The Aids

When and how we apply our aids can make a huge difference to the way our horse responds. Our aids should be virtually invisible, soft and subtle but all too frequently they are anything but and are blindingly obvious and harsh.

When we first start riding we are pretty much told to “kick ‘em to go and pull on the reins to stop”. And even if the aids aren’t explained in that way, thousands of kids in pony club camps do just that.

In an ideal world we would soon learn to refine our application of the aids but somehow the mystery of soft and subtle aids seems to remain just that. Perhaps it is because the explanation of “how ” we improve our application of the aids is very often non-forthcoming and so we continue to use gross motor skill aids which we apply arbitrarily. Indeed, one can frequently hear students being told in lessons to “use more leg”, “drive him on” and  “shorten the reins” without any further explanation as to when or how these aids should be applied.  Without knowing the how and the why just shortening your reins and kicking your horse is never going to be effective. Basically if we want our horse to respond to our aid we need to ask him at a time that he can comply with the request.

Physically a horse can only move a leg (further, faster or sideways) if that leg is in the air and can only engage a leg (flex the joints) if that leg is on the ground. When put like this it sounds so simple and obvious but timing the aid so that the leg you are targeting is in the air (or on the ground) can take some getting used to. This is why understanding where your horse’s feet are and being able to feel the footfall of the horse is so important. If we don’t time our aids correctly then the application of the aid is always going to be a hit and miss affair which, may or may not work depending on whether we accidently asked at the right time. But when we ask randomly we shouldn’t be surprised if our horse doesn’t respond because it is physically impossible for him to so. However, you only need to go to any show and see that this lack of response is invariably treated as disobedience and the solution is to apply the aid more forcibly.

Once we understand and can feel our horse’s footfall  and we can time our aids to coincide with an appropriate leg we need to consider what aids are at our disposal and how best we can use them.

Basically our aids comprise of our seat, our weight, our legs and the reins (our hands). I haven’t included the voice or our body language or energy here but of course these can be used as aids too.

The Seat

Our seat is probably the most important of all our aids. It is the one aid, which if we are sitting on our horse cannot be taken away. Throughout the history of horsemanship, the masters have all emphasized the importance of the correct seat. It goes without saying that the rider’s posture has a tremendous influence on their horse – for either better or for worse. At the Spanish Riding School students would spend hours on the lunge line learning the footfall of the horse and acquiring a supple and independent seat before they were allowed to ride off the lunge. Unfortunately these days most of us don’t have the advantage of spending hours on the lunge and our seats suffer because of it. The stillness of a good seat is an optical illusion. It is created by a great deal of movement beneath the surface, a bit like ducks on a lake. Every joint in the rider’s body has to participate to follow and absorb the horse’s movement. The result is an appearance of stillness. In fact, when a rider tries to sit still, her seat will become noisier and noisier. If one joint does not move as much as required, then its neighboring joints will automatically move more excessively in order to compensate for the blockage. The results are constantly kicking legs, hands that jerk up and down, head-bobbing, and a bottom that bounces!

The classical seat with its vertical alignment of ears, shoulders, hips, and heels places our pelvis in to a neutral position whichwe need to ride effectively.  If our pelvis isn’t in neutral we are unable to move it in all the directions that we need to. A hollow back, for instance, means that the pelvis can only swing backward, not forward, which introduces stiffness in both horse and rider and results in an inability to sit with the horse’s movement. Any alteration to the neutral position of the pelvis is either an aid, which helps the horse improve or regain his own balance and straightness, or is an interference, which destroys the horse’s balance and straightness.

Keeping the alignment of the pelvis, spine, shoulders, and head is fundamentally the responsibility of the core muscles. If the core muscles aren’t strong enough the rider won’t be able to find their balance and acquire an independent neutral seat. An unbalanced rider will use the reins to support herself, tense her muscles and grip with her legs. Rigid muscles block feeling too, so if we are tense we cannot feel the movement of the horse’s back. And if we can’t feel the movement of the horse’s back we can’t tell where our horse’s feet are and therefore we are unable to effectively apply the aids.

Our horse tends to mirror our posture and we can use this to our advantage by using our seat as an aid. Tilting the pelvis slightly backwards at the right moment can create a pelvic tuck in the horse. Move the pelvis forward and the horse will go forward, draw the pelvis back and the horse will step back. If the rider moves her pelvis to the side (which creates a weight shift in this direction), the horse will move towards the same side. The combination of the lateral rotation of the pelvis and a certain lateral weight shift lies at the heart of all lateral movements. The connection between our pelvis and the horse’s pelvis can work for us or against us. If we are not aware of our own alignment or of the connection between our pelvic position and the horse’s alignment, it can be a source of endless problems.

Even when we think we are aligned, there is the ever ongoing problem of our brains not telling us the truth. We swear that we are sitting up straight, when in fact we are collapsed in one direction or the other. Our bodies always want to return to their comfort zone and the comfort zone may well not be right. One of the best ways to deal with this is by becoming more aware of your body. Have your posture checked out with a PI session, attend Rider Exercise, Pilates, Yoga or Swiss Ball classes to create greater body awareness and generally start to watch your posture when you are off the horse. Making the effort to become more body aware will pay off and eventually it will become second nature to sit in alignment.

The Weight

Weight aids are more natural than leg aids because they follow the law of physics. Horses tend to understand weight aids intuitively whilst leg aids have to be taught to them. So when there is a conflict between the more intuitive aid and the less intuitive aid, the horse will tend to tune in to the intuitive aid and ignore the less intuitive one. This is why if you aren’t sitting in balance you might find your horse drifting to the left when you wish to ride down the centre line.

Obviously the advantage of this is that you can use your weight to direct where you want your horse to go by moving your weight in the direction of the movement that you want your horse to take.

Taking your inside hip forward and down on a circle shifts your weight to the inside and helps dictate to your horse the size of circle you require. Rotating your pelvis and shifting your weight to your outside seat bone will ask your horse to enlarge the circle, particularly if the weight aid is accompanied by your inside leg asking the horse’s inside leg to move in and across when his inside hind leg is in the air.

Another way of applying weight aids effectively is stirrup stepping.  The stirrup pressure addresses the horse’s leg that is on the ground on the same side as the stirrup. The required pressure is very light, no more than a few ounces – think of feathering a brake pedal or squelching soft mud in your toes.

You can use stirrup stepping to rebalance your horse or assist the horse in engaging and flexing a specific hind leg. You can use stirrup stepping to half halt  or to stop. It just depends on the duration and intensity of the stirrup pressure. Stirrup stepping can be used by itself, without the support of reins or used in conjunction with the rein on the same side, or with the diagonal rein.

The Leg

All too frequently when we talk of leg aids we think of just our lower leg or heel. Leg aids aren’t just about our calf, they can also come from our thigh and from our knee.

It is the calf’s job to bring the horse’s hind legs closer to the center of gravity, and to ensure that they stay there. You could say that the calf brings the hind leg into the sphere of influence of the rider’s seat. To do this the inside calf nudges the horse’s side as the inside hind leg of the horse is in the air. The calf can only do its job correctly if the neutral leg position allows the calf to lightly touch the horse’s side. If you hold your lower leg away from your horse’s side then the aid will always come too late to be effective.  The emphasis is of course on the lightly touching the horse’s side, all too many riders ride either with their calves completely off the horse, or with a death grip.

In addition to driving forward the calf can be used to drive the hind leg of the same side sideways in the lateral movements. Again the aid should be timed to when the leg of the horse is in the air.

The calf is also responsible for framing the hind leg on the same side. It forms a guard rail to prevent the horse’s leg on that side from falling out. If the leg deviates to the side the calf should be become active and drive it forward and under the point of mass.

A slight pressure from our inside thigh, applied during the natural swing of the horse’s ribcage will help improve the lateral bend of the horse. Our thighs can also be used to support the calf and seat aids in lateral movements.

The main job of the knees is to frame and guide our horse’s shoulders. The knees should lie passively in contact with our horse unless they are needed but become active if our horse falls out or if we want to start a bend or lateral movement. A simple nudge from our outside knee when the horse’s outside front leg is in the air is remarkably effective.

The knees can also be used as driving aid. A brief forward-inward nudge with both knees when the inside hind leg is on the ground can be an effective way to lengthen the stride.

The Reins

The reins should provide a conduit between the rider and the horse. They are not only an effective communication tool between the rider and the horse they also serve as a communication tool between the horse and the rider, in other words they should provide a 2-way communication and complete the circle of aids.

Whilst a number of people ride with their reins too short, even more of my students are frightened of taking up contact and ride with their reins too long. Ideally you shouldn’t really be able to feel the difference between where your body ends and your horse’s mouth starts. There should be no weight in your hand or shoulders just the ‘live’ feel of your horse’s hind legs, as the rein pulses in your hand with every step of the hind leg on that side.

One can only feel these impulses if the reins are the correct length, not too short and not too long and if your hands are connected to your midsection via the elbows (your elbows frame and support your core). If your elbows are too far away from your hips, your hands will become disconnected, and not only will you not feel  the horse’s feet but any rein aid you give is limited to the horse’s mouth instead of reaching his hind legs. If you bend your wrists or brace in any part of your body the energy flow won’t be able to go through either and you will lose the feeling of your horse. Equally if your horse is braced or has a stiffness you won’t be able to feel the pulse, as brace or stiffness in either the horse or rider restricts the energy flow.

Once you have the feeling it doesn’t mean that it will stay. One can lose it from one minute to the next but when you lose it you will know to check out if you have stiffened or if your horse has developed a brace.

With the help of the reins the head and neck of the horse can be flexed laterally, but a flexion to the inside is far more effective if timed to when the inside foreleg is on the ground. The outside rein can be used to support the outside shoulder, but again it is far more effective if the outside rein is used to nudge the outside of the neck when the outside foreleg is in the air. You can use your reins by just slightly closing your fingers to support a stirrup step, to ask for a half halt or a downward transition.

Each aid can be defined in terms of its duration, amount of pressure, and timing within the footfall sequence. No aid should be applied constantly, remember the aid can only be effective for the time the leg is either in the air or on the ground. However, there is much more to it than that. An aid can be light as a feather or it can be strong, it can be applied for a nanosecond or for longer.  Every horse is different and needs the right aid for him at that moment. No teacher can tell a student precisely how much pressure to apply at any given moment with a calf, a rein, a knee, or a seat bone, because the teacher is not sitting on the horse at that moment. Even if the teacher could tell the student all the specific details, it would take so much time for the teacher to impart the information and for the student to hear it, interpret it, and then apply it, that the right moment would be long gone and the aid would come too late. The only way to really master the aids is to practice and experiment with them and listen to what your horse tells you.