We communicate with our horses using signals, both while riding as in working our horses from the ground. In the horse world these signals are also known as ‘aids’. The word aid implies, correctly, that it is a signal that is supposed to help your horse. That it is there to improve something, whether it is his posture, balance, speed, shape or balance. The most common known aids are the seat, legs and reins while riding. But also the whip and voice can be used as an aid. While working from the ground, the longe line or lead rope and your body language can be used as an aid. So we have a whole scala of signals that can help us communicate with our horses in order to help them perform better.
But how can our aids be most effective? In this blog article I will identify the 6 key elements for a successful communication with your horse.
If an aid does not help, because the aids you applied made your horse get out of balance, on the forehand, out of rhythm or make him stiff, the aid obviously did not ‘aid’ your horse. It did not help him get better but made him worse. Or, if your horse does not respond to your aids and ignores them, so nothing changes after you have applied your signal, your communication doesn’t get through and you can’t aid him. You have no communication. In these both cases, basically, your aids were not aids, but merely signals that did not have any effect or not the effect you intended.
The more advanced you get into dressage exercises, the more advanced and nuanced your language with your horse will be. Subtle weight changes in your body will invite the horse to collect and extend, a gentle increase of the rhythm in your body becomes a transition.. The dance becomes ever more subtle and complex.
When you start with basic training, you don’t need to already understand the subtle weight changes that can become a piaffe. But you need to understand the what, how and why from the signals you are applying on the level you are at. Everything you want to ask your horse, you ask with a signal. Can you specify each separate signal you use? Do you understand for every signal what it is exactly you want your horse to give you in response? Do you have a good reason why you want your horse to respond to you that way? For me the why should give me an answer that explains also how I can build the next exercise out of the one I am doing right now. So how can moving the shoulders bring me a step closer to a half-pass? How can backing up bring me closer to collection? Know what you are working with and why. And, most importantly, do you know how exactly to apply your signal in the clearest way for your horse? Elements 2, 3, 4 and 5 will help you with just that.
2. Educate your horse
When we start to apply aids, we create a language between ourselves and the horse. This language is new to both of us. The horse must learn the language. He must understand what we mean by the aid we give. We need to teach the horse the appropriate response to our signals. The horse needs to have had his basic education, explaining him the signals, before we can use these signals to do exercises. Which signals you choose to teach your horse, and what exercises you want out of it in the end, that is depending on the choice of your path with your horse and what discipline you are in. Important is to realize that the horse must learn your signals and see them as aids. That means you have to treat your horse as a student and educate him. Education means explanation, motivation and feedback. You can teach a horse signals in many different ways. There are many methods about how to teach a horse anything. I am not intending to write in favor or against any of them. Whether you apply your traditional pressure and release, clicker training or other ways of positive reinforcement, whether you teach them your legs and reins while sitting on a youngster or by introducing them to him from the ground, it all boils down to your skills as a trainer to be able to educate the horse in responding to your signals. And that is exactly what many horse owners and trainers overlook: that it is not only the reward in case of an appropriate response or the increased pressure applied when a horse is not responding. The core of the matter is: How clear can you pose your question to the horse? How good of a teacher are you? How well did you manage to explain to him what answer you were looking for?
It will be easier for the horse to respond to your signal or question when it is not only understood, but also in the right timing for the horse to actually DO something in response to your aid.
It happens often that riders ask something from their horses to do in a moment it is impossible for the horse to do it. The only choice the horse then has is to ignore the aid. If this happens often enough, the horse will learn to disregard the aid altogether. The classic example from the Academic Art of Riding being this one: if you ask the horse to step further forward under his body with a hind leg, the horse can only respond to this question when his leg is being lifted, free from his body weight. The weight needs to be on the other hind leg. If you ask a horse to step under with a hind leg in the moment of his stride where he has his leg on the ground and his weight on that hind leg, will make it physically impossible for the horse to respond to you in that particular moment. This may teach the horse to ignore your question and disregard your aid.
The next thing to consider is: what if you know what you want, your horse is educated, your aid is clear, your timing is right, and nothing happens? Then, you may have to consider repeating the aid with a higher intensity. I work in a build up of 1, 2, 3. In groundwork for example, I would (1) point with the stick to the body part I want my horse to move, (2) gently tap it and (3) tap it in the intensity needed for the horse to respond. This is, considering my horse already understands the aids and is just a bit slow in his reactions. In the phase where I explain to the horse what my aids mean (the education phase), I may choose another approach, based on the character of my horse. But considering he knows it, the 1,2,3 method is what I usually apply to get a quicker or bigger response. If you apply the same aid 10 times with an intensity or energy that is to low to make the horse respond, you end up ‘pushing him every step, just getting slower and slower’. The horse will disregard your aid. If you approach it with the build up of 1,2,3 you may have to ‘wake up’ the horse with a 3 maybe once or twice, and from there on only need 1.
5. Visualize the result
Now, all of this makes no sense, if you have no clear intent in the back of your head. You should know and visualize and even feel in your body what it is you want to have happen. Then, your mind and body work as one. You will send out a consistent, clear message to your horse. Being unsure, doubting yourself, changing tactics ten times in 1 minute, all this leads to confusion and to most horses sort of ‘blocking their trainer out’. It also means that once you ask a question, you should be sure you know that the horse can answer (he understands what you mean and your timing is right) and that you know you can follow through (you can go up in intensity). You already see what you want to happen. Anything else is out of the question. This puts your entire body and soul behind your signal. Your body will change even if you don’t think about consciously doing anything in your body. It will make your question crystal clear.
6. Stop in time
Maybe the most difficult of it all is to see when to stop or reward. Especially when the horse is stil learning the language and has not fully grasped the meaning of your aids yet. We often ask for too much and don’t see the little responses of the horse ‘thinking in the right direction’. Therefore we do not release pressure, or we reward or otherwise reinforce too late. We continue to ask something bigger, instead of rewarding the horse for being on the right track. Then, the horse may stop trying his best, because we have overlooked his attempts. He will loose his motivation to try hard for you. To have the developed eye and feel to know when to stop, even of it may not look like anything has changed in the horse yet, and to allow those tiny responses of the horse to grow bigger over time, as the horses confidence in his answers grows, is the true skill of the good trainer.
When a trainer is aware of these key factors his communication becomes clearer, he is truly able to ‘aid’ his horse to a higher level of performance. The horse’s understanding of the aids can develop rapidly and save us not only time, but many moments of misunderstanding that can be frustrating for us and our horses and can even lead to dangerous situations sometimes. So, know what you want, be clear, educate your horse, improve your timing and intensity and make sure you stop and reward in time.
Have a happy training!
Photo's by Maybel van der Linden
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.