Being able to feel the footfall of your horse and knowing at any given time where each of your horses legs are, is or should be, the foundation of good riding. Unfortunately, for most of us, it isn’t something we are taught when we start learning to ride. Indeed for a lot of people, feeling the footfall or even knowing the exact sequence of the footfall isn’t something they consider important, or even relevant to the way they ride.
So why is feeling where your horse’s feet are so important? Fundamentally it is because so much depends on it. If you don’t know where your horse’s feet are, the efficiency and accuracy of your aids are compromised, not to mention your horse’s balance and straightness! Applying the aids at the right time helps the horse respond correctly to the aid, while staying in balance, whilst applying them at the wrong time not only violates the laws of physics it actually makes it impossible for your horse to do what you have asked immediately and forces him to either ignore or resist the incorrectly timed aid.
There are two dimensions to knowing where the horse’s feet are; the first is feeling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground and the second is knowing where the feet are on any given line of travel. Telling if a certain leg is in the air or on the ground is important because a horse can only respond promptly to certain aids when the leg is in the air, while other aids can only be effective if timed to when the leg is on the ground. Knowing where the horse’s feet are in relation to the line of travel is equally necessary as this plays an important roll in improving your horse’s straightness and balance.
Knowing the theory of the sequence of the footfall at a walk, trot and canter can help you feel and understand which leg is moving. One of the most common misconceptions people have is in thinking the horse begins walking by moving a front foot. He doesn’t. He actually begins the movement with a hind leg, which (even if it hasn’t yet come off the ground) has to push the horse forward. This push from the hind leg means that the horse fractionally looses balance and so has to reach forward with a front leg to catch himself and reestablish his equilibrium. The sequence of strides in a walk are therefore left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore (or vice versa), which makes the walk a four beat gait with no moment of suspension. To feel the horse’s back at the walk you need to be sitting with your seat bones pointing downwards and your weight equally distributed between your left and right seat bones. Your balance and the freedom of movement of your pelvis will have a direct affect on the quality of your horse’s walk and whether you can feel each hind leg.
The movement of the horse is bilateral. If your hips are tight, you will find it difficult to follow the movement, which will probably result in your pelvis moving forward and backwards rather than left to right and make it more difficult for you to feel what each foot is actually doing. When the left hind hoof touches the ground and the horse starts to put weight on that foot you should feel his back rise and lift your left buttock. As his right hind leg swings forward, his back on that side will drop and his rib cage will swing inwards. Pay close attention to one buttock at a time. Feel each lift and drop. Notice the constant movement of your hip joints. The front legs are easier as you can see the movement of the front legs by glancing down at the shoulders. When the shoulder blade moves forward, the front leg on that side is in the air. When the shoulder blade moves backwards the front leg is on the ground. You can also feel the movement of the front leg moving forward in your thigh and knee as they will move forward slightly at the same time.
If you can’t feel the hind leg touching down you may be leaning to far forward or hollowing your back. It could also be that your horse is not moving with enough energy so that the movement of the hind leg is too small. An easy way to help you learn is for you to put both reins into your outside hand and place your inside hand on the point of your horse’s hip. Feel the movement of your horse’s pelvis with your hand and once you have the feeling memorized place your hand on your own hip and try to feel the same movement pattern there. Eventually you will be able to feel the movement just with your pelvis.
Once you know if your horse’s legs are in the air or on the ground you can start to time your aids to make them more effective. For example if you wish to enlarge a circle you should time the sideward driving aid of your inside calf to coincide with when the inside hind leg is in the air. Equally if you wanted to move the shoulders of your horse to the inside, your horse will find it much easier to comply if you time your request to when the outside front leg is in the air. Half halts can only really be effective if you time them to coincide with a leg on the ground. So if you wanted to stop into the outside hind leg you could, for example do the following; half halt when the outside hind leg touches down (one stride), half halt when the outside hind touches down (second stride), halt (when the outside hind touches down (third stride).
When it comes to knowing if your horse’s feet are deviating from the line of travel it helps to give yourself some navigational markers, such as arena letters, trees, posts or anything else that can help make your straight lines really straight and your circles really round. This way you can tell if your straight lines are straight and your circles round. For instance I use small cones to form gateways at strategic places along my intended line of travel. Then, if my horse steps on a marker I just have to ask myself, which leg it was. If it was a front leg, it means that my horse’s shoulder has drifted to that side and I haven’t framed my horse’s shoulder sufficiently with my knee and rein on that side. If it was a hind leg, it means that the croup has drifted in that direction and that I either didn’t frame my horse sufficiently with my calf or my horse ignored my aid. Of course drifting out through a shoulder or falling in with the croup can also be caused by the horse’s asymmetry as well as a rider fault but the more precisely I ride the lines the better balanced my horse will become.
Obviously we have only looked at the walk in this article but once you have mastered the walk and know the footfall sequence of the trot and canter, mastering these is relatively easy.