My thoughts about riding Part 2 - The Aids

The aids

As I am a dressage riders it is easy to think about the aids as small symbolic commands given in an arena to make the horse dance with us. But it also require aids to bring a scary horse out of one of those burning forests in California. In a situation as extreme as that it is much more important that the horse accepts and obeys the aids than what it is on a pleasant ride on the arena.

Both situations have one thing in common: The horse will follow us and do what we want if we can convince him it is a good idea. Maybe that is my first advice in how to teach the aids: Make the horse consider it a good idea to obey.

Writing that, many many readers will presume I mean to use violence. I am old enough to know that violence is no the best way. There is certain situations where violence is acceptable, but we can save that till later.

So how do I get the horse to follow me and obey? Well, in many ways that is just as raising kids, or making a girl wanting to dance with me: They must find me safe, wise and nice to companion.

There we have the base for making the horse follow us out of the burning forest: He must trust me enough for it. We can get him out there with violence, but trust makes it easier.

Now let's leave the leadership thing and go into the aids.

Isn't it funny that in most languages I have investigated the word for the aids is, just as in English, a word for aiding, helping, supporting, assisting … No language seem to use a word for control, domination or submission when describing our communication with the horse. In Swedish and German we use the equivalent of the word “help” as the word for the aids. In the non Indogermanic Finnish language they use the word “Avut”, meaning something like support, for the aids.

As long as we talk about more pleasant riding than a forest fire, I think it is wonderful that the aids has a word for supporting the horse to do what we want. Isn't it?

Since the NH movement started 25 years ago we have been taught that the horse shall walk away from pressure and that has been how the reaction of the aids has been explained to us: The horse shall walk away from the aid. For some aids that is true, but for other it is not. How do the horse walk away from a tongue click or a whoa? And if we teach the horse to move away from our weight he'll be impossible to mount as when we put the foot in the stirrup and add some weight in it he'll move away …

So it is not as simple as the horse shall learn to move away from pressure. I have identified three different and independent aids system where only one works with the “move away from pressure”-idea.

Vocal aids

At my childhood riding school in a Gothenburg suburb we where taught there was a difference between oral aids and “linguistic” aids. I think it is a good thing to separate them as I think they come different to the horse.

Most of our vocal aids are not words, it is more like cave man sounds that many non riders find kind of funny that we use as they consider them uncivilized and embarrassing. Though, it is not cave men only who click their tongues, gobble and chirrup like riders do: Also our infants use the same oral repertoire when they try to get our attention, and so do their parents while addressing the infant. So those sounds are a universal human language. We all use them in situations where words has no use.

I think as long as we do our best to be human on a basic level it is easy for the horses to understand us so using those non linguistic noises is a good way to talk to the horse as long as they come natural and we don't “calculate” to much what sound to use. For example our whoa is almost the same sound as we use when we comfort a crying baby. Our tongue click and other “forward” sounds are almost the same as we use when a teenager does something he shouldn't and we try to make him aware that we notice him.

I saw some “cowboy” on TV telling that our tongue click is the same sound as when a branch get broken = it indicates danger to the horse and make him want to move away. Maybe he is right, I don't know. I do think though that most of our vocal aids are so natural to the horse that he reacts on them by instinct.

So how do we teach the horse our vocal aids? - We don't as he knows them by birth.

I guess you know the fairy tale about a shepherd who use to yell “the wolf is coming” as a joke to the people at home? After a while no one reacts on him, so when the wolf actually came his warnings had no effect. We got the same effect on the horse if we use to many vocal aids: He stops listen and the aids loses their effect. So just as when we are socializing with humans, we better keep our mouth shut until we have something so say.

On top of this we have the “linguistic” aids when we use words trying to get the horse to do what we want. Them we have to teach as the aids we give with hands and feet.

The weight aids

We can use or moves and positions to control the horse when we are working him from the ground and when we ride. We do it pretty much the same from the ground as from the horse back: We show the horse speed, direction and rhythm. The weight aids are hard to discuss as when you try to move your body in a natural way – you can't do it natural any more. Try to breath naturally where you sit right now. I guess you failed. As soon as you think about how to breath you start controlling it and can't do it natural any more.

One “group” of weight aids actually is about making the horse loose his balance, and try to catch it again. That's when we move our center of gravity forward, backwards or to the side. Most horse try to balance by moving in under the center of gravity and then walks in the direction and speed we're simulating.

The other group of weight aids is to make it uncomfortable for the horse not to bounce in same rhythm as we do. That's how we by more or less indecent moves of our hips makes the horse to bounce his back slower, faster or maybe irregular. The horse is wise and knows that best way to follow the bouncing rider is to move his feet in same rhythm, so there we can change gait and also control the steps in a gait.

We often hear that the release is the reward, meaning that we shall stop giving the aid when the horse obey. I am not sure that is the case with the weight aids as stopping moving our body actually is a command to the horse to - stop. I have done that trick, it works fine on an attentive horse.

So what shall we do with our body when the hors serves as we wish? - We shall keep on dancing and moving together with him. When we want the horse to change, we lead him with our body. When we want him to continue, we follow him with our body.

How do we teach the body aids? - We don't. The horse prefer to follow them as that is more comfortable than not to.

As with all other aids, there is always a risk that we teach the horse not to follow our body aids. For instance, horses at riding schools who often carry beginner riders learn to compensate for the riders moves in the saddle instead of following them. Else the horse can't go where he is supposed to. Best way to maintain the horses “obedience” for our body weight is to always dance together with him, and always ask him the same thing with our body as we do with the other aids. Else ha starts to compensate.

The aids we give with our limbs

One group of aids left, and that is the first we learn to use when we start riding: The aids we give with our limbs; our hands, legs and feet and what may be attached to them as whips, spurs, reins and bits. Most of what people say about aids only makes sense about those limb aids. Here it is correct to use the words “walk away from pressure” and “release is the reward”.

Those aids are not the same if you work the horse from the ground as from the back.

Think about how you push a car: Feet in the ground, hands on the trunk, lean forward and then push. Now try to climb up on the car roof and push the car from there … It won't work as you have no contact with the ground.

It is same when we work our horse. As long as we have our feet on the ground we can push or pull him, but sitting on his back you can press, you can squeeze and you can pinch but you can not push or pull.

If we push the horse to the side from the ground, it is natural for him to obey by walking away from the pushing person. But if we sit on his back, ha can't move away from our pressing leg as we will follow him when he moves away. We can't run away from a mosquito sitting on our nose and the horse can't move away from a pushing leg or pulling hand. So I don't think it is as natural for the horse to walk away from a riders leg as it is to move away from a pushing person on the ground.

To teach the horse to move away from pressure while riding is the trickiest part of teaching the aids. This has two components:

1) Let the horse guess, try and fail. Don't worry, one day he will guess right.
2) Release the pressure when he does right.

The horse follow our aids for the same reason as our kids all of a sudden clean their rooms when we have told them to do it over and over again: They don't care about a clean room, the want us to stop arguing. So if the horse guess wrong, just keep on asking him till he one of a sudden does the right thing. Then you have to stop arguing = release the pressure to make him understand that that was what we wanted from him. A quiet rider is a pleasant rider. Next time he will guess the right thing earlier as he remembered what made us stop arguing.

Important is that you as a rider is so annoying, without overdoing, that the horse finds it worth value to solve the “problem”. If the horse knows that he doesn't have to listen . The annoying aid will stop soon anyhow, he'll stop trying. If we overdo and keep on with the aid even when the horse tries to do right, he'll stop trying too as it is not worth trying: the aid won't stop anyhow.

There is the common problems when rider try to teach the horses the limb aids:

  • They “punish” the horse if he guess wrong.
  • They alter their aids if the horse does wrong = they tell the horse what he made wrong instead of telling him how to do right.
  • They don't release, relax and enjoy when the horse does right.

Most important of all

As an end of this series about the aids, I want to tell what a lady told me 20 years ago, and that was quite an eye opener for me:

Most of the time when we ride, the horse does what we want so most of the time we need no aids. 

I think that is one of the hardest things to learn for any rider: To be satisfied and follow the horse and avoid any impact when he does right. It is so easy to be there with a new correcting aid, instead of relax, smile and enjoy the ride.