Horseback Riding Basics: Using Your Aids, Part 1

Learn about the gears of your seat to refine your horseback riding skills.

America’s Horse

When you're called upon to ride your horse without stirrups, the basics still apply: seat, legs, hand and voice. And don't forget that your eyes can be used as an aid, too, as this rider is doing as she goes around a circle. Journal photo.

Riding is all about communication, and anything that helps you communicate with your horse is an aid. There are two types of aids, natural and artificial, but in this article, we’ll focus on natural aids in the hope that if you’re good at using your natural aids, you won’t need artificial aids.

Traditionally speaking, the natural aids are the seat, legs, hands and voice. The seat is by far the most important aid, but unfortunately, it is the least likely to be used. That’s because we were all taught the same way. The first time you got on a horse, you were probably told to pull back on the reins to make him stop and kick to make him go. The seat had nothing to do with it. And many riders actually get into fairly high level riding with little to no understanding of how to use the seat aid, but it’s something that can really help refine your riding.

As an aside, I think of seat aids and weight aids as two different things, although you can’t use one without the other. To me, the seat aid is the pressure of your two seat bones against the saddle, while the weight aid refers to the center of gravity. You can use shifts of balance as part of your cues.

The primary aids are the seat, legs and hands, and I use my voice as an auxiliary, to warn the horse or give him a hint of what’s coming next. Horses don’t necessarily know words, but they do associate sounds with reactions, and they are very easily voice trained. To do it correctly, give a voice aid, such as a smooch or cluck, and then reinforce it with your other aids that mean “speed up.” If you give your horse voice cues constantly, or if you give them incorrectly – such as saying “Whoa” when you mean for the horse to slow down, not stop completely – horses can certainly learn to tune them out.

The knowledge of seat, legs, hands and voice as the four basic aids goes back thousands of years and is the basis of classical horsemanship. I like to build on that a little bit by pointing out that there are actually three additional aids: your eyes, breathing and brain.

Your eyes give a great deal of direction and confidence to the horse. You can’t turn your head and look at something without the horse feeling the change in your body that occurred when you turned your head; horses are masters at sensing tiny changes in our weight and body position. So, to take advantage of that, you can begin a cue to turn by initially just turning your head and looking in the direction you want to travel. It helps if you imagine that you had a neck brace on, and so to turn, you had to turn your whole body. That’ll get your legs, seat and hands in sync with your eyes, and your entire body is telling the horse to turn.

Use training tips from Curt Pate to further improve your relationship with your horse. Download AQHA’s Training Your Horse for a Better Relationship report and strengthen your partnership with your horse.

What your eyes can do for turning, your breathing can do for upward and downward transitions, giving you another tool to get smooth, refined work. As you inhale fully and expand your lungs, your center of gravity is drawn forward and your arms will move forward, a very clear signal to the horse to move more forward. On the flip side of that coin, when you exhale and completely deflate your lungs, your shoulders compress down toward your hips, your center of gravity is drawn backward and your seat bones press forward and down into the horse’s back - all signals for a stop or slow-down.

The horse works the same way. His “fight or flight” instinct is triggered by a sharp, sudden inhale, which screams “Go!” And when the horse fully relaxes, he’s likely going to sigh - something associated with slowing down and calmness.

I joke that, like the seat, the brain is probably the most important tool we have available to us - but it’s the least likely to be used. We tend to think too much from a human perspective and not enough from the horse’s perspective.

The Gears of the Seat

The seat, as we mentioned, is an important part of more refined riding. Here’s how it works: Your seat has three gears, neutral, forward and reverse. Neutral gear is what you ride in most of the time, and it tells the horse to keep doing what he’s doing. It’s also called a following seat. You’re sitting in the balanced position on your horse -- a straight line from your ears to shoulders to hips to heels -- and your weight is on your two seat bones. The rhythm of the horse’s gaits moves your body so, for instance, as you’re walking, you’ll feel a distinct right-left movement. A trot will move your body vertically, and cantering will give you the feel of a circular movement. You’re moving with the motion of the horse.

If you want to speed up your horse, you’ll move into forward gear, where you inhale, shift your center of gravity forward slightly and reach your hands toward the horse’s mouth. As your upper body makes these moves, your lower leg should drift backward to maintain an aligned position. All these things work together to encourage the horse forward. If your horse is a forward thinker, he might make an upward transition off just an inhale and a shift of your weight. A lazier horse may require a scooting of your seat (telling him to hurry up) and a bump with your legs. Once you get the gait or the speed you want, you’ll come immediately back to the neutral gear.

Reverse gear is something that many people struggle with, because it’s so ingrained in them to use their hands to stop the horse. But that’s the worst thing for him. If the first indication your horse gets that you want him to stop is a pull on the reins, that’s abrupt and really kind of rude. Plus, it’s an automatic reaction for him to tense, brace and generally lean into the pressure on his mouth. That puts him heavy on his forehand, so you can’t have a good, balanced stop that way. And the truth is, your horse probably wants to stop anyway. He doesn’t necessarily want to keep loping around the arena with you on his back, so a subtle cue will probably do the trick. Here’s how to give him a better stop cue, using the reverse gear of your seat.

Begin with a deep exhale (which actually has to start with a deep inhale) and at the same time, sit back and compress your shoulders down toward your hips, which will cause your seat bones to rotate forward down into the horse’s back. That in turn causes your center of gravity to come back behind the motion of the horse. As you sit back, your shoulders and arms will naturally lift up and back a little bit, and your heels should go deeper so that your legs relax off the horse.

Now that you have improved your communication with your horse while riding, work on other aspects of your partnership. Download AQHA’s Training Your Horse for a Better Relationship report and turn your relationship with your horse into a winning one.

All of your primary aids, seat, legs and hands, are giving the same clear signal to the horse: Slow down. The reins shouldn’t be your primary cue, but they can be your reinforcement if the horse does not respond to your seat and legs.

If I were practicing stops and trying to get my horse to stop off my seat rather than my hands, I would say “Whoa,” exhale, sit back and compress my shoulders, and let my legs come slightly forward. If none of that caused a response, I would pick up the reins, stop the horse and back him up. I’d repeat the exercise, always being sure that the use of the reins comes last and only if necessary. In very short order, my horse will be stopping off the shift of my weight, and I’ll never have to go to the reins.

The seat is also a great way to adjust your horse’s stride. Here’s an exercise I often do in clinics: As your horse is walking, you’ll feel your hips moving right-left, right-left, and your body is following the movement of the horse. But if you want to extend the walk, just increase that rhythm in your seat and legs, so that you’re pushing a little bit, a faster right-left. You’re trying to swing the horse’s barrel a little bit more. This is what’s known as the driving seat.

Next, without picking up the reins at all, think about slowing your horse down by slowing down your own rhythm. You want your right-left motion to be slower than his. Most horses will slow down and adjust to your rhythm, and this is known as a resisting seat. Your horse can become very tuned in to these differences in your seat, and you can start controlling his speed just off your seat.

This same exercise can be done at the trot or canter.

In Part 2 of this series, learn how to improve your transitions and refine the cues you are giving to your horse.