Many riders only know the leg yield as that annoying movement in first level. It is a murky concept to many riders, who are left scratching their heads as they go up centerline and hear that they were supposed to bend their horse THE OTHER WAY! And that they WERE YIELDING THE WRONG DIRECTION! And THAT IS JUST A DIAGONAL LINE! What is a leg yield? Why is your trainer abusing you with learning this movement? Why have it around at all? First of all, the leg yield is known as a suppling movement. It stretches the horse’s musculature laterally (aka from left to right and right to left). If you give yourself a big bear hug you will feel the muscles on either side of your spine stretch. It probably feels pretty good. In fact, I am going to do it now…. okay I am back. Notice that when you are bear hugging yourself, your arms are crossing. It is a similar mechanic that we ask of the horse when they are properly leg yielding, hence the suppling effect. In dressage we want suppleness, elasticity and strength. The leg yield is one of many techniques a savvy rider can use to achieve that end. It also enhances something called “lateral reach”. The more loose and supple the horse is laterally, the better they will be able to step sideways, in large, rhythmic strides.
Feel that stretch across your back? That is a similar feeling that your horse will have with a properly executed leg yield.
Suppling is not the only reason to leg yield though. The second reason is in the name itself “leg yield”. The horse must know to yield from the leg, to understand yielding aids in general. One of the basic tenets of riding is to yield from pressure. When that inside leg goes on you do not want your horse staring blissfully out into middle distance, debating the merits of timothy versus alfalfa. You want them to yield and there are a number of exercises using the leg yield to achieve that end. These exercises can be ridden in walk, trot and canter.
Most leg yields are learned by turning up quarterline and yielding to the rail. Another option is the nose to the wall leg yield. This option gives the rider the opportunity to better monitor the angle and straightness using the rail, but use whatever works for you. Important: the horse’s poll is flexed AWAY from the direction of travel when leg yielding. Always. Forever. Until we are all dust and parrots rule the land, the horse’s poll is flexed away from the direction of travel. Is your horse flexed right? Then you two are leg yielding left. Is your horse flexed left? Then you two are leg yielding right. You can think of it like your horse is slightly indicating toward which leg you should be applying. Your equine partner is pointing at the calf that should be pressing against them.
Do not treat your inside rein like the starter of a lawnmower!
This leads me into another point – that the inside rein is a grossly overused piece of leather for many a poor soul attempting to complete a leg yield. Yes, the horse should have a slight inside flexion but the horse’s body should be straight. The leg yield forces the rider to coordinate the inside and outside aids. Yes, the inside leg goes on, but you do not pull on the inside rein like you are trying to start a lawnmower. The inside rein should be no more used than before the leg yield began. You as a rider need to develop a seat that allows you to apply the inside leg without using the inside hand as a balance beam. Nor do you want to use the inside rein to ‘pop’ the horse sideways, because you will then lose the shoulder and have a funky-looking jack knifed horse. This does not achieve any of the merits of leg yield and makes you look a bit silly. Even though your inside leg does press against your horse, your body should be moving in the direction of travel. Many riders, in their efforts to move sideways, lean or collapse away from the direction of travel. This is wrong. Your inside leg does apply pressure but your seat is centering itself over the horse as you both are moving in the direction you would like to go. Your seat rides the next step, not the previous one. If you lose the straightness of your equine partner then you must straighten your horse before proceeding sideways again. This is a hard lesson for some students to learn. More than a few enter into a leg yield fever and by god, they are determined to reach that letter come hell or high water. Don’t! Stop! When learning the leg yield, I suggest you attempt a few steps sideways, a few steps straight, a few steps sideways. This will allow you to monitor your straightness and correct your horse if he has drifted onto a diagonal line. When a horse loses his straightness and his shoulders fall onto a diagonal line then the hind legs are not crossing anymore, the lateral suppling is not happening and, well, it is not a leg yield anymore, my sweet, summer child.
These sideways, forward, sideways steps will also allow you to monitor energy. You want each leg yield cocktail to be roughly fifty percent forward and fifty percent sideways. The western movement known as side passing is sideways with no forward steps. This is not what we do in dressage. Forward energy must be infused into each stride. The horse must be attentive and in front of the leg. If you attempt to leg yield and suddenly the rhythmic trot you just had begins to deteriorate, then you must make your leg yield line as shallow as necessary to maintain quality of gait. Once you and your horse improve in understanding, balance and technique then you can begin making your leg yield more steep. The same goes for the nose to the wall leg yield with the angle you are requesting as your horse steps down the wall. I suggest beginning to learn the leg yield with a shallow line at the walk, so you can begin coordinating your aids slowly. Remember, all of the rules of straightness and energy still apply at walk and canter.