The Aids - A System of Communicating With Your Horse
By Paul Kathen
The aids are probably the most written about subject in the dressage world. They have been categorized in different ways or given names according to their effect, and at times have been made to appear more complicated than they are. It is my goal to take a more simplified look into the theory about the way we talk to our horses.
In order for me to succeed at this, you must work hard at reading this article. Again and again I will challenge you to stop reading and think how you would communicate a command to your horse, then compare it to how I describe I would have dealt with it. Please keep in mind that there is more than one correct answer, and your perception of the situation will probably vary from mine. The perception of a situation is based upon one's previous experiences and therefore will vary slightly from rider to rider. What must not differ, however, is the language, or else pretty soon nobody could ride a horse unless they had trained it themselves. Another variable is the horse’s response because it also depends on the horse's perception of your aids, and this perception, like yours, is based on the horse's prior experiences. This, however, does not mean that we can be miles apart and still claim that we are both correct. To further simplify our task let us assume that your horse has been trained correctly, understands the aids and is a willing partner. There is little I like less than having to be so "wishy washy," but our sport just is not an exact science.
I also promised myself that I would not mention the absolute necessity for an independent seat more than three times in this article. Here we are still in the first quarter and I commit my first foul. Please just imagine the following. You are watching TV. The screen is full of lines and other static so that you can hardly see the picture. At first you concentrate real hard to see and understand, then you find yourself becoming more and more frustrated until you finally give up and turn to another channel. This is exactly how your horse feels if you ride with an unsteady seat and or very busy hands. There are, however, two major differences. First, the horse does not have the option of changing channels. It can only tune you out. Second, an unsteady seat is not only an irritation; it also causes a major balance problem for the horse. Balance, however, is the most important ingredient for your horse to be able to obey and execute your command correctly, especially if you want him to look brilliant doing it.
So before we delve any further into the aids, I would like to bring up the at times bouncy subject of the independent seat. The reason I added this little reminder of such a seat at this particular point is that while you are studying hard to understand the aids and their correct application, you might take the time to improve your seat to the point that you present to your horse a crystal clear picture the next time you talk to it from the saddle. The independent seat is the medium through which you transmit the message to your horse, and it is therefore just as important as the knowledge of the aids themselves.
I would like to draw for you the loop along which the information has to travel for communication to be successful. For this purpose let us continue with our example of the TV. We have the message (the aids), the transmitter (your independent seat), and the receiver (your horse). The receiver has been tuned to accept certain signals and turn them into information it can understand and respond to (the training of your horse). To close the loop you are the only missing item. Three small steps for you, one giant step towards harmony with your horse. Step one is your understanding of the aids, step two is your ability to coordinate your aids so you can move from shouting commands to maintaining a dialog with your horse, and step three is your skill to correctly analyze the signals coming back to you from your horse.
Let me describe such a dialog in its chronological order. It starts with your mind (conscious or subconscious) needing to give your horse a message. This is translated into the language the horse understands (the aids). Your body then applies the aids and the horse receives them. Since he is a willing partner, he turns your command into action. This response then is received by you through your sense of feel.
Once more I need to point out that only if you have developed the independent seat will you be able to feel your horse’s response correctly. Please do not become annoyed with me about these reminders. I only have one foul left. Besides, if your seat is already great you can just ignore these hints, and if it is not, you need to go to work. So as soon as you receive the information from your horse, you analyze it and determine whether your horse responded as you intended it to. If the response was as you wished, there is now harmony between the two of you, and this part of your dialog is complete. If, however, your horse has not reacted as expected, the cycle starts all over again. Your mind (consciously or subconsciously) formulates a correction to the horse’s mistake and sends it to the horse in the form of aids, etc. The same would hold true if the answer from your horse was the right one but was either too strong or too weak. Needless to say that while the process of the dialog follows in this order, it does happen almost simultaneously. The more experienced the rider, the faster this transaction becomes. This also explains why an experienced rider can sense a horse's incorrect response, correct it before it happens, and thus prevent a mistake.
This is the theory behind the system that we employ to communicate with our horses. Now we must translate it into action in the saddle. As you sit on your horse, your seat and the inside of your legs touch the horse. You also make contact with your horse's mouth through the reins. That gives us the six points with which we apply pressure: your two seat bones, the insides of your calves, and the reins. Since we are to always work from the back to the front in combining and applying the aids, let us begin with the seat bones to explain what they tell the horse when we use them to communicate.
Passively weighing both seat bones down means, slow down. Actively bracing your back so that both seat bones push down and forward means, move forward. Actively bracing and weighing one seat bone means, activate your hind leg on that side. Weighing down on one side means bend or turn that way.
Next let us consider the leg aids. Unlike the seat, the legs can operate in two different positions on the horse and mean different things to the horse. One of the positions is called, “at the girth.” The other one is called, “behind the girth.” We consider your leg to be at the girth when you sit upright on your horse with your heel in line with your shoulder and seat. When you move your lower leg about four inches back, your leg is behind the girth.
Applying pressure at the girth means, move that hind leg forward. Applying pressure behind the girth means, move away from that leg sideways. The leg behind the girth without pressure means, keep your hindquarters on the line they are traveling now. Applying pressure with both legs simultaneously means, move forward. Applying pressure alternately in the rhythm of the horse’s movement also means, move forward (to make this work for you, your feeling must be developed enough to know when each hind leg leaves the ground, because that is precisely the moment to apply pressure with the corresponding leg). Until that time I suggest you use both legs simultaneously.
The last set of aids left are the reins. They are attached to the most sensitive part of the horse, its mouth. They also differ from the seat and leg aids in that their role is mostly controlling and much less activating or initiating. Because of this, the rein aids about always have to work in conjunction with the leg and seat to function. Here are their effects:
Pressure on one side means bend or turn that way.
Pressure on both reins means slow down or stop.
Relaxing on the reins means move forward.
Giving the reins means stretch.
Moving the inside rein away from the neck means bend or turn in that direction.
It is important that I remind you again that we are riding a willing partner and not training a horse. Sometimes when you watch a good trainer at work, it looks like she does not quite follow the outline I describe here. Like in your daily communications with your fellow man when you are explaining a new concept, often you have to approach it from many angles in order to be understood. That is precisely what this trainer is doing.
So far in our imagined riding we have pulled on the reins to stop the horse, we squeezed with both legs to make him go, and pulled on one rein to turn him. This kind of communicating with our mount I call shouting commands. It is crude, it is abrupt, it is unpleasant to the horse, and does not allow for anything but the simplest maneuvers in your ride. In order to turn his performance into poetry in motion, obedience to the point of constant harmony in spite of highly demanding transitions and exercises, and such expressiveness in the movements that some would elevate it to a form of art, you need to talk to your horse all the time. We need the horse’s attention all the time. We need our horse's willingness to obey without fail. We need to concentrate to not make any mistakes ourselves, and we also need to be ready to help our partner the moment we feel him misunderstand or misjudge our intentions. We further must realize that he is a horse, and as such is subject to the natural tendency to want to move the way God designed him to, on the forehand.
As the first example of speaking in sentences instead of shouting commands, I would like to use the "half-halt". It is the most often used tool to communicate with our horse. Here is how the half-halt is most commonly described: "A momentary enclosing of the horse with all the aids, followed by a release".
The reason I like this definition so much is that it is so precise and descriptive, and it emphasizes the most important aspect, the release, by adding the word momentary.
What should your horse’s response to such a half-halt be? Your horse should answer in one, two, three, or all of four ways. First, if he had lost his focus, he should become attentive to you. Second, he should engage more. Third, in case you are in the trot, he should slow down in the trot, or if that is what you wanted, come down to the walk. Finally, he should stay tuned to you, ready to execute a new demand. I promise I wanted to make this easier to understand, but the more I get into it, the more I realize how many different situations we encounter when riding that it is impossible to deal with all of them in theory. The experts say, after all, that you learn riding only by riding, but they also say that theory makes practice meaningful. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can, then hop into the saddle and practice sitting, feeling, and thinking on your seat. (I did not hear a whistle, so it must not have been a foul.)
Please read this paragraph to its end and then think about the problem I will present to you. I would like for you to visualize yourself riding a horse in the described situation, making a decision how to deal with it, and then turning that decision into action. Next you will need to “feelalize” the horse’s response and evaluate it for correctness. Please do not run to Webster’s for help. You will not find the term “feelalize” in it since I just made it up. What I mean by it is “the imagined feeling“, like “the imagined seeing” in “visualizing”. I am sorely tempted here to commit my third foul, but it is too early in the game. Here is the promised situation that I would like for you to examine and deal with. You are in a working trot, on the left hand, moving from H to F where you are supposed to bring him down to a walk. Just past E you feel your horse loosing power and putting more weight into your hand. What would you do? Just stop reading. – Think. Act. Feel. Then formulate your solution to this problem, and return to the article.
Here is what I would do, and why. The loss of impulsion and the shift of the horse’s weight towards the forehand are the immediate problems that need to be dealt with right away. A half-halt is the answer since it will engage the hindquarters and ask the horse to lighten the front. So I will brace my back, squeeze with both calves, and firm my hands. As I release (softening, not giving) the reins, I expect my horse to be active in the hind and soft in the hand. If there is no or not sufficient improvement in those areas, I repeat the half-halt but stronger. If necessary, I must repeat stronger and stronger until I get the desired result. The guiding principle here is that you should do as little as possible but as much as necessary.
We wanted to keep it simple and had agreed to expect a willing partner, however, at times even such a horse loses focus and temporarily ignores its rider. That is the very reason we must be listening to our horse at all times and ride half-halts to keep him focused on us. The aids should have accomplished the refocusing, the improved engagement and renewed lightness of the horse.
The second part of the task was to bring the horse to a walk at K. If our previous efforts have taken us close to K, we must now apply another half-halt to transition to the walk. In this case the balancing half-halts already prepared the horse for the transition and do not need to be repeated. Let us assume your horse worked correctly and your part of the dialog was to tell him that he is doing well by maintaining harmony with him, you must ride two half-halts, one just before K and one right at K. The one before K is to make sure he is focused on you and to give him the little extra engagement needed to execute a smooth and balanced transition at K.
Two half-halts for different reasons must mean a different application of the aids? Exactly right! The attention getter was a light push from seat and leg into a steadying hand. The aids to the walk are a more active seat into a firming hand. Exactly how much depends on how well you applied the aids and how well you gauged the sensitivity of your horse. Needless to say that this ability to analyze your horse’s attention depends on how well you sit. There is the whistle, not a foul, please! Good, it is halftime!
Last weekend I watched a skateboard competition. Those athletes were fantastic in their body control. They would run up and down ramps, perform somersaults, twists and turns, and any combination thereof and always land on their feet with their skateboards rolling up another ramp for yet another aerial maneuver. I thought if only all my riders had just a fraction of such body control while in motion. Then we read that as a nation we are growing more and more obese. Technology has made it unnecessary for us to develop our physical skills in order to do our daily work. Children develop great “thumb-eye coordination” in their video games but would fall down if they tried to skip a rope. Machines have taken over the physical part of our work, and that is helpful. Now they are also taking over the physical part of our play, and that is not to our advantage.
Most riders find themselves somewhere in between these two groups. The closer you are to the skateboarder, the better for you and your riding. The more you can control your body, the easier it is for you to maintain your balance on the horse while in motion staying relaxed and sitting deep. Such a seat is an absolute necessity to be able to feel your horse’s movement. This movement is the way in which your horse talks to you and you must listen if you are going to have a dialog with your horse. It is not necessary that you are speedier than a locomotive, nor must you be able to leap over tall buildings, but you must achieve control over your body and stay in balance even when your base of support is moving.
There is good news. Because as a child you did not run and play much to improve your coordination, you did not make the cheerleading team nor any other team that does not mean that your train has left the station never to be caught. It does mean, however, that you have some catching up to do, and it also says that you had better get with it since every day delaying will make it that much harder to move closer to your more athletic friends.
One of the great advantages of our capitalist system is that where there is a need there will soon be someone to fill that need. So, fitness spas popped up everywhere, with rooms filled with machines that will work every part of your body and all you have to do is just push, pull, bend or stretch this handle or that lever and you will stretch or strengthen this muscle or that. You are working hard. So is your neighbor along with the fifty other persons next to you. Everybody is sweating, and the air conditioning is working overtime to maintain a tolerable climate in that room. While strengthening and stretching your muscles is very important, it does not teach you how to control your body and it only helps your balance or your coordination indirectly. May I suggest tennis, swimming, bicycling, gymnastics, skateboarding, etc. etc? Many team sports will also confront you with situations that require quick thinking and good reflexes as well as a touch for a measured reaction and, therefore in my opinion, a more effective means of cross training. I personally much prefer the outdoors over the sweat rooms for my physical activities. My advice is to participate in as many activities as you can as long as they do not take too much time away from your horse.
You say this is clearly a violation of the “don’t talk about the independent seat” rule, and you are right. I would have received my third foul and be out of the game but since we are still at half-time, I am safe. It is so much fun to play a game in which you make up the rules as you go.
By the way, how did you deal with the problem I presented to you in the first half? I hope we were close in the way we decided to correct it. I am sure that you had the half-halt as a part of your solution, so let me at this point remind you of the three main uses of the half-halt. We ride a half-halt, first to improve the horse’s way of going, second to refocus the horse’s attention onto the rider, and third to slow the horse down within the gait or to a lower gait. The aid to stop the horse is called a full halt. The classical definition of the half-halt as “momentarily enclosing of the horse with all the aids, followed by a release,“ is as correct today as it was then. However, today we call any action that improves the horse in its balance and its attention a half-halt. Here I want also to review a few principles that were mentioned earlier just to make sure we are still on the same page.
First, in applying the aids we want to do as little as possible but must do as much as necessary. Second, we must be absolutely consistent in the use of the aids. Allow me to back up here to make sure this is not misunderstood. What this means is that every time you are confronted with the same situation you must respond in the same way. We will also take a little detour into how a horse learns to prove the importance of consistency in the rider’s behavior. Imagine you are trying to teach your horse to walk from a halt on the lunge line. First you ask as if the horse already knew the cue. You just say “walk.” Should he walk, you praise him. Most likely he will just stand there so you repeat the demand but louder. If there is no response, you make your voice threatening, and then you raise the whip all the while repeating the demand, “walk”. If he still does not walk, you touch him with the whip and he will move off. If he just walks, you reward him with a soothing voice and by no longer making the demand to walk (harmony). Should he have trotted or cantered off, you go back to asking for the walk with your voice, now soothing, and light tugs on the line. As soon as he walks there must be a great deal of reward, maybe even the end of work for that day. The process is that we give a demand, there is a response and, if the response is correct, it is instantly followed by a reward. The reward must be instant to make sure your horse makes the connection between his response and the reward. Then you repeat this process until your horse, without fail, walks off every time he hears the word walk. So, here are the pillars of training an animal. You give a cue, you expect a response, if it is the correct one, you reward and then you repeat the process to reinforce the correct behavior. The key to success is the consistency with which the cue (aid) is applied and the correct response is rewarded. The third principle is that as we begin to combine the aids we will apply them in the order from the back to the front. In other words the legs and seat act slightly ahead of the reins.
We will now start the second half. Back to the aids and the half-halts. Quite often you will hear the command, “half-halt,” from an instructor followed by the explanation, “inside leg-outside rein”. Observing the horse you will most likely see that the horse is either on a circle, in or approaching a corner, in a lateral movement, or preparing to canter. In other words the horse is either bending or being asked to bend. The reason why in a bent horse we apply the aids not only from the back to the front but also primarily from the inside to the outside is that we want to energize the inside hind leg and use the outside rein for control. It is beginning to sound complicated. You wonder: Back to the front, inside back to the outside front. How do I know when and what to say to the horse? I did promise to simplify it for you. In order to do that we will assign primary tasks to our rein aids. These assignments are not just random but are the logical result of the effect of an aid or a combination of them. With very few exceptions as you ride, your horse will be positioned or bent or both and your horse should be moving along the outside rein. When you travel on a circle, ideally your horse’s spine should be bent evenly from poll to tail and to the same degree as the line he follows. Now look at your horse and it becomes obvious that it can bend much easier in the neck than in any other part of its body. In order to assure an even bend throughout the horse, the outside rein must limit the bend of the neck. On the other hand, if we need to increase the bend through the horse, the outside rein must allow for the longer stretch of the outside and adjust the rein accordingly. The next task of the outside rein is to determine the carriage of the horse. This time there are two good reasons for it. The first is that on a bent horse the inside hind leg is the one working the hardest and must, therefore, not be interfered with in it’s effort to move forward under the horse’s body. You already know that when firming on a rein, you reduce the corresponding hind leg’s forward movement. For that reason you do not want to use the inside rein. What you do want, however, is for the horse to change its movement into a more upward direction and so you change the forward energy and direct it more upward with a firming on the outside rein in conjunction with the driving aids. Since our willing partner is stretching into the outside rein and positioned to the inside the energy coming from the pushing inside hind leg arrives at the outside rein anyway. The logic for the third use of the outside rein, tempo control, is very similar. Again we do not want to interfere with the inside hind leg and do want to slow the energy so we use the outside rein and apply less driving aids to reduce the tempo.
The tasks of the inside rein are to help the seat and leg to create the bend and position of the horse as well as to help turn it.
By now it is clear that we rarely use an aid alone. It is usually many or sometimes all of the aids that create the message we send to the horse. Ideally the rider tells the horse to pay attention to her (half-halt) before she applies the actual demand. This is a very important aspect of good communication since effective preparation allows the horse to execute the demand well. As I am sitting here trying to find a way to best explain how this combining of aids works, I am reminded of “Legos,” the toy building blocks. These blocks can be put together in many ways and thus produce many different objects. You can shape a house, a bridge, a train, or any other type of whatever you can imagine. The aids are such building blocks that you use to form sentences. You have eight pressure points: two legs at two positions each, two seat bones, and two reins. Since you can use your calves only at one spot at a time, there are at any time six points available to you to combine as needed to produce the exact message you want to send to the horse. The advantage of the aids over Legos is that once a message has been sent the blocks (aids) are all still there to be reused without first having to dismantle a prior work. I believe you can imagine the incredible number of messages you can send to your horse just by changing the combinations of the aids. Add to that the many ways in which you can vary the messages by moving the emphasis from one aid to another. This just about infinite number of combinations not only allows us to produce many messages, but even more importantly it enables us to be very precise in our messages to the horse.
This is another good time to stop and think and ride.
The task is to bring your horse to a halt at X. That is easy on your willing partner, but I would like for you to imagine that he just has a bad day and would better be described as a willing antagonist. Keeping in mind that you are to do as little as possible, how would you stop such a horse? Please take your time to visualize yourself on the centerline sitting on a horse, having to halt at X, and you realize that your horse has tuned you out. What would you do to halt this horse and hopefully still receive a good score?
Close your eyes, feelalize, analyze what you feel, form a correction, send it, continue to feelalize, to analyze, correct your message, send it, feelalize, etc., etc., halt! Open your eyes.
My experience with horses tells me that every answer to a question should start with, “That depends,” because rarely are two situations exactly the same and therefore the corrections should not be alike. In the earlier stated situation of a not so willing horse on the centerline having to come to a halt at X, I would quickly assess the degree of disobedience, and if it is slight, I then would attempt to correct it with light half-halts. If there is strong tension, but rhythm and balance are in order, my half-halts would be stronger and, if necessary, more frequent in order to still manage a respectable full halt at or near X. If there is a real belligerence in my horse, the first priority is to come to a halt at X; to accomplish that goal gracefully is desired, but in this case secondary. I will still try to change his mind with strong half-halts, but in case he ignores them, there will follow a very sharp full halt to insure that he halts, preferably at X. Remember back to one of the principles which states that you must do what is necessary to achieve obedience from your horse.
This now causes the unpleasant subject of punishment to rear its ugly head. It has a place in a dialog with our horse since horses at times will refuse to cooperate and must be made to understand that you, the rider, are the chief in your partnership. Like in human affairs the punishment must fit the crime, and it must be educational to the horse at the same time. In order to fit both criteria, the punishment must be defined as, “a correction strong enough to cause pain“. It must be immediate in order to allow the horse to connect it to its misdeed. It must be administered without anger, and it must be short to give the horse a chance to prove to you that he has seen the error of his ways. The next time you observe a rider beating up on her horse please realize this serves no purpose. It may make her feel better because she has satisfied her need for revenge. She may also fool herself into believing that those people watching now know for sure that it was all the horse’s fault, but she has not improved her horse. We only punish to correct.
There is one more aspect of the aids we must address, and that is timing. If you can apply an aid at the optimum time, it allows it to be much lighter and it will enable the horse to be faster and smoother in its response. Timing is, however, feeling, and feeling is impossible without a relaxed and secure seat. We use the driving aids to either increase the energy for more forwardness or more collection. For the sake of this explanation let us assume that the horse is moving at its best rhythm for this gait, so in order to increase the forwardness the horse must lengthen its stride. The best time to accomplish this is that moment when the hind leg is off the ground and swinging forward. If, on the other hand, we want to improve our horse’s collection, we want him to sit just a fraction of time longer on the weight bearing leg so the joints will bend a bit more and as a result push off a little harder and in a more upward direction, thus shortening and elevating the stride. The most effective aid would be a short firming of the reins at the moment the inside hind leg is on the ground. As another for instance, consider the haunches in. In order to ask the outside hind leg to cross over and in front of the inside hind leg, it is much easier to explain to the horse while the outside hind leg is beginning to swing forward. Just so that you do not go and sell your horse now because you cannot feel the moment your horse’s leg is on the ground let me tell you that your willing partner will respond correctly to your aids in spite of your timing being off. This generosity is in my opinion one of the great attributes of our partners in this sport. They are so forgiving and trying to make up for our mistakes because they desire harmony with their riders. Please take every opportunity to give them harmony so that will not become frustrated and unwilling to work.
Dear reader, you may have noticed by now how hard it is for me not to slip into talking about the seat, and I must confess that it is just as hard not to start teaching how to train the aids to the horse. Our agreement was that your imaginary horse that you ride along with me was already well trained and a willing partner. Unfortunately I must at this point deliver the bad news to you. While you are riding this willing partner, you are also training him. It is true that the horse cannot differentiate between a trainer training him or a trainee learning to ride on him. The reason I am bringing it up now is that we are getting into the more practical application of the aids. You will spend a great deal of your time in the saddle talking to your horse, and I would like for him to stay well trained.
All this theory is necessary to know in order to not just ride by the seat of your breeches, but it has little practical value unless you climb into the saddle and apply it. I think it would be of great help to you to ride your horse, or somebody else’s horse if yours is not far enough along, and concentrate on developing a feeling for correctness of the horse’s movement. Talk to your best friend among the riders and trade “eyes on the ground” time to ensure that what you feel is also what is actually happening. Lessons with a knowledgeable instructor are the best solution, since she will probably be a little firmer with you and she can be helpful should other problems occur. The reason I bring this up, is that I think it is a great idea to help your riding along by “feelalizing. “ Our days are so hectic and often we do not make it out to the barn for days, yet we can improve our riding by cross training and training through visualizing or as I like to call it for riding, “feelalizing.“
The problem with this type of training is that you cannot learn something new but only improve what you already know. In other words, if you are a training level rider, you will through feelalizing become better at training level, but you will not become a third level rider. Such a mental exercise is called dreaming. The system of training by imagining riding the exercise instead of actually doing it, works very well if you can already perform all aspects of the exercise. It also requires hard work and concentration. Needless to say it will not improve your stamina or strength. In the saddle it will allow you to pay more attention to problems other than the actual riding since your feelalizing has prepared your subconscious mind to deal with most of that. Also, your reaction to your horse will become much quicker and more accurate.
This is just a very short article about how to effectively communicate with your horse while you are riding it, and I would like for you to one more time sit back and try to summarize what you have read. In case that leaves you with a question, this is the time to read it again and then you may find the answer. If not, ask somebody knowledgeable to help you satisfy your question. It may even prompt you to research this topic in depth, and that alone would make writing this article a success.
This is what I learned or confirmed in my mind about the aids while riding my imaginary horse as I wrote this article. There is a proven and accepted way to communicate with our horses and in order to work well together both horse and rider must understand the system. In the process of learning the theory and the application of this language, horse and rider move from coarse to fine, and there is no limit as to how refined it can become other than the end of the partnership. Precision and timing of the aids must be practiced at all times or they will deteriorate rapidly. The control over one’s own body is necessary in order to sit deep and quietly enough to be able to listen to the horse closely and prevent mistakes. If my riding time is limited I can through feelalizing and cross training practice at home and thus improve on what I already know and not lose ground. It also confirmed in me the notion that riding involves the mind just as much as it does the body. Furthermore, I found out that I could improve my riding if I were as disciplined in the saddle as I was writing the second half of this article. Not a single foul! Thank you for reading.