How To Ride First Level Leg Yields

Learn how riding the First Level leg yield prepares for advancement in dressage training.

Working through the movements of First Level thoroughly prepares the horse and rider for the next step of training: the introduction to collection and lateral movements. One preparatory tool for this advancement in training is the leg yield, the first movement that requires the horse to move forward and sideways. 

The leg yield is the first movement that requires the horse to move forward and sideways.


Teaching your horse to step sideways in a leg yield improves his straightness, suppleness, connection and acceptance of the aids. It further encourages better understanding of the aids from the rider. The leg yield gives the rider the feeling for the horse’s balance in every stride and helps her to respond to that balance with the appropriate aids.

According to the USEF Dressage Rule Book the leg yield should be introduced before advancing toward collected work. The Rule Book describes the leg yield as a movement in which “the horse is kept almost straight, except for slight flexion of the poll away from the direction in which he moves, and the inside legs pass and cross in front of the outside legs with the forehand slightly in advance of the quarters.” A well-ridden leg yield maintains “throughness” and impulsion of the horse while refining the rider’s correct and effective use of the half halt. Leg yield is not a lateral movement, due to lack of bend, but it does prepare the horse for the true lateral movements in Second Level. 

Using the Correct Aids 

The leg yield is introduced in First Level, Test 2 where it is performed along the short diagonal with the horse practically parallel to the long side of the arena. The rider must ride a 10-meter half-circle left before performing a leg yield to the right (later performing the same sequence in the opposite direction). 

These two successive movements compliment each other. The 10-meter half-circle sets the horse and rider up for success when performing the leg yield, as it encourages the horse to stay supple and lift the rib cage in preparation for the leg yield. 

The aids in the leg yield require communication between the inside aids and the outside aids. The inside leg asks the horse to yield to the side while the outside leg asks the horse to continue forward, maintaining straightness. The inside rein asks for slight flexion in the opposite direction of travel while the outside rein helps maintain straightness and tempo. To achieve this the rider should carry both hands slightly to the outside. This will enable the rider to ask for flexion and straightness while keeping the bit even in the horse’s mouth. The rider’s position should be balanced slightly over the inside hip with the shoulders square with the horse’s shoulders. The inside leg remains at the girth with the outside leg slightly behind the girth, to prevent the haunches from swinging too far to the side. 

Coordinating the aids is like dancing—every step must be felt without losing the beat of the music. The dance between the inside and outside aids should be coordinated through the rhythm of the horse’s movement. The rider should keep the leg long with soft impulses that ask the horse to leg yield. Keeping the leg long and soft, without squeezing, will encourage better timing of the aids and allow the rider’s position to follow the movement of the horse. Once the horse begins to yield from the inside leg, it will send him into the outside rein connection. At this moment, the outside aids should be active to encourage the forward movement of the horse. The rider’s half halts on the outside rein will keep the horse balanced on the outside hind leg as he moves sideways. The outside aids will also prevent the horse from falling over to the outside or bulging the outside shoulder. Thus the horse is able to remain straight as he moves to the side. 

Lifting of the Rib Cage

A horse that has the ability to lift his rib cage will be able to successfully perform a leg yield. This will also make the lateral movements possible. When the horse is lifting his rib cage, his back is up, allowing him to carry the rider with ease while maintaining his own suppleness. It enables the horse to maintain a rounder, softer frame with less exertion. Additionally, it gives the horse the ability to reach sideways under his belly with the hind leg for movements such as the leg yield. 

The muscle group that collectively lifts the horse’s rib cage is the sling muscles. This muscle group, when contracted, lifts the horse’s rib cage, which enables him to move his hind legs laterally. If the horse’s rib cage is down, sideways movement becomes impossible. These muscles are crucial for balanced lateral movement that comes later in training.

The leg yield, though not challenging a horse’s capability to bend, is an important tool in the development of the sling muscles. It is the rider’s responsibility to take the time to develop these muscles. Building these muscles could take anywhere from 8 to 15 weeks to build. Being patient through this process gives the horse the capability to move sideways with suppleness and throughness. Only then will the horse be able to sustain self-carriage in upper level lateral work. 

Exercise: Spiral Out

This exercise helps the horse and rider, who are just learning how to leg yield, to maintain a softer connection while slowly asking the horse to step sideways. The rider maintains the line of travel on a circle to keep the horse’s rib cage up while teaching him to move to the side. This spiral-out coordinates the rider’s aids for setting up the leg yield. Although a true leg yield is ridden without bend, this exercise requires bend. As it is an introductory exercise for the horse to begin to lift his rib cage while stepping sideways …

1. Ride a 15-meter circle at walk, trot
or canter.

2. Gradually increase the size of the circle to 20-meters.

3. Change direction and repeat. 

When riding this exercise, be sure to establish a good rhythm and tempo as you ride an accurate 15-meter circle. This encourages the horse to maintain the quality of movement as he begins to step sideways. When you are ready to ask the horse to start the spiral out, apply the inside leg with soft impulses within the rhythm of the movement. When the horse takes a step sideways, half halt gently, timing the aid when the outside hind leg touches the ground. This helps the horse to balance on the outside hind leg preventing him from falling through the outside aids. When you first work on this exercise take your time to spiral out. Ask the horse to step sideways one step at a time to give him a chance to stay on the aids without bracing. As the horse begins to step sideways with more ease, you can begin to ask him to leg yield on a straight line. 

Troubleshooting. When working on the spiral out be careful to keep the forward impulsion. If impulsion is lost, the horse will drop his back and lose his ability to lift his rib cage. The horse may also stiffen in the connection. To keep the forward impulsion, be sure to ride one step of spiral out at a time. This will allow you to continue to ask him to go forward after each sideways step. As progress in the exercise improves, begin to take more than one step of leg yield in a row. Be sure to give an impulse with your outside leg in the rhythm of the gait to encourage the horse to step forward and sideways. 

As you ask the horse to spiral out, his tendency may be to bulge his outside shoulder. To prevent this problem, be sure you have a steady connection with the outside rein before asking your horse to step sideways. Giving an impulse with the outside leg as you close your fingers on the outside rein will also encourage your horse to keep the outside shoulder aligned. It may feel that the horse is trailing with his haunches in this moment. It is important to first straighten the outside shoulder before asking the horse to yield away from the inside leg again. 

Once you are ready to leg yield on a straight line, in preparation for the test, be aware of your horse’s suppleness and straightness. If at any moment, he stiffens or becomes crooked, ride a small circle. This will help him soften. Before asking for the leg yield again, ride a straight line first to correct any crookedness. Be sure to plan where you choose to leg yield so you have room to circle in either direction should he stiffen. Performing only one or two steps of leg yield at a time will make it easier to keep your horse soft and straight.

As the rider’s understanding of leg yields advances she will be able to use different variations of the leg yield to work toward more difficult lateral work. Next month we discuss the difficulty of riding an accurate 10-meter circle. 

Corinne Foxley was an assistant to Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel at Maryland’s First Choice Farm for 10 years. She also spent time with Uta Graf in Germany and has earned her USDF bronze and silver medals. Foxley teaches a classical but creative and systematic approach to help the rider’s position and the horse’s self-carriage. She is a trainer at Beaux Reves Equestrian in Loudon County, Virginia.






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