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.
By AQHA Professional Horsewoman Julie Goodnight in America’s Horse
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.
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.
Question: Understanding Leg Aids By Julie Goodnight
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.
Question: How can I remember how to use natural aids properly? Do you have images you use to help students remember the correct positions, etc.?
Answer: From the very first time you mount a rider on a horse, she needs to know how to use her primary natural aids, the seat, legs and hands, to communicate to the horse what she wants him to do.
I think we do riders a huge disservice by teaching them in the beginning to pull to whoa and kick to go, when there is really much more to using the aids than that. If riders learn from the beginning to use their primary aids together as a unit, use all the aids all the time, then they will develop proper skills and reach a higher level of understanding, sooner rather than later.
I find that the more I can use mental images, word pictures and analogies, the easier it is for my students to learn. A good instructor will always have several ways to explain any one skill, since there is no telling what idea will make an impact on a given rider. I spend a lot of time trying to come up with new images to use in teaching and I always keep my ears alert to any new ideas that are useful. Here are a few of my favorite images that I have shared from time to time in this column:
* Pushing a swing- the motion for sitting the canter
* Bouncing your bottom on a trampoline- the motion of posting trot
* Pulling your cat-tail (from Sally Swift)- how to open your pelvis
* Sitting on your pockets- using your seat to stop
* Two-pronged electrical plug- is your seat bones and your horse is the electrical outlet you plug them into to stop
* Fred Flintstone stop- putting your weight in your heels when you ask the horse to stop
* Turning a key in a door- the motion of the indirect rein in front of the withers
* Windshield wiper legs- how you use your lower leg and heel to apply pressure to the horse’s sides
The analogies and images are endless and I hope that a few of you will be willing to share your ideas too. One of my all time favorite images to use has to do with learning to connect and coordinate your primary natural aids to control the horse and channel his movement is a given direction. It goes like this….
As you sit on your horse, close your eyes and imagine that you horse is a long narrow hallway, from which there are six exits. There is a door at each end and two doors on each side. The doors represent all the directions that your horse can move. He can move forward out the front door or backward out the rear door. In addition, he can move forward and to the side, moving through his shoulder, to the left or to the right. He can also move backward and sideways right or left, moving through his hip.
Using you seat, legs and hands to control and guide the horse is simply a matter of opening and closing doors to direct the horse in a given direction. For instance, if I want my horse to move straight forward, I will open the front door by reaching forward with my weight and both hands, and close all the other doors by closing both legs on my horse’s sides; the horse moves forward out the front door. If I want my horse to back, I will close the front door with my hands by picking up and back on both reins, close the side doors by closing both legs on his sides and open the rear door by shifting my weight back; the horse moves straight back.
Moving laterally (to the side) is a little more complicated than going forward and back, but by thinking through the opening and closing of doors, it is a little less complicated. If I want my horse to move sideways in a side-pass to the right, I need to close the doors on the left, close the door in front and open the doors to the right. So, I will bring my left rein against the horse’s neck (neck rein or indirect rein in front of the withers), close my left leg against his side right in the middle of his ribcage and press down with my left seat bone. In the meantime, my right hand will open to the side (leading rein), my right leg will come slightly off of the horse and my right seat bone will be lightened (since when you make one seat bone heavy, the other one lightens).
If my horse does not move straight sideways, I may need to adjust some doors. For instance, if he moves sideways through his shoulder but leaves his hip behind, I can adjust my right leg forward to close that door and block the flow through the shoulder and move my left leg back toward the hip to close the left-hip door and encourage movement out the right-hip door. At the same time I can move my left hand up and back toward my opposite shoulder (indirect rein behind the withers) to move his hip right and bring my right hand forward to slightly close the right-shoulder door and slow down the movement through his shoulder. Your aids will constantly adjust to open and close doors, depending on where you need the horse to move.
A more advanced and illusive image, but one that has helped me tremendously in my riding, is the concept of “riding your horse through the tunnel.” I learned this concept well over twenty years ago, so it’s source is long since forgotten. The concept of riding your horse through the tunnel means that your horse is moving through a tunnel created by your seat, legs and hands. To change the direction of your horse, you must change the shape of the tunnel. I like to imagine that I have headlights on the front of my hips and that I am shining the headlights down the tunnel. If the horse is to turn, I have to shine my headlights in the direction of the turn to reshape the tunnel.
Every image will not help every rider, but try them on for size and you may find one or two that fits you well, both as a rider and as an instructor. Riding with your right brain—the more creative side of your brain—will really help to bring your riding together and help you develop feel for the horse.
A good instructor will constantly be searching for and trying out new ideas for teaching and improving her own personal equitation skills. Sitting on a horse and thinking of exactly what something feels like or what exact procedure you use to gain a certain affect from the horse will help you reach your students more effectively.
My challenge to all CHA instructors is to explore your own techniques, put them into words and think of some creative images to use in teaching that particular skill. I hope that you will share your favorite ideas with us so that we can print them in The Instructor and help to fulfill our mission of promoting safe and effective horsemanship.
If you are interested in this topic, you might like to purchase this Goodnight educational product: “Principles of Riding Part 2”
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.