Leg work belongs to “touch exercises” and are part of Basic Groundwork. Leg work consists of all the 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 also belong to 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 and the 8 connection exercises. Once trust is there, 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. Think about a rude farrier/trimmer who used force to get a horse to pick up his legs, or someone who has beaten the horse’s legs with a whip.
To stroke a horse’s legs you put both hands round the leg. Slide with both hands from the top of the leg to and including 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 is quite difficult, especially for young horses. Horses have to learn to keep their balance when they have a hoof lifted. By building this up step by step the horse will learn to balance on three legs. Moving the legs and hooves, for instance making circles and stretching the legs requires them to be able to balance even more. So only move onto these movements when they can easily balance with simply picking 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 touches either.
- You are tense yourself.
- Your touch is too “technical” without “feel”/sensitivity to the horse.
- The horse has suffered trauma to the leg (hit on the legs, bad experience with farrier/trimmer, an injury to the leg etc…).
- Incorrect training/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 leg).
- 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 had leg work done before and has no experience with it.
Goal of leg work.
- Helping 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.
- Preparing the horse for day to day care such as brushing, washing, hoof care etc.
- Preparing the horse for the farrier/trimmer.
- Preparing the horse for treatment from the vet, osteopath, masseur etc.
- Improving/solving issues such as pawing the ground when tied up, kicking with the hind legs because of oversensitivity of the hind legs etc.
- Improving the horse’s balance (especially the exercises in which one leg is being lifted and moved/stretched).
- Helping 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, 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 even just one leg. Leg wraps (and body wraps) are very good for horses who have problems with proprioception.
Hence leg work is very valuable and must not be missed in the basic training of your horse!