Leg work belongs in the “touch exercises” category and forms an important part of Basic Groundwork. Leg work includes different types of touches, such as stroking and massaging, on the front and hind legs of the horse. Moving and stretching the legs and picking up, moving, and tapping the hooves are also parts of leg work.
Stroking the legs.
Lack of trust is the main reason why horses don’t let you touch their legs. So, first you need to build up their trust with the Horsefulness Liberty Training Program and the 8 connection exercises. Once you have established trust, most horses will let you touch and stroke their legs.
If after doing the connection exercises it is still difficult to touch your horse’s legs, it may be that the horse has had bad experiences in the past — perhaps a rude farrier/trimmer who used force to get a horse to pick up his legs, or someone who beat the horse’s legs with a whip.
To stroke a horse’s legs, you put both hands around the leg. Slide with both hands from the top of the leg down past the hoof until you reach the ground. The pressure needs to be firm but not too hard; it isn’t a massage, nor should it be too light like a gentle stroke or tickle.
Picking up and moving the hooves and legs.
When the horse allows you to touch and stroke his legs and stays relaxed whilst you do so, you can start picking up and moving the hooves and legs.
This can be quite challenging, especially for young horses. Horses have to learn to keep their balance when they have a hoof lifted. By building this skill up gradually, the horse will learn to balance on three legs. Moving the legs and hooves (ie. making circles and stretching the legs) requires an even greater level of balance. You should only move onto these movements when your horse can easily balance when you pick up one hoof.
Likely causes of problems with picking up legs/hooves
- The horse doesn’t trust you yet, so it doesn’t trust your touch either.
- You are tense yourself.
- Your touch is too “technical” without “feel”/sensitivity to the horse.
- The horse has suffered trauma to the leg (been hit on the legs, bad experience with farrier/trimmer, an injury to the leg, etc)
- Incorrect training or leg work has caused your horse to evade your touches instead of allowing them.
- The horse has pain in one or more legs/hooves and therefore refuses to lift it. This could also be the good leg, as he doesn’t want to put more weight on the bad one.
- The horse has balance problems (some big young horses can take quite a long time to learn to balance, until they have the necessary musculature).
- The horse has never done leg work before and has no experience with it.
Goal of leg work.
- Help the horse to gain trust when his legs are touched or when there are movements on or around the legs.
- Increased awareness of the legs.
- Better coordination of the legs.
- Overcoming past traumas to the legs.
- Prepare the horse for day to day care such as brushing, washing, hoof care, etc.
- Prepare the horse for the farrier/trimmer.
- Prepare the horse for treatment from the vet, osteopath, masseuse, etc.
- Improve or solve issues such as pawing the ground when tied up, kicking with the hind legs because of oversensitivity of the hind legs, etc.
- Improve the horse’s balance (especially the exercises in which one leg is being lifted and moved/stretched).
- Help the nervous horse to become calmer, to be more grounded (as you help him to reconnect with his body)
Touching with lead rope, brush, whip is part of leg work.
When leg work with your hands is going well, you can do it with a lead rope, a brush, a whip, a sponge, a towel… You touch the legs with it, stroke or massage them with it, and tap the hooves with it. In this way, the horse gets used to having these objects on and around his legs. Skittish horses will benefit greatly from this. Daily care and medical treatments will go better because the horse is not anxious about having his legs touched with hands or objects.
Leg wraps are also very valuable. They increase awareness in the legs and can also develop coordination in the limbs. Leg wraps can be applied in various ways, depending on what your goal is. You can wrap all four legs, just the front or hind legs, a diagonal pair of legs, or even just one. Leg wraps (and body wraps) are very good for horses who have problems with proprioception.
Leg work is a valuable part of groundwork, and should not be skipped in the basic training of your horse!