A rider influences the horse mostly through legs, reins and weight.
These actions should always be used together (they don’t work singly) and are called the aids. The legs and seat tend to be forward-driving aids while the reins (and sometimes seat) have a more restraining and guiding action.
To make your horse’s job easier, you need to be light and comfortable for him to carry. This means aligning your centre of gravity with your horse’s and allowing your body to move with your horse so you don’t disturb his rhythm or restrict his movement.
We’ve all had instructors yell at us to sit still and many people talk about a still and supple seat. In reality, a good rider is constantly moving as the pelvis swings to follow the horse’s movement. It just looks like they’re sitting still because they are moving with the horse and not restricting him due to their rigidity.
In walk, tense up your whole body and keep everything as still as possible your back, pelvis, legs, shoulders and arms. Don’t move a muscle. You should immediately notice a change in your horse’s way of going. He will find it difficult to move underneath you and may even grind to a halt. Now release the tension, imagine it flowing out of your body and allow yourself to become completely floppy and limp, almost to the point where you can’t stay in the saddle.
Again, your horse may not enjoy carrying you. Tense up once more and, this time, as you allow the tension to flow out of you, hold it when you feel comfortable and gently allow yourself to follow your horse’s movement. Direct your thoughts towards your hands are they giving and taking slightly as your horse’s head moves? Then concentrate on your pelvis is it moving with your horse’s back movement? Are your legs following the movement of your horse’s belly from side to side? You may look very still, but your body is in constant movement. So is your horse.
An exercise to try
If you have, or can borrow, a reliable horse, find somewhere safe and ride bareback. You don’t have to leave walk if you don’t want to. Try to feel your horse’s back muscles and footfalls under you as he walks and concentrate on how they influence your seatbones and pelvis with each step he takes. You should be able to tell as each foot hits the floor. Ask someone to lead you and try this with your eyes closed.
When you halt, without looking, try to feel where his feet are. Has he halted squarely or is one hindleg left behind? Then look and check if you need to. This exercise will make you aware of your horse’s movement and body. Once you’ve mastered this bareback, try it with a saddle.
As you become aware of your weight, try asking your horse to stop by momentarily tightening your back and abdomen muscles and clenching your buttocks. Don’t tense any other muscles or lean back. Repeat the aid for a couple of strides if necessary but return to normal as soon as he halts.
Your legs control your horse’s legs. Use your leg aids to ask him to go forward or sideways and also to regulate sideways movement. In their normal position, your legs should be just behind the girth so your heel is in line with your hip. Think of your legs as a damp cloth wrapped around your horse’s belly, softly in contact with his side. As he walks and his belly swings, your leg will cause a slight pressure on his side. In a well-trained horse, this is enough to keep him moving.
If the horse you ride doesn’t respond when you use both legs at once to ask him to go forward. change your tactics. The best time to apply an aid is as the hindleg you want to influence leaves the ground. As you feel your horse’s belly swing, say to the left, briefly tighten your left calf muscle just as it begins to move away from your leg the same time that his left hindfoot is lifted off the ground. As your left leg relaxes and your horse’s body swings to the right, briefly tighten your right calf muscle as you feel the contact move away from your right leg.
To move sideways
You also need your legs to ask your horse to move sideways and forward. The aid is applied in the same way but behind the girth (around 10cm further back than normal).
The reins hold impulsion, control speed and give direction, but only if used in conjunction with the other aids.
The ideal contact with the horse’s mouth has been compared to many different things but the simplest way to look at it is as if you have hold of something very precious and fragile. You need to keep it safe and secure, but not hold it so tight that you crush it.
To give a rein aid, close your fingers momentarily (think of squeezing a sponge) or, if necessary, turn the hand inwards slightly from the wrist. Then return your hand to its normal position.
Sometimes it’s necessary to open the rein. This aid is used in sideways movements and to ask your horse to bend, for example in turn on the forehand. Turn your hand slightly in at the wrist and move it a few centimetres from the neck, in the direction you want his head to go. Then return your hand to its normal position.
Trainers hold widely varying views about the voice as an aid. There are those who believe that the voice is of little use and we should teach ourselves to understand the horse’s language and not expect him to understand ours. There are others who believe the voice is a useful tool, and that horses respond well to tone of voice and can even be taught to recognise certain words.
It is true that many horses seem to respond well to a soothing voice as praise, but take care that you only use it when praise is due. It’s easy to fall into the trap of inadvertently praising him at the wrong time and that could easily confuse him!
An exercise to try
On the lunge, or with a friend leading you, knot your reins and circle your arms slowly backwards two or three times. As they return to your sides on the third time, tense your hands, arms and shoulders as hard and you can, hold for 10 seconds and then release.
Now circle (shrug) your shoulders down and back to get rid of any remaining tension. Carry your hands as if you were holding the reins (but don’t pick them up) and, each time you feel your arms tensing, repeat the exercise.
If you’re confident, try trotting (rising and sitting) and cantering without holding the reins when you’re on the lunge.
- Used the lightest aid possible to achieve your goal and always start with a light aid and increase pressure if necessary, rather than beginning strongly. If a strong aid is needed, return to light pressure as soon as your horse proceeds.
- If your horse does not respond to the rein aid, don’t be tempted to pull back or fix your hands. Simply release the aid and try again, fractionally stronger. Repeat this until he understands and then praise him.
- Don’t ever clamp your legs to your horse’s side in an attempt to get him to move forward – it will have the opposite effect!