Despite their size and power, horses can be fragile animals…
The natural riding aids are the seat, legs, hands and voice. Rather than using aids like an on-off switch, with minimal sensitivity and adjustment, it is preferable to think of using them like a dial, with varying amounts of pressure. The extent to which each aid is used is dynamic and dependant on the individual horse and the situation. Consider this a bit like driving a car, where the accelerator is used to a varying degree depending on numerous factors such as the engine type, road conditions, the weather, volume of traffic, speed required, etc. The driver is continually considering these factors and feeling what the car is doing, so the accelerator is not just used on or off but rather with varying degrees of pressure from the foot dependant on the circumstances and the required result.
So when riding, consider using each aid in a manner appropriate to the situation and be prepared to vary its use as the situation changes (or not!). The aids are inter-linked and so you will often have to use more than one aid at any one time but not necessarily to the same extent.
It is important to use aids subtly at first, i.e. just turn the dial slightly. Again, using the car as an example, it is rare that you need to put your foot flat to the floor on the accelerator. When riding, turning the dial up to the maximum levels on a regular basis is not only inappropriate but it also causes the horse to become numb to the aid. In order to get a response the rider then has to turn the dial even more but eventually there is only so far the dial can be turned before the rider cannot go any further. In practical terms this can be explained by using the leg aids as an example. If the rider always kicks the horse to ask it to move forward, what happens if the horse does not respond? If the rider has to continually kick to keep a horse moving, what happens when you want to go faster? If the rider always kicks to ask a horse to move or go faster, what happens in an emergency situation? By asking subtly first, you can always increase the aid if and when required and the horse will also more readily respond to a stronger aid.
Why shout when a whisper will do?!
It is important to consider the communication from the horse when selecting the aid to use and the extent to which you will use it.
- Firstly, the horse must be physically and mentally capable of doing what you are asking it to do. If it isn’t, and the rider hasn’t listened, then it is a common mistake to then inappropriately increase the aid.
- Then consider the response that you get from an aid. Has the horse responded correctly? Responded incorrectly? Not responded at all? Then ask yourself WHY have you got this response? It is common for the rider to think the horse hasn’t listened or has chosen to ignore or disobey the rider. Instead, the first thought should be has the rider asked correctly and clearly so the horse understands? Have any mixed signals been given by the rider? Have the aids been given at an appropriate time? Sometimes this can be hard to ascertain, particularly without help.
- If a rider is repeatedly feeling that the horse is not doing what it is being asked to do then step back and consider why this may be. For example, if a rider is kicking repeatedly to ask a horse to move, yet the horse still won’t increase its pace, is this because the horse is ignoring the rider? The answer may be yes, but not because it is a conscious thought from the horse but because the horse has become numb to being kicked, so the horse switches off from that aid. Or it may be because the rider continues kicking even when the horse has increased its pace (however slight), so the horse is confused as to what the kick actually means. So the horse doesn’t respond in the way that the rider intends because it doesn’t know what the aid actually means.
Once the dial has been turned up high on a regular basis, it is hard to turn it back down again. Sometimes the dial cannot ever be turned down again. For example, if a rider always pulls the reins to stop, then gradually the rider will have to pull harder and harder to get the same response. From there the horse may need a different bit and/or a different noseband to get a response. This is not because the horse is consciously choosing to ignore the rider but because its mouth has become hardened to the pressure so the rider has to find ways of increasing the pressure. This damage can be irreparable. Teaching the rider not to pull and the horse to slow down from a more subtle aid takes much longer than just pulling the reins, so it is easy to see why pulling becomes normality. However, a quick result from a strong aid should be saved for emergencies and not to replace hours of practice!
To summarise, riding should be about building a harmonious partnership between horse and rider. This takes time, patience and practice, just like learning any other skill properly; but it could be argued riding is harder because there are two brains and bodies, not one! By having the ability to communicate with the horse in numerous ways, rather than in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, the rider will be more skilled at getting the best from a horse and have a safer, more enjoyable ride. The horse’s welfare will also be improved. If a rider just says what they want to do and does not allow or listen to feedback from what they are sitting on, then they should stick to riding a bike!
BSc (Hons), MSc (Equine Science)