Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Lessons In Leg with Laura Graves



Aldie, Va.—Aug. 14

Proper flatwork is the foundation for nearly every equestrian discipline, and it’s especially critical for jumping. How your horse responds to your aids, how he uses his body over a fence, and the pace of his canter can all influence your round.

A lucky group of jumping riders got a chance to learn important principles of dressage from top U.S. dressage rider Laura Graves at Ohana Equestrian Preserve in Aldie, Virginia. The clinic was live streamed on USEF Network.

Students of grand prix show jumper Kama Godek, who’s based at Ohana, won the chance to ride with Graves last October at the Washington International Horse Show (District Of Columbia) when they won the WIHS Barn Night Group Video Contest sponsored by BarnManager. Team Kama produced, directed and starred in the winning video that focused on the Barn Night theme of “equestrians around the world.”


Laura Graves (left) and Kama Godek. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

Graves was excited to teach her first all hunter/jumper rider clinic. She said she sees the same common theme among many disciplines where proper flatwork can help.

“Everyone is struggling with all the same things—getting the horses in front of the leg and straight,” she said. “The main thing that holds people back is that we’re afraid of mistakes. Nobody’s more afraid of mistakes than dressage people. We’re so picky that it’s really easy to cover things up.”

Graves’ first lesson set the stage for the rest of the day. The first thing she asks every rider is what they like and how hard they’re working. She said her goal as a teacher is to help every rider get the performance out of their horse that makes their day.

The biggest problem she sees is when rider doesn’t make up their mind. Sometimes they like what they have, then they don’t. But if they express no difference to the horse, then why would the horse choose one thing over the other?

“It’s like with dogs—if I get very angry when they eat the food on the counter, when they lay down and don’t beg I’m very happy, and they can see that change in my demeanor,” she said. “They can see that change in the thing that I want, then they try to do the thing that I want. This is the amazing thing with animals, and horses are no different. There’s behavior that we accept from horses that we wouldn’t accept from any other animals in our life, which is so strange to me because they’re the biggest ones! We have boundaries [with dogs].”


Piper Tyrell works on getting Air Force One to respect her leg aid. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

Piper Tyrell, 14, was the first rider in the ring. She was longed on Air Force One, a grand prix jumper. Tyrell just started riding recently and had trouble getting her horse to stay in trot.

“For me, equitation is very important, but if you’re not an effective rider, I really don’t care how nice you look on a horse,” Graves said. “I try to be 50-50 to make sure we stay as much out of the way of the horse as possible while still being in the driver’s seat of the horse and not always being a passenger. That can be particularly hard on a trained horse, who will maybe try to convince you that he knows more than you do about what he should be doing.”

Graves asked Tyrell how hard she was working on a scale of 1 to 10. Tyrell said a 5, and Graves told her she had to decide what was acceptable to her.  Graves joked that she was personally lazy, and when she picks up a trot on a horse, she’s working around a 1.

She had Tyrell walk, trot on, take her leg away, walk, and take her leg off, letting the horse make the mistake.

“Horses always learn through touch, and touch is often resistance,” she said. “You have to give him something that’s more than him going this slow, and you kicking him all the time. If he doesn’t care, you have to say, ‘How far do I have to take my leg, hand or whip to make him care?’ He has to mind your leg more than he would want. If he makes a mistake, you train him for what you would like.”

Leg On, Leg Off


Amateur jumper rider Erin Gilmore rode her 19-year-old gelding Sirocco next. She told Graves her main issue is that he’s lazy, and she’s always working to get him in front of her leg. Avoiding time faults in the ring was her biggest challenge.

“I always thought jumpers went fast!” Graves joked.

She explained that a hot horse has to go with a rider’s leg on, while a dull horse needs to learn to keep moving with the rider’s leg off, just like she worked on with Tyrell.


At the beginning of her lesson, Erin Gilmore’s Sirocco wasn’t accepting connection or her leg. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

“The main thing I find across equestrian sport is that the horses lose their joy when they don’t get to be as free feeling with their bodies as they are in the field,” Graves said. “It makes horses oftentimes sour to do their job. Nobody wants to be picked on. It’s not always beautiful in the training to make horses think that doing things our way is the easier way than just slowing down and swishing their tail at the leg. Ultimately it becomes the most pleasant in the long run because horses who stay in front of the leg, [you don’t have to kick].”

Graves keeps her leg on if the horse is overreactive and even hacks hot ones with spurs. “Wait for them to relax,” she said. “A horse that’s dull to the leg doesn’t have that. I ask one time nicely, then the next time my leg comes on, it’s serious. He has to take your perfect aid seriously. People don’t seem to care how hard they’re working themselves. In dressage it’s not so bad with circles and lines. When jumping it matters how quickly and effectively you can change your speed or the size of your stride.”


Graves had Erin Gilmore work on widening her hands to move Sirocco into a connection. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

Gilmore said she started her ride working at an 8. Sirocco was also not very accepting of shorter reins and contact, so Graves had Gilmore trot on a circle and come forward and back, taking her legs away periodically. Then she did the same in canter. When asked how hard she was working, Gilmore said a 5 at that point. Graves wanted to see what happened if Gilmore did less.

She had Gilmore give him a “pop” with her leg when he slowed.

“A horse never feels in front of your leg if they’re not in your hand,” said Graves. “When your leg comes on it doesn’t have to be nice Erin. As much as necessary, as little as possible. Make your point with the leg, then get off of him. The only way we can have the second conversation, which is about connection, is if your leg doesn’t have to drive every stride. We cannot touch the mouth until the horse is making enough energy that it’s safe to touch them in the mouth.”

Graves asked Gilmore to ride with slightly wider hands, using her reins to make him straight.


By the end of Erin Gilmore’s ride, Sirocco was much more responsive to her leg aid and working in a softer connection. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

“Connection is the way we’re able to make the horse straight, whether it’s a line to a fence or a diagonal in a dressage test,” she explained. “It’s not the horse’s mouth to the rider’s hands. To me, connection is the energy from the horse into the bit and back to my hand. Hand to mouth I call contact. The contact can be light or heavy; it can be a little bit about how we receive information about what’s going on in the equation of connection. But connection itself is a tricky thing that not a lot of people achieve. It’s this feeling that no matter how fast his legs are going, you still feel like if you touch the mouth, there’s a chance he might slow down. Connection has to be that you could use the reins to make him straight or turn his head on a line or do whatever you need to do, and nothing else changes, that no matter what his hind legs are like a magnet to the middle of your bit. No matter where you point your bit, he is taking you.”

By the end of the ride, the gelding was working in a much nicer frame and was less fussy with the contact. Gilmore had a more solid contact and shorter reins. Graves encouraged her to look down to watch what was happening between her reins and Sirocco’s mouth, even if every rider is taught not to look down.

Bend Is Best

Maya Aryal, 14, rode Ra, an 11-year-old grand prix jumper that she’s competing in the children’s jumpers and equitation.

He started out in a steady trot, but it was clear he had some go in him. Graves noticed immediately that he lacked bend in the turns and had a tendency to fall to the inside.


Maya Aryal’s Ra needed to bend his body through corners and on circles. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

“When we have horses like this, it’s a little bit easy to get lulled into their tempo and be along for the ride, but I would like to see already maybe a little bit more stretching,” said Graves during Aryal’s warm-up. “Because he goes and does his job and is fun to ride, you maybe a little bit accept this. Even though he’s go-ey doesn’t necessarily mean he’s on time for your aids. Every time you decide you want to touch him, you need to decide if you’re getting the reaction you want and if you’re getting the reaction you want on time.”


She had Aryal focus on leg yielding during her changes of directions. Preparing turns was key. “A horse like this, his instinct when you touch him to go sideways might be to speed up. Even though it’s not a terrible evasion, you have to understand that when you ask him to go sideways, and he speeds up instead, it’s still a type of evasion,” she said.

“At the end of every ride, there’s always a tally of the steps I’ve taken,” she continued. “Some of them are green. I’m balancing my checkbook—am I contributing to my training, or am I making a deduction? That’s negative in red. Ask yourself with every step, am I making a deposit or am I making a withdrawal from my training? At the end of the ride, if you’re making more withdrawals or red steps than you are deposits, then you probably should have just left him in the stall for the day. Be picky on yourself, that you’re riding with a purpose.”

In canter, Graves had Aryal focus again on pushing him out on circles. He got a little frisky when she put her leg on, and Graves made sure to remind her to keep the leg on through that. Only once he accepted her leg would he be able to work on other things such as straightness through movements like shoulder-fore.

Graves also made sure to have Aryal anticipate if Ra was going to anticipate a transition down from canter to trot. She needed to send him forward in canter first, then balance and make the transition down into trot, rather than just fall into it. The same applied for transitions from trot to canter.

They finished with 10-meter circles in counter canter, thinking of pushing him to the rail as they came back to the rail and naturally going into a little shoulder-fore.

Words Of Wisdom From Laura Graves

• On a rider’s long relationship with a horse: “Somewhere along your 10- or 11-year relationship, you guys have written a contract, like a nuptial. You say, ‘You do this, and I’ll just do that, and you don’t buck me off, do this, be naughty, and I won’t X, Y, Z.’ It’s a little bit different for everybody, and I’m no different.

“I’ve had my top horse his entire life. Sometimes we get in a situation where I say, ‘OK, you do it like that, and I’ll take that as good enough, and I’ll do that.’ Then you get a fresh set of eyes that says, ‘Well why are you dealing with that?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have to.’

“But part of my job is to come in and help you guys rewrite that contract a little bit. Sometimes you’re not happy in the beginning, but you just have to say, ‘OK, the reason we’re doing it is that in the end we’re going to be happier.’ He doesn’t necessarily know that it’s better or worse for him. Even if it might be more difficult for him physically, we have to be clever in finding a way to get him on board. Mediation is a big part of my job!”


Stefanie Obenhaupt worked on giving her elbows with Caruso. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

• On being firm with your elbows on a strong horse: “With horses who tend to get strong, especially as women, we don’t have a lot of upper body strength. The only way you’re going to find that prevents him from pulling you forward is if you start to find your core strength by understanding that when he’s strong like that, your elbow has to be part of your core. Then if he pulls on you he doesn’t get your arm, but rather he has to pull against all of you, and that makes his life more difficult, and he has to make a decision. When he decides not to pull or decides to slow down or not run off, then we’re sweet on him again.”

• On responsiveness to your leg: “The first thing I ask when I get on a horse is, ‘Can I ride 10 of these in a day?’ If I can’t ride 10 in a day with breaking very little of a sweat, than for me it’s too much work.”

• On training: “Anytime you’re in the saddle, you’re a trainer. Whether he knows it or not, it’s up to you to say, ‘This is how hard I’ll work, and this is what I wish you would do for me.’ To make it more than a wish, you have to have really clear communication. We are only responsible for ourselves for how hard we’re working in the saddle.”

• On creating happy horses: “When I train horses, my goal is to make eager partners. I don’t feed a lot of treats, but when I walk through the barn all the horses put their heads out. I’m trying to communicate little details with something that doesn’t speak my language. My daily training is teaching them my language.”


Nicole Butchko worked on keeping her hand steady using her pinky finger aboard Corsair. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

• On awareness of a rider’s hands: “I don’t like to tell riders to put their whole fist on the neck. The pinky gives you a limit for how far away from the neck your hand can get. It helps it not get too bouncy. If you don’t feel anything move, you don’t know. But if you know your pinky should be touching the neck you become very aware of what it is and what it isn’t.”



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