Five Ways To Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg

trot on

One of the tenets of dressage is the activation and increased carrying power of your horse’s hind legs. When your horse weights himself more behind, that results in a lighter shoulder and thus a more mobile front end. This allows you as the rider to manipulate the horse through various movements with small, unobtrusive aids. Think of all of the movements in dressage as tests of your horse’s balance and as you go up the levels those tests on his balance come faster and faster, asking for more weight on the hind end in order to complete the them successfully. Of course, we are not looking for just weighting of the hind legs. We are also looking for activation or engagement of the hind legs AS they are bearing this increased carrying load. That makes it very difficult for the horse and why it takes many years to bring a horse’s fitness to the highest levels. So how do we reshape our horses in this manner? And what tactics can we use to help him understand just what we are asking for?

extended canterOne – Transitions:

Transitions are the foundation for this work, both transitions within the gait as well as transitions between the gaits. It is absolutely necessary in correct dressage that your horse has a constant flow of energy that he is allowing you to manipulate (aka rocking him back on his hindleg, shifting between gaits, extending and collecting the gaits). Transitions allow you to check that this flow of energy is intact as you are rebalancing him. For more on this click here. Correct transitions are a gentle, low impact way to encourage your horse to rebalance himself and activate the hind leg. That is why as soon as first level, your horse is already being asked to lengthen and return to the working gaits. What you will need to know is HOW to ask for a transition without freezing your seat and pulling on the reins. Such a transition will generally stop the hind leg instead of activating it. So, Grasshopper, simply going from canter to trot does not a transition make. It is having the horse activate and use his hindleg in order to create that transition that encourages him to further develop its strength and activity.

664666_4361170344861_1499549663_o (2)Two – Half Halts:

Half halts work within the gait to rebalance, or reshape, the horse. They rock him back on his hind leg when, for example, if he falls on the forehand through a turn. Or to prepare him for the turn so he does not fall onto the forehand. Your horse’s level of fitness and experience will tell you how much to expect him to carry – an out of shape horse who is just coming back from injury, not very much. A competing Grand Prix horse – much more. I am not going to go into the mechanics of the half halt as I wrote a delightful three part series on the subject, which you may read by clicking here, here and here.

hill workThree – Hill Work:

If you are lucky enough to live nearby hilly trails then this is a great way to passively build strength, get your horse out of the box and it is not reliant on your knowledge of half halts, transition work etc. Even a relatively new rider and enjoy hill work with their horse. Horses will also enjoy moving freely and is a great way to build strength, especially those who are nappy or behind the leg. Just be careful to introduce this regiment into your program slowly, starting with a few minutes and working upward. You will be surprised with how sore just a little of this work will cause them to become at first.

in hand workFour – In Hand Work:

In hand work removes the burden of the rider and allows the horse to think about what is expected from them in a wholly new way. Keep in mind, though, in hand work is only for those experienced with the process. Incorrect in hand work can do a lot of damage to the horse mentally and physically. The point of in hand work is to teach the horse using a different tactic, as just with humans, some horses learn better with knowledge presented to them in alternate ways. Keep in mind also that in hand work is not a substitute for correct riding – it is there to augment what is done under saddle, not replace it.

long liningFive – Long Lining:

Just as in hand work requires experience and skill, so does long lining. It has a similar motivation of removing the rider and allowing the horse to move unencumbered. It is also a good tactic to exercise or rehabilitate a horse who is deemed unsafe for riding. Again, though, it is for experienced long liners only. Learning long lining is a skill equal to riding itself and not to be taken up by the layman. If you have access to a trainer with long line experience, then inquire as to adding it to your program.

The crux of all of these options is to transfer responsibility for your horse’s movement onto his hind legs. Keep in mind that a horse can walk on the forehand, trot and canter on the forehand. What we will see suffer his ability to transition quickly and smoothly, without a break in his connection, from one gait to another, or to properly execute smaller figures while remaining balanced and on the contact. Even if your horse is “on the bit”, if there is fifteen pounds in one rein and it feels like you can’t turn right, then there is an issue with him loading and articulating his hind legs evenly.

(A Note: The beautiful pencil drawing you see in the beginning was created by Kelli Swan – visit her website at  to see more of her work by clicking here.)

30 responses to “Five Ways To Engage Your Horse’s Hind Leg

  1. Horses for life has a very interesting article talking about the how researchers measuring the actual weight and pressure on horses hooves were surprised to find that horses moving in ways that people termed ‘light on the forehand’ were actually exerting more pressure with their front legs as they pushed their weight to the back. Horses in competitive modern dressage would be so much better off if their riders/trainers looked at what was really going on with their bodies!

    • You are correct – the forehand plays an crucial part in weighting the hind end. Because a horse does not have a the same front end structure as humans, they rely on a structure called the thoracic sling to assist in connecting the forehand and hind leg. The forehand pushes upward and backward as the thoracic sling engages to send weight onto the hindlegs. There is an excellent article by Dr. Hilary Clayton in her 2006 McPhail Research Annual Report on the mechanics behind this locomotion for anyone is interested in further study. Click here to read it.

  2. Great article. But would have loved to get more details on hill work : should it be on free reins or on working contact ? Walk, trot or canter ?

  3. I have been nicknamed the “Groundwork Goddess” by several of my students and friends. IMHO, there is no substitute for correct groundwork preceding any formal start to any discipline. In fact, groundwork is essential to the foundation of any horsemanship endeavors. Groundwork is not synonymous with driving horses around in mindless circles to take the “spit and vinegar” out of them. Rather, it is a conversation, a game, an engagement of minds and over time, creates a psychological and physical structure that will easily manage the more extreme maneuvers required to perform eventing, higher level dressage or other exacting skills. All the aforementioned exercises (transitions, half-halts, hill work, in-hand work and longe lining) can first be mastered through a correct and regular groundwork training series. Developing the horse’s mind and allowing his musculature to thoroughly form is essential to the creation of a long-lived, healthy athletic partner who is mentally and emotionally prepared to handle the demands placed before him over the years.

  4. Responding to Johanna:

    In my experience and in courses I’ve attended that discuss the topic, hill work is best done at walk or second best at canter. It does of course depend on the horse, any physical issues they have and the degree of slope to climb.

    With a very slight slope, trotting is fine, but with steeper hills, the strain is better accommodated with walking or in canter (which allows the horse to use two legs at once during a larger phase of the stride instead of the solo hind limb to extend with as trot requires…)

    The other element to remember is what goes up must come down and down hill travel is very hard on the horse in large amounts – a moderate uphill and a circuitous not-as-steep down hill would be ideal.

    (From a physical therapist, FEI rider, and equine rehabber)

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  6. Bonnie, please accept my apology for the above post. I just found out that all is good between you and Kelli. I am so impressed by the professionalism that you both have exhibited.

  7. Good on the ground work! If the horse can’t do a movement on its own, it is completely irresponsible to demand the movement with weight on its back. Ground work gets both the conversation and the physical development established before any mounted work begins, then riding is a joy for both horse and rider!

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  17. When doing hill work, it is best to approach it at the walk, and rarely the trot. At the walk, they do not have momentum on their side, and the hill work out ends up being similar to a person doing lunges. At the trot, most horses will try to pull instead of push themselves up a hill, and will do so with their shoulders, not their hind ends. Canter work is best once they’re confident and capable with the walk and you want to get a solid cardio workout for them in. Don’t forget to use the hill coming down as part of the workout, constantly asking them to sit back, and possibly halt and start again. Asking for a step or two backwards once they’re solid on it takes a lot of focus for them, but it is a serious strength builder.

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  21. LOL, the hill work image is a little extreme. The Cougar Rock portion of the Western States 100 mile ride is a little beyond hill work!

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