and wrap their body around my leg. I’ll use that leg in the same position to ask for a leg yield in the opposite direction. I may even use both legs like a scissors in different positions to make a turn.

You may wonder how the horse can differentiate? The difference is in my energy, body position and focus.

When I’m circling, I’m looking where I’m going on the circle, I may even bend in my own rib cage a bit. When I ask for lateral movement, such as a two track, I sit up straight and send my energy and focus in the direction I want to go, and may even shift my body weight slightly to “lead the way” or “open the door” in the direction of travel.

To change speed, I educate my horse to respond by matching me as I raise and lower the life in my body.

This does require that your horse be REALLY tuned into you, and it does take time to develop this degree of education and refinement. Doing all these fancy maneuvers is pretty easy when you’re also using the reins to support and restrict forward movement, but you’ll find that testing yourself by “gluing” your rein hand to the withers and not using the reins unless necessary will inspire a BIG wake-up call.

In fact, you’re likely to find out real quick that you’ve indeed been relying way more on your hands than your legs – which is always great motivation for developing more refinement!

Even a basic level of body control WITH plenty of rein contact/support will probably put your horse’s development “above average” in the barrel racing world.

But… you’re not setting out to be “above average” are you?

GOOD – me neither!

If you want to take your barrel racing to the highest levels, REALLY focus on doing more with less by adding more refinement to the meaning of your legs, and resisting the urge to use your reins so much.

To do this, any time you’re walking along, remember you should be able to use your leg in position one to move the shoulders, position two to move the ribs or whole body laterally, OR three to move the hind end over. Starting at a standstill, then eventually graduating up to a walk and beyond, make it your goal to do so without having to support or impede forward motion with rein contact.

If my horse isn’t in tune with me, I’ll take steps to remind them of the meaning of my focus, energy, body and leg position by applying some sort of pressure or discomfort when they make a poor choice and then providing relief when they make good decisions.

Whatever mistakes your horse makes – allow them, then correct with appropriate firmness. When the time is right, deliver a good dose of relief/comfort to make his slips (and good choices) more obvious.

Be sure you always start small and build on your small successes first. Any time you must impeed excess forward motion, do so by lifting UP on the reins. Then don’t hesitate to “bother” (massage) your horse with your leg while keeping soft rein contact until he understands what you’re asking (that leg pressure isn’t the lone cue for increased speed, but that it also requires increased energy from your body), then quickly release/reward.

I’ll warn you now to be cautions as you go forward because it’s just as easy to micromanage and do to much with your legs, as it is with your hands. Nagging constantly with your legs instead of your hands is NOT the stuff higher education is made off.

The key is educating our horses through instilling responsibility by making the wrong answer more difficult (effective is rarely comfortable!), and the right answer more obvious and appealing.

Hands free lateral flexion.
Hands free lateral flexion.

As you begin to ride with less hands and more leg, it’s critical that the horse isn’t allowed to lean or drop to the inside of a circle. To teach my horse to bend around my leg, I begin with the an effective but unorthodox technique. Encouraging my horse to tip his nose toward the inside of a circle, starts with quickly teaching lateral flexion with my leg at a stand still by applying pressure where it naturally hangs then offering my horse a treat while I’m on their back!

Give this a whirl, and it won’t take long for your horse to make the connection between inside leg pressure and the reward he gets for laterally flexing around for a cookie (talk about making the right thing really OBVIOUS and rewarding)!

This is just to get the initial the idea the first few times – soon you won’t need treats, and soon your horse will offer to tip his nose when you apply inside leg contact as you’re walking a circle. If he is already familiar with moving laterally off your leg in a side pass, then he should naturally yield his ribs over as you travel in a circle with good body position (because remember a quality circle requires a full body arc, not just a “bent neck!”).

Chances are good that once you’re off and running with these concepts that you’ll realize how much you’d been relying on the reins to keep the shoulder up and the horse shaped. It actually makes everyone’s job easier if the horse learns to carry himself properly without so much dependence on the rider or rein contact, and with only very subtle guidance from our body and leg. Remember, avoid using firm, constant pressure to “hold” your horse in position with the leg either – it’s their responsibility!)

Following my focus.
Following my focus.

As you put these ideas to the test on a circle, it’s a good idea to circle an object (or several in various patterns) to give the horse a purpose and something to focus on. You might hold off on making that object a barrel initially (use cones or tires instead) until you’re confident your horse’s new education is becoming solidified, which helps keep the barrel pattern a positive place and free of any potential confusion.

The good news is that when you take action on these ideas to refine the communication with your horse, you can then apply it on the pattern where it’s sure to make a big difference. IF the full connection isn’t being made where you’d like it to be on the pattern (for a aged horse with well-developed habits for example), do a “pattern interrupt” to remind them that this new language you’re developing must apply at ALL speeds, and in all circumstances – not just in slow work.

Although it does take a lot of awareness and discipline, especially at first, when you implement these ideas consistently, you’re less likely to feel the need to manhandle and/or control your barrel horse’s every move and position – on the barrels AND off. In fact, your horse is likely to become more independent and confident and offer you more, while you do less – making your job as pilot much easier. When the time comes that you want to add rein contact for high level quality movement and collection, you’ll achieve even more quality, quicker and easier with these compulsories in place!

DC taking responsibility for shape and impulsion.
DC taking responsibility for shape and impulsion.

Developing this kin d of refinement is like taking your horse through a masters degree rather than 8th grade level of education. He’s going to be better prepared to perform and face any challenges, AND come out of it successful.

It can do wonders for increasing speed especially, since we’re essentially giving even more meaning the subtlest leg cues. Even if you don’t tend to use a lot of leg pressure in a run, simply using these ideas in your horse’s training, development and general riding will no doubt be of great benefit.

My challenge for you this week and going forward is to be more aware – to stop pulling and start communicating through more precise use of your energy, focus, body and legs – then start yielding the results!

Remember, anytime you decide to change direction or change shape or gait, catch yourself and ask – how can I use my body and leg to ask for this first? It takes discipline to change your ways, but your barrel racing will benefit greatly – and I’m sure that’s something you could get used to real quick!

Now, please share in the comments – How do you use your legs to communicate with your horse? Do you utilize leg cues in a competitive run or only in training? Let me know your thoughts below!

For even more on refining leg cues specifically for barrel racing, see Exercise 17 – Separate & Combine in The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

26 replies
  1. Kim Esslin
    Kim Esslin says:

    This was GREAT!!!! I can’t wait to get out and ride this morning and really work on these things. I have an aged gelding and just recently I have been using more leg in my runs and he is doing much better. I will definately try to use less rein and see what happens. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve been working on. It’s so nice to get the extra help and technical details (I’d have never thought to use a cookie). Thank you! It’s a great encouragement and help.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re welcome Sarah, it just seems to help them learn much quicker, then once they get it you don’t need them. I figure if it helps keep learning fun, quick and easy it’s a good deal in my book!

      Reply
  3. Beth
    Beth says:

    Good advice, but I think it is most important to learn HOW to apply leg pressure – with your whole leg, not by picking up your heel and jabbing the horse in the ribs. I call it “soft leg pressure”. If the horse does not move off the pressure, increase it until you get a response, you may have to apply the pressure in cadence with his stride. Your job is to teach, not punish. I never ask a horse to give with his head without moving his feet at the same time, either hip or shoulder. IE, soften the neck while the hip moves backward for backup, etc. Most importantly, remember your horse learns from the release of the pressure, not from the pressure itself. Using the body parts will soften the nose, providing you are using only one rein at a time.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Great advice Beth, thanks for sharing! Yes, a horse that is stiff and resistance in face/poll/neck, etc. will usually also have sticky feet – when we get their feet freed up it helps to soften everything else. I love to remind people “pressure motivates and the release teaches.” Thanks again for your comment! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    I was really glad this article came out! I try to implement leg pressure right when I start my horses on the pattern and I still do it when I’m competing. I’ve noticed that I really don’t need to pull my horse around, just guide him and I believe using my calves and heel pressure correctly have helped tremendously with colts.

    Reply
  5. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    I am one for useing leg pressure but I am sure I can use it a lot more. Thank you for this information, sometimes just to read something like this helps to remind me the things I need to be working on because there is so much and sometimes you get stuck on the same things over and over. I enjoy reading these tips because I have got some really good advice and about things that I never thought about or have forgot about.

    Reply
  6. sandra
    sandra says:

    I do use my legs in competition to shape her around the barrel and to move her over to make adjustments. I liked this article because I had never thought about how I could do it better for example the 2-1/2. Good point! I will be working on refining my legs.

    Reply
  7. christina
    christina says:

    Awesome article! I try to ride my horse without a bridle often! Every night while I am cooling her out I set my reins down and make her stop and back several times just off my seat and legs, and do some turns with no reins. I am excited to try to use the tips from this article. One thing I would like to add is make sure to use your eyes and make sure your eyes are always moving ahead of where you are going. I think eyes are key in using your body to control your horse!

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Christina – you are so right on. There is a saying I love that goes “Ounces in the hands, pounds in the seat/legs and a TON of focus,” (something like that)! Where you look and FOCUS is sooo important!

      Reply
  8. Trish
    Trish says:

    I have two young horses that are having minor issues with the complete bend. They lead with their nose but aren’t following through with their butts. they flex well but still resist the leg pressure. I will try the treats both are cookie hounds thanks.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Trish,
      I only use the cookies to teach “hands free” lateral flexion, which later results in bend through the body while in motion using only my leg. Sounds like they just need a little more education and respect for your leg. Respect is “the appropriate response to pressure.” Start out side passing from a stand still, then move your leg forward or back to move the front end or the hind quarters. Then start playing with all this at a walk and so on. Here’s a previous post that will be helpful when it comes to body control -> How to Fix a Wide Turn on the Barrels

      Reply
  9. peggy schmit
    peggy schmit says:

    Hi Heather as usual GOOD advice. I have serious lower back issues foe about 5-6 years .I Have not been using my body correctly due to pain. I have started riding more now with less pain, but still use my left leg as well as the right, I feel that I have been using the reins more. However I am riding a green broke horse and I try to ride with a loose rein he still keeps pulling on me. He seems to like a charmyane flat chain better than a snaffle.I don’t want to be pulling on all time. But I want him to go the speed I ask. Suggestions please. Tank you Heather.

    Reply
  10. Amber
    Amber says:

    Thanks for the lesson! I love reading all your articles, they always make me want to go saddle up and try all your techniques! I try to pay attention to my feet and seat before I use my reins while I am training or tuning. When I am running the pattern I use legs and rein depending on the horse but I usually do them at the same time instead of asking with my leg first. I will definitely be working on my riding skills in this category!

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      That’s great to hear Amber – you are sooo on the right track! It’s critical that we become conscious of the order in which we’re applying those cues. So many of us just automatically kick and pull without using our energy, body and legs FIRST. Keep it up and when you’ve rerouted your old habits, you’ll be amazed by how it refines the communication with your horse!

      Reply
  11. Theresa Gutshall
    Theresa Gutshall says:

    This artical realy gives me hope to continue barrelracing. I love the sport and wanted to join NBHA now that I have a competive horse. But on 3-13-13 I was hurt at work and lost 4 fingers on my left hand and it has been hard getting my horse to bend tight on the left turns, Working with more leg my get me and my horse where we are once agian competive. Thank you for posting it.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re so welcome Theresa. We all operate with our own limitations, but it’s what we do despite them that matters! Look on the bright side – you are basically forced to have better communication, body language and general horsemanship because of the absence of your fingers. I have no doubt that it’s possible for you to find success running barrels and I’m sure you’ll inspire many others along the way! Keep up the great work! 🙂

      Reply
  12. Theresa Gutshall
    Theresa Gutshall says:

    I also want to thank you about the tip of using a treat to flex them. I can hold that better than trying to flex with the rein as I can only hold it with my thumb against a nub of a finger. 🙂

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’ll be sure to include some related concepts in my next book, and plan to explain more advanced exercises for elevating the ribs, etc. in the book after that!

      Reply
      • Roxanne Marie
        Roxanne Marie says:

        I just ordered your pdf book the other day.<– Which is fine but I like my paperback/hardcover books. Keep them coming and thanks! I need all the help I can get, since I am NEWBIE (at 50)in barrel racing LOL. Not so new to riding but I am always learning. So excited!

        Reply

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