Helicopters And Horses: Achieving A Subtle Cue To Master Motion

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I get very “zen” when I am riding—my mind is clear and my thoughts are carried along with the horse’s movement. Riding is my sanctuary, my restoration and where I come up with my best ideas. I wouldn’t be as good at teaching horsemanship to others, if I didn’t have a personal journey with horses myself. It is while I’m riding my own horses—Eddie and Dually—that I have the time to relax, be creative, and think about new ways to describe the feel of riding a horse.
And so it was while I was riding Eddie in my indoor arena (I sometimes feel more thoughtful and “heady” when riding inside than when distracted by the scenery and trail obstacles outdoors), that I had an interesting thought: riding horses at a high level is just like flying a helicopter. Random, you think? Let me explain my thought process.

A History of Flight
My father was a highly accomplished pilot; it was not his profession but it was his passion (one of many including horses, boating and the great outdoors).. After a few years of flying fixed-wing air ambulance out of Jackson Hole in all weather conditions because my dad thought it would be the ultimate experience as a pilot, he decided flying helicopters would be a good next accomplishment.
I remember him telling me about this experience decades ago—how different a fixed-wing craft is from a whirly-bird and how complicated it was to fly this machine. Since I jokingly refer to myself as “my father’s only son” (at least until my much-younger brother came along), I was the one who was with him for all his flying pursuits. I had learned to fly at a very young age (as well as saddle a horse, bait a hook and dock the boat). When other kids were being taught to parallel park, my dad and I were doing touch-and-go’s in a Cessna 150 and he was yelling at me for landing at too high a speed.

I’ve never piloted a helicopter but I have watched skilled helicopter pilots navigate the back country and mountain terrain while flying with them to heli-ski. What an experience and what a flight to watch firsthand. The maneuvers are amazing; a pilot’s hands know instinctively where to guide the fast-responding aircraft.

What strikes me most about the comparison between helicopters and riding? I remember my dad saying: to fly a helicopter, you have to make constant adjustments to attitude and altitude with two hands and two feet—each one adjusting in a totally different way. That is the precise comment that makes my mind wander and continually compare helicopters and riding horses.
For decades, I have pondered my dad’s comments–especially after he declared that flying helicopters was too challenging for him and he would prefer to stick to fixed-wing aircraft. When I heard my dad say that, after a lifetime of convincing me he could do anything he set his mind to and handle any adverse situation, it made an impression on me. There was something in this world that seemed too much of a challenge. If my dad thought that, it must be a challenge worth thinking about.

Controls in the Arena
Fast-forward to the other day when I was riding my young hose Eddie, snug in the cocoon of my cozy indoor arena—in a hypnotic state of bliss—working at a collected sitting trot in a soft and balanced frame. It felt as if he were on his tippy-toes. Eddie, built more like a line-backer than a ballet dancer and almost finished in his training, was holding himself in this frame, upon my request, with no contact at all on the reins. We were making beautiful, small and bendy circles.

At that moment, he was truly an extension of my body and I felt like I had as much control over his torso, limbs and his feet as I did over my own. To maintain this balance, I would occasionally make the slightest, most imperceptible adjustments with two feet and two hands. My left hand doing something different than my right; my right leg doing something totally different than my left—not with any conscious thought but totally by feel—to adjust attitude and altitude. Release here, constrict there, shortening and lengthening, giving and taking.

That’s when the helicopter association entered my mind. Whether riding at a fine-tuned level or piloting a helicopter, there is finesse and a precision of controls. There is no room for jerking, no room for sharp reactions. While I’d love to compare notes in detail with a helicopter pilot, I think that my own analogy can help you understand and envision the movements and level of control you should strive to have while riding.
Imagine you were up in the air, hovering or flying low and slow, adjusting to the contours of the land. There would be a constant and steady balancing and attitude adjustment of the vessel for acceleration, deceleration, turning or adjusting vertical altitude. To hold that attitude, you would delicately make subtle adjustments with the steering and pedals—someone casually observing probably wouldn’t even notice your slight adjustments—it would all look very smooth. When you’re riding, you are one with your horse and constantly making small adjustments that the finely-tuned horse is quick to respond to. Top riders who look like they aren’t moving at all really are making small corrections and giving the horses subtle cues that the horse is highly tuned in to receive. That ultimate connection and ability to almost “whisper” a cue is the highest level of horsemanship.

I had a very astute student in a clinic who was, in fact, an astronaut and the pilot of two space shuttle missions, who once told me, “Riding a horse is a lot like flying a fighter jet or the space shuttle; it is not the mechanics of using this control or that, but the feeling of strapping the machine onto your own body and flying it as if it were a part of you.”

As you are learning to ride, you must first learn to adjust your balance and rhythm to that of the horse and to use your aids to control his movement—these are mechanics and they must be learned in order to progress–and that takes time. Once you have mastered the mechanics, you and the horse start moving as one and developing the feel of each other and that’s when subtlety and lightness comes into play.

When you watch a highly trained horse and rider perform or see a helicopter land and take off in the most precarious situations, it is as if you are watching a dance between pilot and vessel. Subtle and perfectly timed corrections are at work and the two are moving as one.

Reaching this level in your riding takes time and persistence and a concerted effort to be in better balance with your horse, to communicate better and with softer aids. But even relatively new riders, as they learn to move in concert with their horse and adjust their aids to the horse’s level of response, can learn to feel the thrill of becoming one with their horse. Keep the imagery in mind and make it a goal to give your horse the softest, most precise and meaningful cues—guiding (piloting) your horse with precision.

Enjoy the ride,
Julie

Understanding Spurs

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Question: Dear Julie,
My understanding is that spurs are to be used to back up a request if the horse is not responding or to make a cue more clear as in lateral work. I was watching one of Julie’s DVD’s regarding the 3 positions of the use of the leg. It is hard for me to picture how to not have the spur contact the horse, especially in the most forward position when cueing with one’s leg. In general, should leg cues be given with the inside of the calf to avoid hitting the horse with the spur rather than turning the heel inward?
Thanks,
Casey
Mariposa CA

Answer: Casey, Thank you for your well-thought out question. The use of spurs has become a controversial subject and maybe a topic that would be good for a discussion on my http://juliegoodnightontheroad.blogspot.com blog. Like any training aid, spurs can be used correctly and incorrectly. But just like with bits, whether they are ultimately harsh or gentle for the horse is ultimately up to the rider.
Spurs have been used for millennium in the training of horses and throughout that time there have been those that have brutalized horses with misuse of the spur. But the spur has also been used throughout time as a high level training aid to help motivate the horse to perform difficult maneuvers and reach a higher level in his training.
Artificial aids (manmade items that aid in controlling the horse, like the spur, whip and tie-downs or martingales) should be used to reinforce the natural aids (seat, legs, hands, voice); in the case of the spur, it should only be used to reinforce the leg aid. I am not a fan of using the spur on lazy horses to make them go—I’d rather see these riders use a crop. Incorrect use of the spur could be inhumane use or it could be using the spur as a cue rather than as the reinforcement.
A horse is said to be “spur trained” when he has been ridden by a rider that uses a touch of the spur as the cue, instead of using the natural aid first. I have ridden many horses that are trained this way and if you do not have spurs on, it is as if they are deaf to any cue. You don’t have to use the spur hard on them; they just have to know you have them on. Not the kind of horse I like to ride—but there are enough of them out there that I have become trained to always bring my spurs with me to expos, where I’ll be riding an unknown horse in my demos, and don’t have time to teach him to listen to my leg.
The primary part of your leg that you should use for cueing the horse to move is the inside of your calf first, then your Achilles area, and then finally the spur if the horse is not responding. It is never correct for your heel to come up to cue a horse for anything—whether you have spurs on or not. Your lower leg should always remain long, with your heel down and the spur well away from your horse’s sides, whether you are using the leg in the forward, middle or backward position. A rider that is competent enough to use spurs should be able to ride through any circumstance without ever accidentally touching the horse with the spur. Unless and until the rider has reached this high level of riding, spurs should not be used.
Most of the time I wear spurs when I ride my horse, but rarely would I ever touch him with them and I am not hostage to them—he’ll work just fine without. If the spur is used to reinforce a leg aid, my calf was used first, then a stronger (lower) leg aid; about 99% of the time, that’s more than I need to get a good response from my horse. If I didn’t, I might touch him lightly with the spur as a reminder that I can apply more pressure to motivate him to work harder if I need to. If he still is not responding with enough effort, I may bump him with the spur. But each time I cue the horse again, I’ll always go back to the lightest possible leg aid, high up in my calf.
When aids are consistently sequenced from light to firm, the horse will learn to respond to the lightest aid because he knows the reinforcement will come if he doesn’t. That is why many trainers, particularly those training high-level performance horses, always wear spurs—you never know when a horse might need a little reminder to respond to a light leg aid. And since they have 100% control of the spur, it is never applied haphazardly or inadvertently.
To me, the spur should not be used as an aid to make a lazy horse go faster, but to achieve high levels of performance. I am more likely to use a spur on a not-lazy horse. Using the spur on a lazy horse may end up training him to only respond to the spur. Also, since most lazy horses are insensitive, they may learn to ignore the spur just as much as they ignore the rider’s leg. And since these insensitive and lazy horses are more likely to be beginner’s horses, the use of the spur is questionable because the rider has inadequate skill.
For the lazy horse, I’d rather see the rider use a crop and give the horse a few spankings to reinforce the leg aids. Always ask the horse to move forward with a light leg aid (combined with a shift of your weight forward and a release of the reins); if he does not respond, put your reins in one hand and give him a sharp spank with the stick right where you cued him with your leg. He will likely leap forward (make sure you hold on and don’t snatch him in the mouth for doing something you told him to do) and the next time you ask politely, he should march off enthusiastically without an argument (if you used enough pressure with the spank). Make sure you don’t jerk back on the reins as you spank, inadvertently pulling back on the reins when you want him to go.
As you advance to doing lateral work, you may find that your horse is not as responsive to your leg aids, now that what you are asking of him requires more effort on his part. The more effort that is required of the horse to comply with what you are asking of him, the longer it takes to train that response and the more pressure is required to motivate him.
As you begin lateral work with a horse, you are at the beginning stages of higher performance and you should be riding at an advanced level; you may find you need spurs. But still, the correct way to use the spur is only as reinforcement, after applying the leg aid with increasing pressure first. Then give the horse a warning that the spur is coming, followed by a bump of the spur if needed. But find the amount of pressure that motivates the horse to respond to the lighter leg aid and make sure you have good timing with your correction.
Be careful not to become dependent on the spur—if you have to use it every time you ask the horse for lateral movement, you may not be using it correctly. Either you are not using enough pressure to motivate the horse to try harder, or you may not be using the right timing with the correction from the spur. For the horse to associate the bump of the spur with the initial light leg aid, the correction with the spur must follow within three second of the initial cue—and the sooner the better.
Spurs should never be used inhumanely—that’s brutal and poor horsemanship. At no time should there ever be any evidence after riding that a spur was used on the horse. If there is swelling, welts, raw skin or blood or if the horse flinches when being touched, it is an indication that the spur has been abused by the rider. It is highly likely the horse has become resistant because he is totally confused over what the rider is asking or the rider is demanding more than the horse is capable of giving.
There’s lots more articles in my Training Library that relates in some way or another to this question and I have two riding videos that would help clarify the use of the natural aids and also lateral movements and more advanced maneuvers. They are Volume 2: Communication and Control and Volume 5: Refinement and Collection, in my Principles of Riding series.
Good riding!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

English And Western Rein Aids

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Question: Dear Julie,
Please explain to me the rein aids for English and Western. I would like to know which ones to use for each discipline and what is the difference. For example, direct and direct opposition, indirect and indirect opposition? And how do you use these in riding?
Elizabeth
Answer: Hi Elizabeth,
Thanks for the excellent questions. I find this is an area that is vaguely understood, at best, by the average horse person. First of all, as far as the difference in the rein aids between English and Western, to me there are none. The rein aids work the same and the horse responds the same way no matter what style of saddle you ride in. Some might argue that the neck rein is strictly Western, but I like my English horses to know the neck rein too and it is imperative for sports like polo (which may be considered an English discipline, since it is done in an English saddle but with one hand on the reins). All of the other rein aids, direct, leading/opening and indirect are definitely used both English and Western. I cover all of these aids in my #5 Goodnight’s Principles of Riding DVD if you’d like to see all in action. Here’s the written description…
The term “rein aid” refers simply to how the rider moves her hand and the direction of pull on the horse’s mouth (up, back, sideways). The term “rein of opposition” is sort of an old-fashioned term and is most often used with the term “direct rein,” as in “direct rein of opposition.” Opposition refers to the forward motion of the horse and whenever you pull back on a rein, you are pulling in opposition to the horse’s forward movement. Therefore, it tends to slow the horse down.
For the direct rein, the rider’s hand moves from the regular hand position (in front of the pommel, straight line from rider’s elbow to the corrner of the horse’s mouth), directly toward the rider’s hip. There is a backward (and slightly upward) pull on the rein and therefore it is a rein of opposition.
An opening rein or leading rein is when the rider moves her forearm to the side and not back and therefore it does not inhibit forward motion. This rein aid is often used as a training rein aid, such as when you are first teaching colts to turn or when you are teaching a horse to spin or turn on the haunches or do lateral movements. It is a leading rein when it is the inside rein (you are opening the rein on the same side as you want the horse to turn). It is an opening rein when you are using it as the outside rein, when the horse is bending away from the opening rein, but you want to move the horse’s shoulder or barrel out (like opening up a circle or leg yielding/two tracking).
There are two indirect rein aids: the “indirect rein in front of the withers” and the “indirect rein behind the withers.” The latter is a rein of opposition and the former is not. The indirect rein in front of the withers is a lift up and in on the rein toward the horse’s neck (an upward diagonal pull on the rein; from the normal hand position, just turn your pinkie toward the horse’s withers without pulling back; the inside rein comes across the horse’s neck in front of the withers). The indirect rein in front of the withers moves the horse’s shoulder in the opposite direction, while the nose stays bent in the direction of the turn.
The indirect rein behind the withers has some opposition or backward pull, and causes the horse to move his hip away from the rein hand while the horse stays bent toward the rein hand, such as in a turn on the forhand or disengagement of the hindquarters. The direction of pull on the rein is up and back toward the rider’s opposite shoulder, in a motion like crossing your heart (the inside rein comes across the horse’s neck behind the withers).
Some important caveats for all rein aids: it is not the amount of pull or contact that causes a reaction in the horse, but the direction of the pressure on the horse’s mouth or the movement of the rider’s hand (when using the indirect rein aids especially- it is only effective when there is little or no pressure on the horse’s mouth). Also, when riding two-handed (as all of the above rein aids require) your hand should never cross the horse’s withers. If it does, the rein aid you are using is ineffective and may be interfering with the horse’s motion (pulling his nose in the wrong direction). All rein aids are supported by leg aids (but that is a whole other subject).
The neck rein is typically used for one-handed riding, but may be used two-handed in combination with another rein aid. For example, when you are teaching a young horse to neck rein, you may use the neck rein as the outside rein aid and the leading rein on the inside to help control the horse’s nose. Eventually, the horse associates the neck rein with turning his neck and nose away from the rein and you no longer need the leading rein.
Like the indirect rein, the neck rein may be used in opposition or not. The basic neck rein is a gentle touch of the rein against the side of the horse’s neck well in front of the withers and has no opposition. The horse is trained to move away from the touch of the rein on his neck and he moves his nose and neck away from the neck rein. If there is a hard pull or the rider’s hand crosses too far over the midline of the horse’s neck, it will inhibit the horse’s movement and turn his nose the wrong way.
The neck rein with opposition (a slight backward pull with the application of the neck rein) is called the “bearing rein” and may be used to turn the horse back on his haunches, such as in a roll back or a pivot on the haunches.
This is a lot of information about how to use the reins effectively and it takes a lot of time and experience before the rider is able to use the rein aids so explicitly and effectively. And it never ceases to amaze me how responsive a horse can be to the lightest amount of pressure and the slightest movement of your hand. One really important thing I have learned through the years about rein aids is that the slower you move your hands, the better the horse will respond.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
http://www.juliegoodnight.com

Teaching Young Horse Collection

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Ask Julie Goodnight: How do I teach my young horse to collect?

Dear Julie,
Firstly, let me tell you that I appreciate very much your website and information! Thank you!
My question is: I have a 3 yr old gelding Welsh Cob, just under saddle and I am trying to find the way how to ask him to loosen in the movement. It is ok for him to loose when we are standing (asking to turn the head to me and then he puts it down) but I have no clue how to proceed in movement. I either can’t keep him moving or he keeps moving but I can’t find any reaction for the head to go down. Do you have any suggestion for us?
Best regards from the heart of Europe,
Karola (in Prague)

Answer: Karola,
Thanks for visiting my website and it is good to know I have followers from so far away! You’ll be happy to know that my TV show, Horse Master, is playing in a few countries in Europe now through RuralTV, so maybe it will be available in Prague soon!

I am assuming that what you mean by getting your horse loose, is to have him break at the poll and round his neck and back, while staying soft and relaxed throughout his body, so that his movement is rhythmic and fluid; with a rounded frame, rather than arched and stiff through the top-line. It sounds like you are able to ask your horse to flex laterally (side to side) and vertically (drop his head down as chin comes in and face comes to vertical) when you are standing still, but not while moving.

First, it is important to understand that for young horses that do not have much training, forward movement is the most critical thing to focus on. Breaking at the poll and rounding through the body (collection) come later as the horse develops physically and mentally. The horse’s conformation and natural carriage also play a big role in how easy it is to round his frame and carry himself and the rider this way. Usually Welsh cobs are built well enough in the front end for collection, with a rounded neck and an upright head carriage.

Focus first on just getting good forward, fluid movement from your horse without asking him to give to bit pressure and flex vertically. Then you can start asking him to gradually round his frame just a little at a time. Continue to work on lateral and vertical flexion standing still, then at the walk, then at the trot. If your horse is having trouble keeping his forward impulsion when you are asking him to round, you may be asking for too much too fast and may need to go back to basic training with a focus on forward movement. Make sure he learns to carry himself in the rounded frame and does not become reliant on you holding him up with the reins.

There are several articles in my training library that can help you with your youngster and I have two videos that could help. One is volume 5 in my riding series called “Collection and Refinement.” It elaborates on the mechanics of collection and how to use your aids to ask for it (as well as for lateral movements like leg yield and side pass). Also, my video called “Bit Basics” explains the process of teaching a horse to relax, drop his head and round his frame in response to bit pressure.

I hope this helps! Good luck with your gelding.

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician

Understanding Your Leg Aids

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Understand Your Leg Aids
The “natural aids” are the tools that you were born with that allow you to communicate to the horse what you want him to do while you are riding. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat, the legs, the hands and the voice. If you have attended one of my clinics or seminars, you already know that I feel very strongly that the primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, should always be used together, in a coordinated fashion, stemming always from the use of the seat aid first. I also teach that there are actually seven natural aids, the others being your breathing, your eyes and your brain.

For riders learning to use the aids to stop and go, I teach the “gears of the seat,” neutral, forward and reverse, to ask the horse to keep doing what he is doing, move more forward or stop or slow down. Neutral gear is sitting straight up over your seat bones in a relaxed and balanced position with your center of gravity right over the horse’s. Neutral gear tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing until you tell him something different. You should ride in neutral almost all the time. To ask the horse to move forward, you inhale; shift your center slightly forward (a clear signal to the horse to move forward); at the same time allowing your arms to move forward giving a release to his mouth and your legs to fall slightly back, closing on the horse’s sides and asking him to move forward.

The aids are reversed to ask the horse to stop or slow down: exhale, shift your center of gravity slightly back, while you arms come slightly back and up, closing the front door for the horse, your legs relax on the horse’s sides. As a rider progresses, the leg aids become more articulate to control different parts of the horse’s body for turning and more refined and controlled movements. The rider’s hands control the horse from the withers forward, but the seat, legs and hands together control the horse’s body from the withers back to his tail.

To simplify the use of the leg aids, I teach that there are three leg positions, using the terminology neutral, forward and back. The neutral leg position is when the rider’s leg hangs straight down, close to the horse’s sides, in the balanced position with ear-shoulder-hip and heel in alignment. Light pressure on the horse’s side from the neutral leg position will cause the horse to move his rib cage away from the pressure. This would be useful when asking the horse to arc his body and bend in a circle, as the rib cage moves out, the shoulder and hip bend into the circle. The forward leg position is applied by reaching toward the girth with your calf. I find it easiest to apply forward leg cues by twisting my lower leg and allowing my heel to come toward the girth or cinch.

Pressure from one leg at the forward position will move the horse’s shoulder away from the pressure or ask him to bend in the shoulder. When horses turn, they prefer to lean into the turn like a bicycle, thus dropping the shoulder and lurching onto the forehand. Light pressure with the forward leg position will ask the horse to keep his shoulder up and bend properly in the turn.

The back leg aid is applied when the rider’s leg shifts back a few inches behind the neutral position and it will ask the horse to move his hip away from the pressure. Again, this leg aid might be used in turning and bending the horse, to keep his hip in toward the center of the circle in order to be properly bent. Good hip control is also important for leads and lead changes and more advanced movements such as leg yielding (two-tracking) or side passing.

Leg aids work together but the rider might be using each leg in a separate position. For instance, if you are using the forward leg position with your inside leg to achieve an arcing turn, your outside leg would be in the back position to also keep the horse’s hip in place.

An ancient saying in horsemanship is that the inside leg gives impulsion and the outside leg gives direction. In other words, the inside leg is the gas pedal and the outside leg is the steering wheel. To control the horse’s entire body, the rider must be able to control the horse’s nose, the shoulder, the barrel and the hip. While the hands control the nose of the horse, the leg and rein aids work together to control the shoulder, barrel and hip.

Experiment with applying a light pulsating pressure with one leg in either the forward, neutral or back positions and feel how the horse will yield that part of his body to the pressure.
–Julie Goodnight
Coming Next on Horse Master and in print:
Julie Goodnight helps you put the techniques she demonstrates on her Horse Master show into action with your own horse. Watch NEW Horse Master episodes shot in Texas at the Banshee Ranch (http://bansheeranch.com/) throughout May, 2010 on RFD-TV every Wednesday at 5:30p EST —Direct TV channel 345, Dish Network channel 231 and on many cable outlets then visit www.horsemaster.tv and www.juliegoodnight.com for articles related to each episode, the gear used in each show, and for training DVDs and publications. Goodnight will feature a main training theme first shown on Horse Master in every column printed here. Plus, see clips from each show at: http://www.horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html and check out specials and even more clips on Julie’s Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/horsemaster.tv.
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Gears Of The Seat

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Gears of the Seat

Question: Hi Julie,

I got to watch one of your clinics at your horse expo last weekend about using your natural aids and how your pelvis has 3 gears: forward, neutral & reverse. I just read your article about “How to open your pelvis for smoother riding”. I guess I have a couple of questions I’m trying to sort out in my head.
1) I’m working on my Parelli Level 1 right now. He says we are to “smile with all 4 cheeks”. Is your “forward gear” & opening your pelvis basically the same thing?
2) When I use my psoas muscles like you described that feels more like what I would call a “driving seat”. Is that correct?
3) Is your opening your pelvis similar to Centered Riding? I want to be a better rider for my horses and I want to be as natural as possible. Sometimes some of these things seem contradictory, but maybe it’s just the way they are worded. I really enjoyed your clinic and thought you were a terrific clinician. Keep up the good work!
Thanks,
Jane Cozad

Answer: Jane,

Thanks for your questions and I think I can help clarify things for you. As for your question regarding Parelli’s teaching technique of having riders “smile with all four cheeks,” I am not sure exactly what he means. Although it’s a clever and amusing thought, it does not really explain what specifically you’re supposed to do with your seat when you ask a horse to move forward. To me, it implies clenching your buttocks muscles, which you definitely don’t want to do. Clenching buttocks muscles sends a message of tension to your horse and it will often cause a horse to tense (butt clenching riders make for butt clenching horses). I think that what he may mean is to increase the energy in your seat and legs to ask your horse to move more forward, and in this regard, it’s similar to what I teach.

I use the “gears of the seat,” as a simplistic method to teach people to use all three of their primary natural aids: seat, legs, and hands, in a consistent and coordinated fashion to signal your horse to slow down or speed up. It’s also a technique that teaches people to use their seat/weight aid first and foremost and to use the legs and hands secondarily, in response to what the seat is doing. Your seat/weight aid is the most important natural aid, the aid that is in the most contact with your horse, but unfortunately the least likely to be used since most riders rely on their hands and legs. So often, riders are confused in their aids and are giving conflicting signals like pulling back on the reins to stop at the same time their weight is moving forward, which causes their legs to move back and close on your horse. So the hands are saying, “stop,” while the seat and legs are saying, “go.”

I like to teach people to ride in neutral gear, in the vertical position with the pelvis open (back flat), which tells your horse to keep doing what he is doing. You ride in neutral gear almost all of the time, using forward and reverse momentarily when you want your horse to speed up or slow down. The “gears of the seat” technique gets your horse and rider both to feel the rider’s center of gravity move as the primary signal to stop and go (forward and reverse gear). For instance, when you shift into forward gear and you relax your stomach muscles and let the top of your pelvis tip slightly forward so that there’s a little bit of weight on your crotch, this moves your center of gravity forward, a clear signal to your horse that you want him to move more forward (at the same time your hands move forward giving a release on his mouth and your legs move back, closing on your horse’s sides). When you want your horse to stop and you shift into reverse gear by exhaling and compressing your shoulders down toward your spine, it moves your seat bones forward and down at the same time your center of gravity moves back and this asks your horse to slow down and drop his back, bringing his hind end up underneath him and stopping on the haunches (at the same time your legs will relax on your horse’s sides and your hands will come slightly up and back, applying resistance to your horse’s mouth). As a rider advances in her riding, she will learn to use her aids in other combinations for more specific transitions, collection and lateral movements.

Using your psoas muscles to engage your pelvis is basically the same thing as using a “driving seat,” because it’s asking your horse to engage his hindquarters (which he needs to do for both speeding up and slowing down) but it depends on what you do with your other aids (legs and hands) that will cause your horse to move more forward, to move into collection or to stop. In other words, once you engage the seat, you could apply resistance with your hands and relax your legs and your horse would stop. Or you could apply legs and resist with the hands and your horse would drive up into the bridle in collection. Or you could apply legs and release slightly with the hands and your horse would drive more forward. The important thing to keep in mind is that you do not use your buttocks muscles (or cheeks) to engage your seat bones. Instead, you use the abdominal muscles, more specifically the psoas muscles (similar to the muscles you use to cough).

You will find the technique of opening the pelvis in many riding theories because it’s an essential part of proper riding position; it’s not necessarily a cue. It’s only through an open pelvis (opening the angle on the front of your hips between your hips and thighs) that you can learn to absorb the motion in your horse’s back and learn to use your seat aid to communicate with your horse. Some of the confusion you’re having has simply to do with semantics. If you tip the top part of your pelvis forward, the bottom part goes back; if you tip the top part of your pelvis back, the bottom part goes forward. So sometimes people refer to moving your pelvis forward or moving your pelvis backward and they actually mean the exact same thing, they are just talking about opposite ends. When you tone your psoas muscles, it will cause your pelvis to open and your seat bones (the lower part of your pelvis that is in contact with the saddle) to push forward and down. When you relax your psoas muscles and push your stomach out, it causes your seat bones to lighten and weight to come onto your crotch.

Although there are varying techniques in teaching riding, for the most part clinicians are saying the same thing, just explaining from a different perspective, some more clearly than others. My approach is always first and foremost to help riders understand the theory behind what they are doing and how to use their aids in a natural and relaxed manner. The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re studying a variety of techniques is to keep your mind open, try new things, but come back to what works best for you and your horse. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician
www.juliegoodnight.com

Ride By The Seat Of Your Pants

Dear Julie,

I have been riding and taking lessons for two years. I am steadily progressing but sometimes it seems like the further I get, the less I know! I was originally taught to squeeze with my legs to make the horse go and pick up on the reins to make him stop or slow down. Now I am riding with a new instructor, who I really like. He tells me I should be using my seat to ask the horse to stop and go, although he can’t seem to tell me how. What is the secret to using my seat instead of pulling on my horse’ mouth all the time?

Sitting it Out

Dear Sitting it Out,

I rode at a very high level as a youth competitor and it wasn’t until I was pretty far along in the game before I found about how to use aids correctly. In my youthful bravado I felt cheated that information had been withheld from me until the ripe old age of 14, but I am sure my trainers, in their wisdom, felt like they would teach me when I was ready to learn more theory and advanced use of the aids. Knowing the aids has influenced my teaching tremendously. I have always made it my goal to teach people more theory and advanced concepts early on in their riding. Here are some important concepts that I teach in every clinic. The info may help you put all of your training together.

The natural aids are the best tools you have to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the rider’s voice. I prefer to teach riders that there are seven natural aids. In addition to the traditional four aids, I add the rider’s eyes (which assist in turning), the rider’s breathing (which helps for stop and go) and the rider’s brain (it helps to learn to think from the horse’s perspective). When all of these aids are used together, your horse receives clear and consistent communication—he’ll know what you want him to do.

All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate–or be connected to–the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you don’t stop by pulling on the reins or go just by kicking). All the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.

Seat Aids
By far, the most important aid is your seat; it’s in the most contact with the horse. Not only are you sitting on a very sensitive part of your horse’s back, but you’re also positioned over his center of gravity. He can feel your shift of weight easily. Because your horse can feel every move, it makes sense to use your seat more than any other aid.

For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down isn’t simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first you must drop your weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging your seat bones into the saddle. As your seat drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between your elbows and hip. Then the shift of your weight and opening of your pelvis will cause increased pressure on the horse’s mouth through your arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from your entire body, not just from your hands.

Practice at Home
You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and your back straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seat bones down and forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seat bones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seat bones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first.

The Gears of Your Seat
You have three gears to your seat: neutral, forward and reverse. Forward tells the horse to speed up; reverse tells the horse to slow down or stop. Neutral gear is that gear that you should ride in 99 percent of the time; neutral tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing, until you tell him something different.

That’s the way professional trainers teach horses to be obedient–once I tell you to walk, you should keep walking straight ahead until I tell you to slow down, speed up, turn right or turn left. You shouldn’t have to pedal your horse by constantly telling him to keep walking.

Neutral. For neutral gear, you’ll ride sitting straight up in correct position and in balance with the horse (ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment). Make sure all of your weight is on your two seat bones and your pelvis is level. When you want the horse to speed up, you’ll shift your center of gravity slightly forward–so that your pelvis tips forward. Since you’re sitting right over your horse’s center of gravity when you’re in neutral, he can feel the shift in your weight just like you could if you were carrying someone piggyback.

Forward. You horse knows that when your center of gravity shifts forward you intend to speed up. Your hand and leg aids, simply follow along with what your seat is telling the horse. Keep in mind that the position of balance with the horse occurs when you have ear-shoulder-hip-heel alignment in your body; in neutral gear, that line is vertical; in forward gear, the line is canted slightly forward, causing your hands to give a release to the horse’s mouth, at the same time your legs move back and close on the horse’s sides. So all three of your primary natural aids, your seat, legs and hands, are giving a clear and connected cue to the horse.

Reverse. Reverse gear is basically the opposite of forward gear and tells the horse to stop or slow down. In reverse gear, you simply exhale, drop your shoulders down towards your hips and let your center of gravity fall back. As your pelvis tilts backwards, your seat bones sink forward and down, pressing into the horse’s back; your legs relax off of the horse’s sides and your hands come slightly up and back. Again, all of your primary aids are giving a clear and connected signal to slow down.

Now let’s use all the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn. First look in the direction of the turn–your eyes and body will initiate the turn. As your head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, your body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting your weight to your outside seat bone. Again, your legs and hands will follow the movement of your seat and not act independently. Your outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside.

Your inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seat bone lightens, opening “the door” to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As your seat swivels slightly in the saddle in the turn, your elbows, arms and shoulders will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.

Using your whole body to communicate with your horse–having all of the aids combining to provide an exact signal– is a very effective and results in what looks like invisible cueing and seamless transitions. These concepts are explained in more detail in my training videos, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Volume 1-5. Volume 3 in this series, Perfect Practice, includes 24 different mounted and unmounted exercises to improve your balance and communication. Volumes 2 and 4 (Communication and Control and Refinement and Collection) explain basic use of the aids as well as advanced use of the aids.

Enjoy the ride!

Riding Skills: Natural Aids–Using Your Legs

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How should I use my legs to cue my horse? I learned to ride with my reins and I know I need to know more skills–to cue my horse with my whole body.

Answer: The “natural aids” are the tools that you were born with that allow you to communicate to the horse what you want him to do while you are riding. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat, the legs, the hands and the voice. If you have attended one of my clinics or seminars, you already know that I feel very strongly that the primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, should always be used together, in a coordinated fashion, stemming always from the use of the seat aid first. I also teach that there are actually seven natural aids, the others being your breathing, your eyes and your brain.

For riders learning to use the aids to stop and go, I teach the “gears of the seat,” neutral, forward and reverse, to ask the horse to keep doing what he is doing, move more forward or stop or slow down. Neutral gear is sitting straight up over your seat bones in a relaxed and balanced position with your center of gravity right over the horse’s. Neutral gear tells the horse to keep doing what he is doing until you tell him something different. You should ride in neutral almost all the time. To ask the horse to move forward, you inhale; shift your center slightly forward (a clear signal to the horse to move forward); at the same time allowing your arms to move forward giving a release to his mouth and your legs to fall slightly back, closing on the horse’s sides and asking him to move forward.

The aids are reversed to ask the horse to stop or slow down: exhale, shift your center of gravity slightly back, while you arms come slightly back and up, closing the front door for the horse, your legs relax on the horse’s sides. As a rider progresses, the leg aids become more articulate to control different parts of the horse’s body for turning and more refined and controlled movements. The rider’s hands control the horse from the withers forward, but the legs control the horse’s body from the withers back to his tail.

To simplify the use of the leg aids, I teach that there are three leg positions, using the terminology neutral, forward and back. The neutral leg position is when the rider’s leg hangs straight down, close to the horse’s sides, in the balanced position with ear-shoulder-hip and heel in alignment. Light pressure on the horse’s side from the neutral leg position will cause the horse to move his rib cage away from the pressure. This would be useful when asking the horse to arc his body and bend in a circle, as the rib cage moves out, the shoulder and hip bend into the circle. The forward leg position is applied by reaching toward the girth with your calf. I find it easiest to apply forward leg cues by twisting my lower leg and allowing my heel to come toward the girth or cinch.

Pressure from one leg at the forward position will move the horse’s shoulder away from the pressure or ask him to bend in the shoulder. When horses turn, they prefer to lean into the turn like a bicycle, thus dropping the shoulder and lurching onto the forehand. Light pressure with the forward leg position will ask the horse to keep his shoulder up and bend properly in the turn.

The back leg aid is applied when the rider’s leg shifts back a few inches behind the neutral position and it will ask the horse to move his hip away from the pressure. Again, this leg aid might be used in turning and bending the horse, to keep his hip in toward the center of the circle in order to be properly bent. Good hip control is also important for leads and lead changes and more advanced movements such as leg yielding (two-tracking) or side passing.

Leg aids work together but the rider might be using each leg in a separate position. For instance, if you are using the forward leg position with your inside leg to achieve an arcing turn, your outside leg would be in the back position to also keep the horse’s hip in place.
An ancient saying in horsemanship is that the inside leg gives impulsion and the outside leg gives direction. In other words, the inside leg is the gas pedal and the outside leg is the steering wheel. To control the horse’s entire body, the rider must be able to control the horse’s nose, the shoulder, the barrel and the hip. While the hands control the nose of the horse, the leg and rein aids work together to control the shoulder, barrel and hip.

Experiment with applying a light pulsating pressure with one leg in either the forward, neutral or back positions and feel how the horse will yield that part of his body to the pressure.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: Connecting And Coordinating The Natural Aids

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: How do you teach riders to use all the natural aids together–leg and rein aids?

Answer: The natural aids are the best tools the rider has to communicate with the horse. Traditionally, there are four natural aids, the seat (weight), the legs, the hands and the voice of the rider. I prefer to teach seven natural aids, which in addition to the traditional four aids includes the rider’s eyes, the rider’s breathing and the rider’s brain. When all of these aids are used together, it gives a clear and consistent communication to the horse of what you want him to do and sets your body up to naturally give the correct cue. All of the natural aids should be used in unison and should always originate, or be connected to, the use of the seat. No one aid gives a cue to the horse (you do not stop by pulling on the reins or go by kicking), but all the aids working together will guide the horse toward the appropriate response.

For instance, asking the horse to stop or slow down is not simply a matter of pulling back on the reins. To ask the horse to stop using all of the aids in a connected fashion, first the rider must drop her weight onto the horse’s back by opening and relaxing the pelvis and plugging her seatbones into the saddle. As the seat of the rider drops down on the horse’s back, a connection is made between the rider’s elbows and hip, thus the shift of the rider’s weight and opening of the rider’s pelvis will cause an increase on the pressure of the horse’s mouth through the rider’s arms, hands and reins. In other words, the pressure the horse feels on his mouth is connected to the increased weight on his back and the pull comes from the rider’s entire body, not just from the hands.

You can see how this feels by sitting in a chair pulled up to a table. With both feet flat on the floor and sitting up straight, put both hands on the edge of the table. As you exhale and rotate the seatbones forward (opening the pelvis and plugging the seatbones into the chair), pull on the edge of the table so that your seatbones get even heavier on the chair. This is how you cue the horse for a stop or to slow down by using your weight aid first. You should feel a connection from your arms to your seat bones, as they press into the chair. If your seat bones lighten and your upper body moves forward when you pull back on the reins, your aids are not connected. Practice this exercise until you feel the connection between your seat and hands, and then try to feel the connection on a horse.

To use all of the aids in a connected fashion to ask the horse to turn, the rider must first look in the direction of the turn and use her eyes and body to initiate the turn. As the rider’s head turns slightly in the direction of the turn, the body will follow, swiveling slightly in the saddle and shifting the rider’s weight to her outside seat bone. Again, the legs and hands will follow the movement of the rider’s seat and not act independently. The outside leg will sink down and close on the horse’s side, shutting the door to the outside. Conversely, the rider’s inside leg will lift up slightly as the inside seatbone lightens, opening the door to the inside and keeping the horse’s inside shoulder elevated in an arcing turn. As the seat swivels slightly on the horse’s back, the elbows, arms and shoulders of the rider will follow (make sure your upper arms are in contact with your ribcage), giving a release with the outside rein and increased pressure to the inside rein, thus supporting the horse’s head, neck and shoulders in the turn.

Using your whole body to communicate with the horse and having all of the aids give the same signal to the horse, is a very effective way to communicate with the horse and results in invisible cues and seamless transitions.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.