The Rider's Aids

After reading about the various gaits, you may be wondering how the rider gets the horse to do these things on command. The silent body signals used to communicate with the horse while riding are called the aids. Western and English riders use basically the same aids with some slight variation from one discipline to another. A good instructor will teach you how to use your natural aids — your hands, legs, seat, weight, and voice — and, when necessary, reinforce them with the artificial aids — whip and spurs — to achieve the desired response.

The Hands

Of all the aids, the hands can be the most abusive. Unschooled riders typically hang onto the reins for balance, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. This bad habit is damaging to the horse's mouth and will eventually create a problem horse that seeks to escape her rider's abusive treatment by rearing, bucking, bolting, or any other means possible. Contact is the term used for the connection between the horse's mouth and the rider's hands. The connection should feel soft and elastic, but the reins should be neither slack nor taut.

The rider regulates the contact and talks to the horse through his hands by gently squeezing and releasing the fingers, or by slightly turning the wrist to signal a change in direction. It takes good coaching and a lot of practice to develop good hands and to ride without yanking the horse's mouth.

The Seat

The rider does not use her hands on the reins alone to steer and stop the horse. She uses all of the natural aids together to influence the horse. The seat is the way the rider sits in the saddle and uses her weight, balance, lower back, and abdominal muscles to drive the horse forward. Developing a good seat is paramount to the rider's balance and stability in the saddle.

To help you develop a good seat, your riding instructor may give you some lessons on the lunge line, without reins and stirrups. This teaches you to maintain balance on a moving horse at each gait and develop what's called an independent seat. You learn not balancing off the reins or stirrups to stay in the saddle. You can never be a truly effective rider without developing an independent seat.

The Rider's Weight

After the rider develops a good seat, he can simply shift his weight more to one seat bone (buttock) or the other to communicate with the horse. This doesn't mean that the rider leans to one side or the other. Instead, he presses down through the leg and heel on the required side. This shifts slightly more weight to the seat bone on that side, which the horse feels and responds to by stepping in that direction.

When the weight rests equally on both seat bones, the horse knows to go straight. It sounds simple, but a lot of horses move crookedly because their riders don't realize that they are weighting one side more than the other and not balancing all their aids correctly.

The Leg Aids

Beginners try to stay on the horse by gripping with their legs, but again, this is the wrong thing to do and can become a bad habit to break. The legs should stay lightly in contact with the horse's sides. The thighs need to be open and relaxed at the hips but with no daylight showing between the knees and the saddle. Depending on the aid required, the rider may use her whole leg or the lower and upper parts of the leg independently. The leg aids may also be applied at the girth or behind the girth with varying amounts of pressure, depending on the horse and on the desired result.

When the rider presses her right leg against the horse's right side, the horse's natural response is to step away from the pressure to the left, and vice versa. When the rider presses both legs evenly against the horse's sides, the horse moves away from the pressure by stepping forward. The harder you squeeze with the legs, the faster the horse goes. This is why gripping with the legs is counterproductive for the frightened beginner — it urges the horse on.

The hands control the front end of the horse, while the legs steer the rear and keep the horse going. An educated rider applies the leg and seat aids first to engage or drive the hind end toward the front, then uses her hands to steer the front end and regulate the pace.

The Voice

Horses can tell by the tone and intensity of your voice whether you are pleased or angry with them. If you yell or growl at them when they do something you don't like, they will get the point. Likewise, if you croon softly to them when they do what you want, they will understand that you are pleased. Horses can also grasp the meaning of certain key words when used repeatedly and consistently, and the ideal time to teach the verbal commands you want them to know is during groundwork. They will come in handy later on when you are training under saddle.

For example, on the lunge line when you encourage your horse to move out from the walk with the whip and go faster, say “Trot” aloud every time. When you encourage him to move out from the trot and go faster, say “Canter.” Be consistent and ask for the desired forward response the same way every time. In time, all you will need to do is say the appropriate word, and the horse will respond.

When you begin training under saddle, the horse will not understand the silent cues for the various gaits right away. But if she understands the word “trot,” you can combine the verbal command with your silent aids and make the horse understand what you want. If you do this consistently, she will pick up the silent cues quickly, and then you can drop the verbal cues.

Voice commands are appropriate and useful schooling aids; however, you should not have to rely on them in a judged performance. The rules in dressage tests and some other types of horse show classes forbid you to cluck or speak to your horse. You are testing your horse's training and your ability to communicate and move in harmony on an unspoken level.

The Artificial Aids

Artificial aids support the natural aids but should not replace them.

Whips

Dressage whips and crops (a shorter type of whip, usually with a flat piece of leather on the end) are intended to be used as a training aid or incentive for getting or keeping a horse moving, not for punishment purposes. Riding with a whip helps the rider reinforce his leg aids if the horse tends to be sluggish or doesn't yet understand the forward driving commands. The rider generally carries the whip in his inside hand, changing it as he changes direction. He administers the reinforcement as a light tap or a flick on the hindquarters, but not with stinging force.

If the rider's legs are ineffective, sometimes it is better to use a crop or whip to get the horse moving forward than to dull her sides to the legs by constantly bumping on the horse with the legs without getting the desired effect. The horse will learn to ignore this constant bumping and won't respond at all. Of course, you can also dull your horse to the whip (or make her cranky) if you don't get any more results than you did with your legs.

The correct way to deal with a sluggish horse is to ask him to go forward with your leg aids first. If he hesitates the least bit, follow up with a light tap of the whip on his hindquarters to let him know you mean business. The next time, he should respond more willingly to your leg aids because he will anticipate the whip.

Spurs

Spurs also reinforce the leg aids and are used only as incentive, never as punishment. Both English and Western riders may wear spurs attached to their boots, and certain styles are traditional for each. Spurs should only be worn by accomplished riders with quiet legs. Worn by unskilled riders, they can be quite detrimental to the horse.

Large spinning rowels are what commonly comes to mind when you imagine a cowboy with spurs on, but the most common spurs worn by most riders have very short shanks. In certain horse show classes, such as advanced level dressage, riders are required to wear short-shank spurs as part of their traditional attire.

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