Horseback Riding Basics: Using Your Aids, Part 2

Clear, consistent communication is the key to smooth transitions with your horse.

AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight explains that your horse comes to understand how you’re moving with how he’s moving and that you can use this concept to have seamless transitions. Journal photo

In Part 1 of this series, AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight explained the importance of natural aids and focused on the seat as the most vital of the natural aids. In this final part, she moves on to cover transitions and keeping the attention of your horse.


One of the age-old tenants of classical horsemanship is that all training occurs in transitions. For instance, if you went out to the arena and loped circles for 20 or 30 minutes, almost no training would be occurring. Conditioning, yes, but not training. Training is when you ask something of the horse, and he complies. It’s doing lots and lots of transitions with the horse to refine that communication.

But more succinctly, it’s doing lots of correct transitions - with riders who know how to cue off their seats as they work toward a smooth, refined transition from gait to gait. The rhythm of each gait is totally different, and the way your body moves is different, as well. Your horse comes to associate how you’re moving with how he’s moving. So if you’re trotting and you want the horse to canter, if you simply posted harder, that would be very confusing to the horse because posting means “trot,” not “canter.” So the canter cue should mean that you start moving your body as if you were already cantering.

To go correctly from the trot to the canter, I’d inhale, reach forward, shift my center of gravity slightly forward and curl my hips under at the moment when I wanted him to strike off in the canter. The horse understands that movement and associates it with the canter.

If I were asking my horse to go from the walk to the trot, I would inhale, reach forward, shift my center of gravity and, instead of curling my hips, I would give a little squeeze with my thighs to lift my hips as they would lift in the trot. It’s important to understand that the way your body moves is a communication to the horse.

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Refining the Cues

When you’re asking a horse to turn using your eyes and your entire body as described in Part 1, you’re giving your horse a clear signal from the top of your body all the way to the bottom. Notice that I didn’t describe pulling on the horse’s mouth to get him to turn. Your horse has demonstrated time and time again that he’s willing to turn wherever you want to go, so why should you have to physically pull him around? Again, if that’s his first indication that you want to turn, it’s rude. Reins need to be your reinforcement, not your cue.

Look the direction you want to go, twist your body, open your shoulders into the turn, let your arms shift and then your legs and weight … and then if nothing happens, by all means, pick up the reins and cue your horse. To me, all these little refinements are about a higher degree of communication with your horse. This is how great riders make it look effortless, and it’s also headed toward being able to ride bridleless. Most trained and obedient horses are willing to do what you ask them to do, not because you have a metal bar in their mouth, but because they’re willing to do it. It’s our job to build on that.

Attention, Horse: This Is Your Captain Speaking

Now, trained and obedient horses get that way because of clear, consistent riding. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of every clinic talking about the obedience of the horse. We as riders have to issue directives to the horse and make sure he is fully compliant.

I see many riders who compromise with their horses, and they end up struggling with communication and control. Say the horse is cutting corners in the arena, and the rider tries to direct the horse deeper into the corners. The horse resists, and as the rider tries to get him into the corner, they end up somewhere in the middle. The rider’s happy because at least he made some headway, but the horse just learned that it’s OK to argue.

Any time you compromise, you’re eroding your own authority. Things have to be very black and white with horses. They have to know the rules, what’s expected of them, and they have to know that you’re always going to enforce the rules. The horse also has to know that you’re going to praise him or release him or reward him in some way when he is compliant with the rules. It’s a lot like parenting, really.

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A better way to ensure obedience is with the “ask, tell, command” principle.

Let’s say I’m riding a lazier horse and I’m asking him to trot. I ask him lightly and politely, and nothing happens. So then I might actually kick him when I cue him. And the third time, I really need to do whatever it takes to get a trot. If I keep nagging, I’m conditioning my horse to disrespect my authority.

Have you ever seen a kid who’s spoiled and misbehaving, and the mother says, in a nicey-nice voice, “Now, Bobby, stop doing that. …” You know Bobby isn’t going to respond until he thinks Mom is about to swat his behind. Horses are very much the same way. If they know the reinforcement is coming, they will hop to it. But if they know it is not coming, they will drag and drag and drag.

So the moral of “ask, tell, command” is that you only have three chances to enforce a cue. If you ask more than three times, you are training your horse to ignore you. Much like a parent, the rider needs to be aware of when a horse is breaking a rule or disregarding authority, and then he needs to call the horse on it. “Hey, that’s wrong. You’re not supposed to do that.” Otherwise, how does he learn the difference between right and wrong?

Once your horse understands the rules and knows they will be enforced, he will gladly accept your authority in all matters. And that’s when your light “asking” cues can mean something. An obedient horse moving off your seat, with cues invisible to anyone watching, is a beautiful thing to see and a fun thing to ride.