The Basic Fundamentals of the Training Pyramid, Leg Yielding and the Rider's use of the Leg Aids

Written by Christilot Boylen with Betsy LaBelle - In Training - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Christilot Boylen - a 7 Time Olymipc Rider, 4 Time PanAmerican Games (winning three Individual Gold Medals and a Team Gold for Canada), winning a large number of CDIs with top placings in Europe and America. The number of Grand Prix horses she's trained is up there with the all-time greatest riders of all times. Christilot continues to dominate the Wellington CDI circuit and the European summer circuit with horses she’s trained. At the Global Dressage Festival in 2013 -  Dio Mio won the Nations Cup Highest score (Gold Medal – overall Champion), Hudson 18 succeeded in three Prix St. George and Intermediate I shows, Soccer City - 6 year old Hanoverian won six tests (3rd level - 1 and 2), Donatella 79 won five tests (3rd level - 1, 2 und 3), and Florencia 22, at 7 years, trained by Christilot Hanson Boylen and presented by her owner Jill Irving won five 3rd level tests in the amateur class division.

 The Impact of Leg Yielding (Understanding the Leg Aids) to the Basic Fundamentals of the Training Pyramid

By Christilot Boylen with Betsy LaBelle

Each day and every single ride, I think about the building blocks in the Training Scale or Pyramid. They are the basics and fundamentals in all nicely trained horses. First, the Rhythm in the horse must stay steady. Second, the Suppleness must be over the back and stretching to the bit. (Note: If the horse does not stretch to the bit, the next building block - Contact - will be impossible.) The third building block - Contact must be steady and even. And fourth Straightness then becomes the focus at that time in the daily training. Each building block must build on the last building block.

The Basic Training Pyramid starts from the bottom with Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact and Straightness

Rhythm is something we don’t have to spend so much time on as we did 15 years ago. The horses have been bred to have a clear 4 beat walk, 2 beat trot, and 3 beat canter. It doesn’t mean all the horses have a lot of cadence, but the horses now have clear gaits. I must warn that riders can ride fundamentally good gaits into the ground, especially the walk. The pace (examples: medium walk, collected walk, working trot, lengthen stride in trot, working canter, extended canter) and amount of contact in all three gaits on each young horse needs to be closely monitored. Suppleness is longitudinal stretch. If the horse is not stretching over the back, the next tier – Contact cannot be accomplished. And if you don’t have contact, how are you going to straighten? You need the two reins and two legs for Straightness. Contact must be steady and even. Straightness must be a moment by moment focal point. Straightness is indeed difficult because a horse and rider are not symmetrical. Both horse and rider need to work on their muscular development.

What can a trainer do to develop: a. More evenness and symmetry in the horse? And b. What exercises might help riders improve their feel for straightness, balance and symmetry?

The reason straightness is important is that dressage is an “Exacting Sport” performed on exact lines with movements carried out at specific points. In other words wandering around just doesn’t do it.

That is the reason I picked this leg yielding exercise: leg yielding down the long side in the walk.

Since the sport is exacting, leg yielding with the use of the rail at the walk lets the rider know how forward and how sideways the horse travels. It is an exercise on its own, not like the leg-yield as posed in the USDF tests (going down the centerline and leg yielding to the rail.)

Because the rider has no idea how straight forward or how sideways they travel from the down the centerline leg-yield, I use the leg-yield down the long side.

With a leg yield from the centerline, the horse decides where to land. It’s important that the rider know where the horse’s body and legs move. By having the side of the arena or the board of the dressage ring, the rider can feel if the horse moves away from the track- into the board, or of they move away into the arena – away from the side of the arena.

Leg yielding in the walk down the long side

One of the basic exercises to help a rider teach the horse two things (It has two jobs to do):
1. The horse has to react to the riders leg,
2. The leg yield teaches straightness to the horse

If you do the exercise identically down the long side, technically you are helping the horse overcome the stiffer side and not overdo things on the softer side.

Every horse and every rider has a stronger and a weaker side. We are not born symmetrical. No horse is symmetrical and no rider is symmetrical. We would love to be, but we are not.

For this exercise the rider needs both legs, one to move the horse over (leg-yield) and the other to keep the horse straight. You must ask yourself, which is the rider’s outside leg and which is the inside leg? This is the key to understanding this exercise.

The inside leg is on the outside (rider’s left leg) – acting as the leg that makes the horse yield. The right leg actually the outside leg – keeps the horse straight and moving forward. Notice how the horse is straight moving on four tracks even between the hands, seat and legs – a simple leg-yield.
When explaining this exercise, if the instructor were to say, ‘Use more inside leg’ that would mean the rider’s left leg.

Photo: My left leg is the one pushing the quarters over, so it’s working sideways. If I were to remove my outside leg (the one on the right) this horse would not stay on the rail, but only shift sideways away from the track.

Therefore, the outside leg is super important. Both legs have their jobs.

Leg-yield down the long side is a perfect coordination of sideways, forward, sideways, forward – that’s why it is the best way to coordinate both rider and horse. It’s the best exercise for the rider and it will tune the horse to listen to both legs. The rider will immediately know after two steps which way the horse is drifting and will know which leg to place on.

When the rider and horse learn this exercise, the rider has a better chance in understanding which leg is needed in the corners, on the circle, during absolutely in every moment.

It teaches the rider, when the horse is flat and needs to move forward off the leg, and it teaches the rider to listen to the horse if he’s not moving away from a leg. It’s absolutely amazing to see the rider get it, and know they have it.

The riding instructor will not have to say so often inside leg or outside leg because the rider will feel what is necessary and understand how to make the horse straight even on a circle from the use of their legs.
Since the sport is exacting the horse must understand the leg aids and move forward (off the outside leg) and sideways (off the inside leg) at the finest tuning anytime during the ride.

The rein aids must be even, yet light, the seat is even between the two seat bones and light, and the legs do the work. The connection to the bit from the reins goes even between both hands to the elbows (there is a balance between rider shoulder, hip (seat bones) and heal). The legs are always close to the horse but not on , but not gripping, and a simple touch with the legs instructs the horse as to what’s being asked. It’s important to make sure the legs are in the correct position to make the range of motion so tiny that the timing of the aid is right in tune to the rhythm of the gait and footfalls. If the rider’s legs are far away from the sides of the horse, the timing will not be accurate and the horse will not understand.

The wrong way to do a leg-yield on the track:

We all think this is how the leg yield needs to be done, but it cannot work. The neck must be straight, the rider must be straight, and the legs must work to instruct the horse to make the coordination. When the neck is bent so much, her shoulders are leading instead of in proper leg yield the shoulders and haunches are coordinated and moving together.

In the half-pass there is also a coordination between the legs, seat and hand and the next step after shoulder-in, travers and renvers, but the coordination of the rider’s legs and the understanding by the horse on the leg aids must be there for the leg-yield first. The leg aids and rider position really are the key to success.

 Working Walk Pirouette

Correct Working Walk Pirouette and the Wrong Walk Pirouette

With a slight bend, the horse will come around without any change in frame. The outside rein brings the shoulders over in the rhythm of the walk, the legs help to balance the horse the same as in the initial exercise – the rider will know when to use inside leg and when to use outside leg. What I want to teach the horse is to react relaxed but quickly to those differential aids – outside rein and outside leg with balance on the inside.

You see a horse here just shifting her balance and turning.

 WRONG walk pirouette

Often riders will lean to the outside – the weight is to the outside and the horse is over bent to the inside. The horse is throwing her shoulder to the outside instead of bringing it around to the inside around her hind legs. There is an overuse of the inside reins and that throws things even more to the outside. The inside rein must be open to allow the shoulders to move in and the outside rein actually brings the shoulders around.

The  Walking Half Pass

The half-pass is coordinated between the legs, seat and hand and the next step after shoulder-in, travers and renvers, but the coordination of the rider’s legs and the understanding by the horse on the leg aids must have been well established first. PHOTO: I should have slightly more weight on the inside stirrup to be perfectly correct, but the outside aids are helping her to know which way to travel. She learned with confidence what the outside aids mean from the leg-yielding down the long side exercise. 

Straightness and the Circle

Riding on a circle the rider must be able to keep the horses legs straight on the track of the circle. The horse tends to drift somewhere. If the rider understands the leg aids, they will help keep the haunches from falling out or in, and the legs with the use of a light yet evenly connected rein will keep the shoulders straight, therefore making sure the hind legs track on the same circle as the front legs.


When the horse is reactive in the leg yield in the walk down the long side, then everything else falls into place. If you’ve taught the horse to quietly move sideways off your leg and then you combine that with a large training walk pirouette, you’ve done a lot to all ready organize their minds and the quickness of their reaction.

Then when you go to things like the shoulder-in or half-passes the horse fully understands and actually says, ‘I know that.”

The understanding of the inside leg is really important and the leg-yielding on the outside track (Leg Yielding down the Long Side) makes the rider understand that inside leg (it’s something for the rider to figure out) because it’s on the outside of the horse. The rider must learn how to use the legs and what the inside leg means to the horse and what the outside leg means to the horse. Once the rider and the horse understand, everything is simplified.

It’s so simple it’s actually mind-blowing in all exercises, but for instance half-pass, the outside leg tells the horse to move over, but the inside leg tells the horse to move forward.

It’s important for riders to do this exercise at the beginning of every ride because it tells the rider what the horse understands, and to re-establish what will be asked during the ride. It organizes the horse’s mind a bit and clues the rider into how the horse will react to the leg aids throughout the ride. It’s a great warm-up exercise like a classic pianist playing the scales to warm-up for a piano practice or performance.
The horses have to move off the leg properly and they have to bend properly.

When teaching a rider, you want to give them exercises and things that will improve them with a sense of feel. Learning to coordinate the leg aids with the horses understanding, is a huge step. Since dressage is an ‘exacting sport’ it’s important to make sure the horse moves forward off that inside leg properly (not with a holding leg, but a quick short range of motion leg) and understands the outside leg and its use. It’s a wonderful skill to have. Do not let the horse wander for half an hour before working. It’s better to engage the mind of the horse in an easy exercise that you do every day. It’s important to keep the horse concentrating.

It’s important to establish all this early in the horses training, so that as the horse progresses, the missing muscles that do not allow the horse to bend one way will not continue to be a problem. Remember you must address both sides of the horse and rider in order to really work well together and you must address the longitudinal suppleing exercises.

Christilot Hanson Boylen's most recent accomplishments:

At the Global Dressage Festival in 2014 – Hudson18 moved from small tour to Big Tour (Grand Prix) with a 4th place finish in the last Global Dressage Festival CDI 3 star and a 3rd place in the Grand Prix Special his first time ever in a Grand Prix Special. Donatella moved from 3rd level in 2013 to full small tour, clocking a 76% in a National Intermediate 1 before an injury stopped the rest of her winter season. Florencia also moves from 3rd level in 2013 to the full small tour with some good placings and scores. She debuts in her first CDI at the last event. Drentano is the newcomer; Christilot started with him in the fall of 2013. She said, “I have been systematically training him and adjusting him to my riding, and filling in some gaps in his education. He is a very gifted horse with the long term goal of being a Big tour horse.” Soccer City went 2nd and 3rd Level in 2013 and moved to 4th Level with good scores during the 2014 winter dressage season.

Horse in photos: Florencia 22, 8yr old mare (Florencio I x Weltmeyer) owned by Jill Irving ridden by Christilot Boylen