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Leg Yielding vs. Two-Track Exercises with Bend
By Richard Williams, copyright 2006
For centuries, the debate has raged over whether to leg-yield at all or whether one should use shoulder-in for suppling. Many experts from the past have warned of the perils of leg-yielding. De la Gueriniere’s quest led him to the development and documentation of the shoulder-in as a better way to supple horses. There has always been a chorus of admonishment against leg-yielding. For instance, some say the leg yield may make the gait impure, and thus may cause various lamnesses or injuries. It may put the horse on the forehand and by many experts is considered “not classical.” Among the conscientious objectors are illustrious names such as Alois Podhajski, Waldemar Seunig, Louis Seeger and Gustav Steinbrecht.
How do we reconcile the leg-yield today when it is called for in USDF First level tests? Has the pendulum of critical thinking swung in the opposite direction? These are good questions. Let us shed some light on how and when to use the leg-yield, and when to use the shoulder-in or other two-track movements.
At the top of the classical training tree is collection. Collection is, by definition, increased weight bearing by the haunches. Any time the center of gravity of the horse is shifted forward, or the haunches of the horse shirk the task of assuming more weight, the horse is, relatively speaking, moving on the forehand. Whenever the horse goes relatively more on the forehand, the ultimate goal of collection is thwarted.
The primary benefit of the leg-yield is simply to teach the horse to move sideways, away from the rider's leg. Strictly speaking, a forward and sideways combination reaction is desired, rather than a purely sideways movement. Purely sideways movement is very dangerous because the crossing set of legs may interfere with the supporting set of legs, and the risk of injury by hitting the supporting legs is very high.
Adding the forward component to the leg-yield is essential to reduce the risk of interfering. An overly sideways-moving leg-yield is a severe mistake, and should be avoided at all costs.
A turn on the forehand is considered a leg-yield on the spot around one front leg. In the leg-yield, the horse is positioned away from the direction of movement. For example, if the leg yield is to the left, the horse should have a very mild right bend at the poll and minimal bend at the top of the neck only. The rider asks the horse to move sideways to the left, and forward away from the rider’s right leg. If the leg-yield is done on a straight line, perhaps from the centerline to the wall as indicated in the current First Level Tests, the horse’s right hind leg is asked to cross under his body and over in front of the supporting left hind. Likewise, the right front will also cross in front of the left front. In this exercise, the right hind leg crosses behind and to the left of the horse’s center of gravity. The left hind escapes collection by traveling even further to the left of the center of gravity than the right hind. The haunches are swinging out to the left. This is one of the major drawbacks of the leg-yield. The hind legs do not step under or in the direction of the horse’s center of gravity. Because the hind legs “side step” their responsibility of carrying weight in the direction of the center of gravity, the leg-yield has the distinct effect of putting the horse on the forehand.
All other influences being equal, during straight travel on a single track, the amount of weight carried by the haunches is greater than when leg-yielding. Hence the leg-yield lacks collection and is therefore more “on the forehand.”
Why, then, perform the leg-yield? The benefits of the leg-yield are specific:
1. It teaches the horse to move away from lateral leg pressure.
2. It stretches the ligaments and muscles on the sides of the horse’s limbs. This second point is very important. Often horses have very limited range of motion laterally. The leg-yield can help provide the beginning of suppleness required to perform other, more sophisticated two track exercises.
3. The leg-yield when done on a circle or spiral out, can be very helpful in lowering an extremely high head carried around on a large under neck muscle. Because of this inversion of the top line, the horse may even have a tendency to rear. The leg-yield on the spiral out is very helpful in lowering the head of this difficult mount.
The experts are in relative agreement that the leg-yield, if employed, should best be done on the circle. Our pattern of choice is to start on a small circle such as a 10 or 12 meter diameter circle, then, with bending in the direction of the circle, the rider weights his inside stirrup and seat bone. In this position, the rider asks the horse to cross the inside hind leg outward, thereby enlarging the circle gradually. The shoulders should always be kept closer to the center of the circle than the haunches via tactful use of the outside rein, and the rider’s torso turning toward the inside. This movement modifies the leg-yield to something closer to a shoulder-in. This allows for greater impulsion. Impulsion in the trot is compromised when leg-yield is done on a diagonal line. With the spiral out from a small to a larger circle, the leg-yield does not put the horse on the forehand to the extent which occurs when done on a simple diagonal. Furthermore, the rider, having made several repetitions, can easily follow this movement with a 10-meter circle followed by shoulder-in along a straight line.
Once the leg yield is achieved, the rider should seek to graduate as soon as possible to the classical two-track exercises and look toward abandoning the leg-yield.
The main distinction that makes the shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass so far superior to the leg yield is as follows: In all three of the two-track exercises just mentioned, the horse’s center of gravity is placed directly in the path of the activated hind leg. Because one hind leg is asked to step directly toward the center of gravity, there is incredible suppling, strengthening, engaging, and collecting potential of that specific hind leg. In the shoulder-in, the leg that is more heavily weighted, and therefore strengthened, is the inside hind leg. In the haunches-in and half-pass, the leg that is strengthened is the outside hind leg. In both shoulder-in and half pass, the shoulders benefit by considerable suppling as well.
In summary, the haunches-in, shoulder-in and half-pass provide far superior strengthening than the leg yield. Riders must be cautioned: in all three of these "Royal Trio of Two-Track Exercises,” the potential for the error of putting the horse on the forehand still exists as follows:
1. In the shoulder-in, if the angle of the horse’s position in the arena relative to the line of progression is too steep, the inside hind and the outside front will not be on the same track. In this incorrect shoulder-in, the outside shoulder is brought too far to the inside and the inside hind leg will step across and behind the horse’s center of gravity. This produces the so called “over-angled shoulder-in,” i.e. leg-yield.
2. Similarly, in the haunches-in, if the angle with the line of travel is too great, the outside hind leg will step behind and to the inside of the horse’s center of gravity, akin to a counter-bent leg yield.
3. In the half-pass, if the rider pushes the haunches ahead of the forehand (this is universally recognized as a severe fault), and the haunches lead the shoulders, the outside hind leg will step across and behind the horse’s center of gravity, thereby putting the horse on the forehand. Again, this is similar to the mistake of the over-angled haunches-in; it is a counter bent leg yield.
Riders are often seduced into an overly sideways crossing two-track movement because they “can really feel their horses’ legs crossing”. More crossing is not always better. Correct stepping in the direction of the center of gravity with adequate reach, correct orientation of the horse in the arena with correct impulsion, length of stride and rhythm with proper bend, and a round top line are the criteria by which correct two-track movements are evaluated. Riders at all levels should seek to become proficient at these significantly beneficial exercises in order to enrich their training repertoire.
Combinations of Two-Track Exercises:
1. Trot, 10-meter circle, shoulder-in, straighten out and lengthen stride, change rein, collect, repeat.
2. Trot, 10-meter circle, haunches-in, straighten out and lengthen stride, change rein, collect, repeat.
3. Trot, 10-meter circle, half-pass, straighten out and lengthen stride, change rein, collect, repeat.
4. Trot, shoulder-in, half-pass, shoulder-in, straighten out, lengthen stride, change rein, collect, repeat.
5. Trot, shoulder-in, half pass to change rein, haunches-out (renvers), shoulder-in (new direction), half pass, change rein, renvers etc.
6. Same as number 5 above, but add a lengthening of stride sitting trot in the shoulder-in phase.
7. Same as number 5 above, but add a lengthening of stride sitting trot in the half-pass phase.
8. Same as number 5, but add a 10 meter circle after the renvers (new direction) before the shoulder-in.
9. Canter, shoulder-fore along the wall, half-pass toward the center line, shoulder-fore on the center line, change rein on the diagonal in medium canter, to collected canter, flying change (or simple change through the walk) and repeat. The flying change can also be done at X as a variation.
10. Trot and volte as outlined by De la Gueriniere: ride a square with haunches in on all sides including on the corners. We recommend beginning with a larger square perhaps 20 meters x 20 meters and work smaller until it is 10 or 8 meters across. Finally, attach another square to it and change direction and do the same on the opposite hand. This is can also be done in the canter as a gymnastic exercise preparing the horse for pirouette.
11. Trot and half-pass zigzag. If the difficult half-pass is to the left, track left and from the wall half pass left 10 meters, insert 10- or 8-meter circles as required to re-establish the bend, follow this by half-pass right (the easier half pass) 10 meters perhaps not needing any circles if the bend is not compromised, change bend and resume the half-pass left for 10 meters inserting 8-10- meter circles as required to re-establish the bend. Follow this by lengthen stride. This exercise can also be done in the canter with flying changes at the change in bend and change in direction of the half-pass.
12. Trot, shoulder-in on the wall or inside track, lengthen stride on the short diagonal to change rein, collect, immediate shoulder-in in the new direction, followed by lengthen stride(medium or extended) on a short diagonal, collect, repeat.
13.Trot, shoulder-in on the wall, center line, or inside track, straighten out on the path of travel and lengthen stride straight ahead, collect, change rein, repeat.
14. Collected walk, half pirouette to straight ahead in medium walk, collected walk, shoulder-in (new direction) collected canter, collected walk with immediate shoulder-in, half-pirouette to straight ahead in medium walk collect etc.
15. Collected trot, shoulder-in, canter with shoulder fore, collected trot with immediate shoulder-in, canter with shoulder fore, half-pass, counter canter flying change when straight, shoulder fore in the new direction, medium canter in shoulder fore, collected canter, collected trot with immediate shoulder-in, repeat.
As with all gymnastic exercises remember that the horse should be:
a) ridden in both directions the same number of repetitions
b) rewarded by changing rein when an exercise has been done well or if improvement is shown
c) rewarded whenever each part of the exercise is done correctly or better than before
d) given a short (1-2 minute) rest period in the walk every 5-10 minutes
e) ridden alternately between extension and collection. It is detrimental to keep the horse in extension for long periods of time. It is equally detrimental to keep the horse in collection for long periods of time. The best strengthening and suppling comes when we alternate between exercises done in collection and exercises done with either extension or stretching.
Richard Williams is a well known clinician and trainer who teaches throughout the country. He and his wife, Dr. Frances Williams, train students and horses in classical dressage at their facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Their web site is www.williamsdressage.com
All material in this article is copyright Richard Williams 2006 and may not be used in part or whole without express written permission from Richard Williams.