Horseback Riding Basics: Using Your Aids
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight
Riding is all about communication, and anything that helps you communicate with your horse is an aid. In this blog, I'll explain the importance of natural aids and focus on the seat as the most vital of the natural aids.
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.
The Primary 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Refining the Cues
When you’re asking a horse to turn using your eyes and your entire body, 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.
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