The Riding Tree: Communication through Aids
by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Aids are physical pressures a rider uses to communicate with the
horse. When the horse responds correctly to the pressure, the
pressure goes away. So a correct response rewards the horse.
Think of individual aid pressures as “words” that have a specific
meaning to the horse change gait, go left, go right. As both
horses and riders progress in their training, they begin
combining several aids into “sentences” with greater nuances of
meaning than a single word get ready for an extended trot after we
make this left turn, spin to the left when you come to the end of
Aids are not the same as cues. The horse responds to voice
commands or to a click that means trot, or a bump that means
canter is responding to conditioned cues. This is a different
communication system and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with
it. The problem is that riders communicating with their horses
via cues are working with a very limited vocabulary. Riders
communicating via the aids have a full, rich vocabulary with many
shades of meaning. In order to take a horse to the upper levels
in any sport, you need this larger vocabulary.
The “natural aids” consist of the legs, the seat or weight aids,
and the hands or rein aids. We put these aids together into
corridors of pressures that the horse feels as a shape we want
him to take. Because, we can vary the pressure of any aid, good
riders can apply them with great finesse or shades of meaning to
communication hundreds of variations of shape to the horse.
Leg aids are used primarily as driving aids that ask the horse to
move a hind leg forward. A rider puts a leg aid on the horse by
pressing with the inside of the lower leg (with the toe pointing
forward, not out). Leg aids can be applied with varying degrees
of pressure and in different sequences to ask for specific
shapes. When both legs actively apply driving pressure, we call
that a bilateral leg aid. Some examples would be asking the horse
to move from a halt to a walk or from a walk to a trot.
When only one leg is actively pressing and asking the horse to
move the hind leg on that side forward while the other just
softly holds and steadies, we call it a unilateral leg aid. Some
examples would be asking the horse to turn while in motion or to
pick up a canter depart.
Weight aids are the second category of aids we have to use as
communication tools. We talk about burdening weight aids where
the rider drops more weight onto her seat bones and makes her
seat feel heavier to the horse. The opposite of that is
unburdening or decreasing the weight on your seat bones and
making your weight lighter in the saddle. Like leg aids, weight
aids can be applied bilaterally or unilaterally. It’s important
to understand that when the amount of weight carried on a
particular seat bone changes, the rider’s upper body position
should not change. The upper body should not lean. The hip should
not collapse. The rider simply drops a little more weight into
one or both seat bones.
Weight aids are particularly effective because when you are
balanced over the horse’s center of gravity and following its
motion, any weight shift creates a physical pressure that causes
a feeling in the horse that he needs to rebalance himself. They
naturally influence the horse to take the shape you want. For
example, to turn the horse to the left, you simply sit a little
heavier on your left seat bone and the horse automatically feels
like stepping to the left to keep you centered over his center of
Rein aids are applied to the bit through steady, quiet hands and
an elastic wrist guided by loose, flexible elbow and shoulder
joints. There are four ways we use them:
A keeping rein maintains steady, elastic contact with the bit
while following the horse’s motion. Riders cannot effectively use
a keeping rein until they are relaxed, balanced, and able to
follow the horse’s motion with their seat.
A taking rein means that the little finger moves the rein
slightly toward the body. Many riders incorrectly take rein by
bending their wrists. However, if you bend at the wrist in order
to “take rein”, you lose the elastic connection to elbow which is
the essential joint to absorb motion as your hands follow the
horse’s motion. A “take” is usually followed by a “give” or soft
release. Examples of a bilateral taking rein include the rein
back and the half halt.
A giving rein is applied by moving the little finger slightly
away from the body. The giving rein aid always follows the taking
rein aid. On a circle, for example, the rider rhythmically
applies an inside taking rein followed by an inside giving rein
to position the horse’s head slightly to the inside of the
circle. Meanwhile, a steady outside keeping rein follows the
shape you want the horse to take and allows the degree of bend
A resisting rein is a taking rein that is not followed by a give
or release. A bilateral resisting rein applied for a few strides
asks the horse to make a downward transition or to stop.
In addition to these three natural aids, we also have the
artificial aids of the whip, spurs, and voice. The voice is often
used more as a cue than as an aid with shades of meaning. Whips
and spurs are very misunderstood inside and outside the horse
industry. When they are used to reinforce the driving leg aids,
there is nothing innately abusive about them. They simply become
another shade of meaning.
In that regard, the timing of their use is critical. In training,
we take a horse through the steps of showing him want we want,
then asking him for what we want. Once he has mastered those two
phases, we can use our natural aids to tell him what we want.
When we know that the horse understands what we are telling him
but the horse chooses to ignore the request, this is the
appropriate moment in time to reinforce your natural leg aid with
a tap of the whip or a touch of the spur. Either should be
applied with a degree of pressure that does not startle the horse
or raise his excitement level. Used this way, whips or spurs are
not seen by the horse as a punishment. They are simply another
shade of meaning added to the pressures they already understand
so they are going to be horse logical.
We use corridors of aid pressures to create the feeling of shapes
we want our horse to take. However, it is important to understand
that a constant pressure goes away. A good example is the
pressure of the girth. Initially, a young horse may be very
apprehensive about the pressure of the girth. However, because it
never changes, he starts to ignore it.
The same can be true of any of our natural aids. If a rider
inadvertently applies constant pressure with a leg or weight or
rein aid because she is out of balance or unable to control her
body’s movement in some way, the horse soon learns to ignore the
pressure. That is why development of an independent seat through
relaxation, balance and an ability to follow the horse’s motion
is critical to proper application of the aids.
© 2001-2004 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre.
All rights reserved.
As a horse industry professional for 30 years,
Faith Meredith has successfully trained and competed horses
through FEI levels of dressage. She currently coaches riders in
dressage, reining, and eventing at
Rt. 1 Box 66
Waverly, WV 26184