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Hand and Leg Cues in Riding: Timing and Level of Pressure

When you’re riding or training a horse, communicating effectively through your hand and leg cues is essential. This guide will explore the importance of timing these cues correctly and varying the level of pressure to enhance your horse’s performance.

Understanding Horse Riding Cues

Cues are basically signals you give to your horse to tell it what to do, whether it’s to move forward, turn, slow down, or perform complex actions. There are three main types of cues:

  • Hand cues: These involve using the reins to guide the horse. You might pull, lift, or release the reins to communicate.
  • Leg cues: These cues come from your legs. You might squeeze the horse’s sides, press harder, or relax your pressure.
  • Seat cues: These cues come from your seat and are the foundation for all hand and leg cues and also dictate rhythm and balance to the horse.

These cues need to be precise and clear to give precise and clear direction to the horse.

The Importance of Cue Timing Hand and Leg Cues

Timing in cueing refers to when you give and release a cue. Getting this right makes it easier for the horse to understand and respond properly.

  1. Applying the Cue: You should apply cues in sync with the horse’s natural movements. For example, with turning, you’d give the rein cue when the horse’s opposite front leg is coming off the ground. This timing makes turning smoother because the horse is in a better position to do what you are asking him to do. For slowing down you ask as the horse’s back legs are coming off the ground. All cues should be applied when the horse is in the best position to the the thing he is being asked to do.
  2. Releasing the Cue: When you release the cue is even more critical. It signals to the horse that it has responded correctly. Releasing too late or too soon can cause the horse to get dull and start to ignore the cue. Also, it can cause the horse to look for a different response to the cue. Conversely, correctly timing the release of the cue encourages the horse to do more of what he did just before he got the release.

The Impact of Proper Timing

Proper timing in your cues can dramatically improve your horse’s responsiveness, reduce confusion, and speed up its learning. It helps in building a strong, trusting relationship between you and your horse. Here’s how proper timing affects various aspects of riding:

  • Enhances Responsiveness: Correct timing makes horses more willing to respond quickly because the horse understands what is being asked of him.
  • Positive Behavior: With timely cues, horses receive fewer mixed signals, reducing frustration and potential behavioral issues.
  • Improves Learning: Accurately timed cues help the horse understand what is expected, enhancing both learning speed and retention.
  • Strengthens Bond: Effective communication fosters a better relationship, crucial for both competitive riding and everyday interaction.

Consequences of Incorrect Timing of Hand and Leg Cues

  • Early Timing Issues:  If you apply a cue when the horse can not do the thing you are asking for, then the horse will start to ignore that cue. If you release a cue before the horse completes the thing you asked for then he will think he is not supposed to do anything with that cue. Both of these, applying or releasing a cue too early, causes horses to become dull and less responsive.
  • Late Timing Problems: Applying cues late causes the horse to miss the chance to perform actions smoothly, leading to movements that are not smooth and causing the horse to become nervous about a cue applied and over reactive until the cue is released.

The Role of Pressure in Horse Riding Cues

When riding or training a horse, the amount of pressure you apply through your cues is just as crucial as the timing of those cues. Applying the right amount of pressure at the right time can enhance communication, reinforce training, and foster a stronger relationship with your horse. Conversely, even if your timing is perfect, applying the wrong amount of pressure can lead to confusion, discomfort, and even mistrust between you and your horse. Let’s delve into why managing pressure correctly is vital and the effects of getting it wrong.

Pressure is a fundamental component of cues in horse riding. It’s used to communicate your intentions to the horse, guiding it to perform specific tasks or behaviors. Here’s how pressure plays out in different types of cues:

  • Hand Pressure: This involves how much you pull or hold the reins, the rate at which you build that pressure, and the rate at which you release it.
  • Leg Pressure: This includes squeezing or pressing your legs against the horse’s sides. How you apply this pressure will influence how the horse responds to the pressure the next time you use it.

Importance of Applying the Correct Amount of Pressure

Effective Communication: The general rule is “As little pressure as possible, as much pressure as necessary”. No pressure should ever stay at a constant amount. Pressure should always be either building or reducing in amount.

Training Consistency: Consistent pressure during training sessions helps the horse learn and remember commands more effectively. This consistency aids in faster learning and better long-term retention of training. As the horse becomes more trained they should respond to less pressure and the correction for not responding will be come increased pressure.

Rider-Horse Relationship: Using appropriate pressure strengthens the bond between rider and horse. It fosters trust and cooperation, as the horse learns that the rider communicates in a way that is safe and understandable.

Consequences of Incorrect Pressure

Even if your timing is impeccable, inappropriate pressure can negate the effectiveness of your communication. Here are some problems that can arise from applying too much or too little pressure:

Too Much Pressure:

  • Confusion and Resistance: Too much pressure applied too quickly will cause the horse to resist the pressure instead of thinking about the action that will get the release of pressure.  This will lead to resistance or even behavioral issues as the horse tries to avoid pressure.
  • Pain and Fear: Heavy-handed cues can cause pain, leading to fear-based reactions. A horse that associates cues with pain will become over reactive to rider movements.
  • Breakdown of Trust: Overuse of pressure can erode the trust between horse and rider. A horse that does not trust its rider may be less cooperative and more difficult to train.

Too Little Pressure:

  • Unclear Commands: Insufficient pressure might not adequately convey the command to the horse, leading to sluggish or non-existent responses.
  • Inconsistency in Training: If the horse does not receive clear and consistent cues, it will become confused about what responses are expected, slowing down its learning process.
  • Overcompensation: A horse that regularly receives weak cues may become dull to the cues, requiring increasingly stronger pressures to achieve the same responses. This will escalate until the horse becomes dull to all cues.


Effective communication between rider and horse hinges significantly on the correct use of cues—whether they be through hand, leg, or seat. The clarity and precision of cues, as we have explored, are foundational for giving your horse unambiguous directions. This precision ensures that the horse is not only aware of what is expected but is also in a position to respond appropriately. The principle of using “as little pressure as necessary, but as much as needed” encapsulates the approach that ensures cues are neither too forceful nor too feeble. Effective pressure application serves not only to communicate clearly but also to maintain a horse’s comfort and trust, pivotal for a cooperative relationship. Consistent pressure aids in the horse’s learning process, helping it understand and remember commands, thereby streamlining its training.

The journey in equine partnership is a path of continual learning and growth. Adopting this proactive approach will pave the way for a rewarding and fulfilling experience with your equine companion. If you need professional help with your horse, you might consider an Equestrian Virtual Lesson. This is a great way to get a private lesson from Tim Anderson. My horse training journey has brought me from winning world titles to now trying to make every horse the best they can be and to help you improve your equestrian knowledge.


1 thought on “Hand and Leg Cues in Riding: Timing and Level of Pressure”

  1. Very helpful, going to have to read over and over to assimilate all of this info! Thank you!

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