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Gripping with your Legs, Knees, or Thighs

By: Galadriel Billington

1:49PM Dec 12, 2012


We're told not to "grip" the horse, so how do we stay on?

First, let's talk about why we shouldn't "grip." Many horses are trained to slow down when you squeeze with your thigh or seat--it's the most natural thing for them, after all, since squeezing that way puts pressure on their back that keeps it from moving as freely.

Not only that, but when you grip with your thigh or knee, you make your leg very stiff. It pulls your lower leg off the horse, and it swings around without a lot of control because the leg is so stiff. When your leg is relaxed, it can move with the horse; when it is tensed, it just bounces around. You can accidentally bump the horse with your lower leg when it's swinging like that, which of course is confusing to the horse: he thinks you've just bumped him with your leg on purpose.

A lot of horses who are supposedly jumpy and like to bolt are just trying to cope with random leg aids that their riders don't even realize they're giving. They're gripping with their knees, because they're unstable or they're nervous, and so their leg swings arund and keeps bumping the horse's side.

But boy, is it hard not to squeeze, huh? It's the most natural feeling in the world for a *person* to want to grab hard with their legs in order to keep a "grip" on the horse. So this is a good place to have a few lessons with a really solid coach who can help you see what you're doing and what to do instead. So keep that in mind: an instructor can really help you with this.

Okay. Moving on to "what to do" instead of "what NOT to do." Remember, "not squeezing" isn't the same as "letting go entirely." You're not supposed to pull your legs off the horse; even if your leg isn't all tensed up from gripping, it can still swing and accidentally bump the horse's side. As I mentioned above, this can confuse the horse. We don't want to do that.

What you do, then, is you place your leg against the horse all the way from your seatbone to your calf. Rest it there lightly. Depending on the shape of your leg and your horse's barrel, you may even need to take your knee very slightly away from the saddle; you want as much of your leg touching the horse as possible. When you want to use your leg, press your calf against his side, then return to a light touch. Don't pull away entirely, and don't squeeze all of the time. You can see more about this position in my other article "Point Your Toes In."

This helps you to stay stable, because the simple friction of your leg against his body holds you in place, a little like Velcro. Consider sitting in a chair: you don't need to grab the chair with anything, because just resting against it keeps you in place.

You may say, "but the chair isn't moving!" Okay, now think about sitting in a car. Imagine the car is swerving, or going over bumps, or otherwise moving. You're still not grabbing the car with your legs, and you're still not going anywhere. You *may* be moving your upper body to balance with the motion, and of course we do a LOT of this when we're riding. (This is, by the way, a great argument when someone tries to claim that horseback riding "isn't really a sport" because "all you're doing is sitting there." The horse is moving; you have to move with him, or you fall off!)

So the simple friction of having your leg resting against the horse does part of the work, and the rest is done by moving your upper body to stay in balance with the horse.

If you are having difficulty riding without gripping, then it's possible that you've learned to move your upper body in ways that aren't helpful. This is where a good coach can really help you. Habits are hard to break! Habits are really hard to break when we don't know exactly what we're doing, because *we* can't see *ourselves* as we ride. But an instructor on the ground can see exactly what we're doing. And that instructor can call out corrections *just* at the right time, in order to help interrupt a bad habit and to help get started on good habits. (Remember, even the Olympic riders get regular coaching; no rider can see what they're doing, and it benefits everyone to have someone experienced watch them and help them perfect their riding.)
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2012 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.