hahaha...I have every single one of your questions too! It is the hardest thing ever for me to apply my leg aids without hiking my heels up! I hear about this every. Single. Lesson. I'm sure my trainer is sick of having to remind me.
My boy Huey is a Performance Horse, not a School Master, only we're learning dressage and his previous career was Show Jumping...so some stuff he has to unlearn and re-learn, and all of it is something I have to learn. But he is SUPER sensitive to the aids...usually.
Usually, because one day he can be so sensitive that I just have to think "let's make a circle" and whatever tiny little twitch I get in my seat from just thinking that, he hears, and he obeys. And if I'm not careful, and I put my leg aids on improperly, he'll try to launch directly into a canter from a walk. On the other hand, there are days like today, he didn't feel like working at all (and told me so five times before we got into the ring) I had to bump him a few times just to get him into a good walking pace for a warm up, and I had to squeeze like the dickens to get him into a decent trot.
I should say that today was super-funky weather here, all warm and feeling damp and with a breeze, and none of the horses with their winter coats wanted to budge one inch to do anything. So Huey is not totally random with this stuff...usually he is very predictable and very aware and if he's doing something that I didn't intend, it means that I sent him a bad signal. He's also very smart, so if I'm not being super clear with the aids, he'll start guessing what I might be asking for. All of this is very good feedback for me, because it tells me that I'm not doing something right, and the trick is just to figure out what it is. (I say this because lesson horses, especially School Masters, have learned to tune out all kinds of garbage, and a lot of time, they go a little too far in the other direction and you have to SHOUT with the aids to get them to notice.)
- how is the sensitivity in your calves when trying to give leg aides? I feel that I can't really tell what I'm doing. Seems that books talk about applying leg pressure (and of course my instructor says that too) but they only talk about where along the horses body, only occasionally about how to actually apply that pressure and never about what it actually feels like.
It just seems that I can't feel the difference between neutral and light pressure. I can feel hard pressure if I'm really pressing with both legs and it's hard to do. But if I'm trying to apply pressure with just one leg there's nothing really to brace against so I'm unsure how much pressure I am applying.
This will come. The thing is that "light" is a matter of how well the horse is listening to your aids. Usually, "light" pressure for Huey involves me giving the muscles in whatever leg a squeeze, and he feels that (yes, through the saddle, through the girth, all of that - if I so much as squeeze my butt cheeks together and leave the reins totally alone, he's going to hear that through the saddle, the riser, the saddle pad as a request to "stop"). Today, "light" pressure meant "squeeze like I wanted to crush a beer can between my thighs". Why? Because he was lazy, hot, bored, and not in the mood to work or listen to aids. It just wasn't one of our better days.
After riding a bunch, you will get a feel for this. Here is what my instructor told me: always start with a quiet request. If the horse doesn't listen to that, make a louder request. If the horse doesn't listen to that, do it again, and this time, shout. She said to give the horse 3 seconds to respond, and if he doesn't, that's when you need to crank it up a notch.
So you give a light squeeze, wait for a response, then a firmer squeeze, wait for a response, and then bump the horse or kick it, depending on how loud the last request was.
There are some training issues for the horse, but since I'm learning on my own horse and training him as well, I don't want to get into those. In general, the horse ought to be able to hear a polite and quiet request. Lesson horses, not so much. (a good reason to have your own! Hahah)
I am riding in paddock boots, without half-chaps (as I was worried about my sensitivity and didn't want to spend the money immediately) but with two layers of leggings/light sweats, as it's too cold for just 1 layer now.
So is this an issue of: - poor leg position?
- lack of strength from my end?
- lack of sensitivity from the horse (as a lesson horse he's not that sensitive to the reins, so maybe he's not that sensitive to leg aides either)
- lack of experience?
I use paddock boots and half-chaps. This isn't causing a sensitivity issue for me. If I didn't use the half-chaps the stirrup leathers would be destroying my pants. I'd suggest investing in a pair if you're going to go a couple times a week. Also, sweats are going to be more slippery than half-chaps, so half-chaps will be more helpful in keeping your leg in the right position once you get it there.
Some of it is poor leg position. It might also be a saddle fit issue. Before I bought Huey and got our own gear, I was riding him for lessons in a borrowed saddle that was WAY too small for me. The saddle fit problem made it VERY hard for me to get an effective leg on. My trainer tells me the key is to have contact with the horse with your *lower* leg but to keep the knees nice and loose. What I had to do with the saddle issue was to turn my toes out like I had duck feet in order to lay my calves against the horse to get contact.
This part of the problem went away instantly when I got a new saddle that fit me and him. I still have to work constantly on my leg position, though. One thing that helped me with that was riding at a walk in half-seat (or two-point). That really tells you if your legs are in the wrong place - if they are too far forward, you will bump your butt on the cantle all the time. If they're too far back, you'll pitch into the pommel.
The other thing that helps me - I'm in a dressage saddle - is when I'm walking Huey out to warm him up, I stand up in the stirrups for a few paces and keep my body in the same (or same-ish) position when I sit back down in the saddle.
Both of these were very helpful in getting a good start on the right leg position.
It's probably not really an issue with your strength, just experience and the horse not paying attention to quiet requests.
Any tips? Did you have this issue when you started riding?
Have you ridden one horse and had to apply lots of pressure and then ridden another horse and what you thought was normal pressure was way too much for that horse?
Shoot, I don't have to change horses to get this experience! Remember, they're critters, they've got moods, and thoughts, and interests, and physical sensations just like you do. Part of learning to ride is learning to deal with the day-to-day variability in the horse. :) And, of course, learning to deal with horse-to-horse variability.
Something that you should know if you don't already, do not just put an aid on and keep it there. Put it on, and if you don't get what you want within 3 seconds, take it off and replace it with a louder aid. If you just squeeze to get some speed, and keep squeezing, the horse learns that it doesn't have to go unless you are squeezing the heck out of it.
I felt my contact was a bit better when I pulled my leg back just slightly, so I will work on that next time.
Be careful, as putting one leg back and squeezing is a signal for a transition to a canter. I learned this the hard way.
Also, there is the usual challenge of trying to get the horse to transition. You start with the pressure and then it turns into a bit more of a kick to get a result. This seems like I have to do this with my heels as you can't really kick with the calves. Is this at all correct, or is this just what you have to do when you are starting out and the horse isn't that responsive. Is there a way to kick/apply heel pressure without my heels lifting so much out of position?
I have this problem too. Be aware of the habit of lifting your heels up when you bump, and focus on keeping them down. One thing that might help is to put your weight into your pinky toe not into your big toe. Another thing that might help is lifting your big toe up to rub it on the inside of the toe of your boot.
When you're needing to put on the gas at the trot, point your heels in to the horse's side and let them bump him as you come up to rise in the trot. Don't do it every step, but every few steps, until he's getting the trot you want. Be careful not to squeeze with your knees, if you focus on turning your toe out a bit that will help because your knee follows the toe.
Also, what is the difference between leg pressure to ask for a faster walk and to ask for the trot?
I think they are the same thing. It's just that with a trot, you're also telling the horse to get ready by organizing yourself with a shorter rein, probably shifting your weight forward a bit, and then squeezing him to let him know. When you want a faster walk, you probably aren't fooling with the reins or shifting your weight like you would for a trot. I mean "shifting your weight" too, not "leaning forward". If you don't shift your weight a bit, and the horse breaks into a trot, you're going to get left behind it. But if you lean forward, you're asking for other trouble. It's almost more like gathering your energy up in your core than it is making some change with your body position...but the horse can feel it and knows what that means.