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Response to weight aids - natural or learned?

From: Kathryn

Dear Jessica, I am just a huge fan of yours, you've helped me get my two daughters started with horses and keep on learning myself. I think your "Parent's Guide to Horseback Riding" should be required reading for everyone in the United States Pony Club! I noticed that it got a rave review from the American Medical Equestrian Association, so here's kudos to you! It's a fantastic book for anybody with a child who wants to ride or even one who is already riding.

I've been wondering about something for a while, ever since my oldest daughter fell in love with a mustang that one of her friends had adopted. We will probably adopt one of our own in another year. By then, I think we'll be ready and able to handle it.

But I have a question that nobody I know has been able to answer, including the friends who own the mustang. I'm very interested in how horses learn what they learn, and how we teach them. I've done some John Lyons and some Pat Parelli and some Clicker Training, and it's all interesting, but I really want to know how much just comes naturally to a horse.

What I keep wondering is, if I got a mustang that nobody had ever ridden, a totally wild horse, if I sat on it (not that I would plan to sit on a totally wild horse, I'm not completely crazy) and used my weight aids, would it know what to do? Would it do what I wanted it to do, I mean? For example, if I was sitting on this mustang and I kind of put my weight over to the right, would it just instinctively know that I wanted it to move to the right? I'm not going to try this at home, but I'm really curious about just how "natural" the weight aids are. Can you tell me? And is a weight aid the same as a cue? Yours sincerely, Kathryn

Hi Kathryn! Thanks for the kind words - I must admit that I was very pleased about that review. ;-)

From my experience, I can tell you that yes, the mustang would almost certainly step or at least shift to the right if you were sitting on it and shifted your own weight to the right. It wouldn't move in that direction because it understood that you wanted it to, because it would really have no way of knowing what you wanted. It would move to the right in order to keep its balance under a load that was becoming unbalanced to the right. This is not a matter of training, it's a natural, unthinking reaction just like the one that causes humans to shrug or lift a shoulder when the strap of a purse or backpack starts to slide out of place.

Everything in a horse's psychological and physical makeup tells it that it is safest when poised and balanced on its four feet, able to make a quick getaway if any danger appears. So if you shifted your weight to one side or the other, your hypothetical mustang would shift too, just to remain in balance and preserve its ability to escape.

Through correct riding and training, horses learn to offer their natural movements in response to the rider's aids. The difference between a trained horse and an untrained one is that the trained horse will have been physically and mentally developed to a point at which it will understand precisely what the rider wants - one step, two, three? small steps or large ones? at a standstill or in motion? with the body straight or bent - and, if bent, in which direction? But the aid is still an AID - literally a "help" - because it works WITH the horse's natural balance and movement. Although the precision of the response "move sideways in a controlled manner in response to my rider's shifting weight" is learned, the basis for the aid is still the horse's natural desire to remain in balance over its four legs.

The aid, then, HELPS the horse understand - and helps the horse perform. A cue, on the other hand, is arbitrary. A cue could be anything at all, and could be entirely unrelated to the desired action - in fact, it could be something that actually made it harder for the horse to perform the desired action. You could train your horse to step over to the right when you say "Aardvark" and to the left when you say "Zebra". There would be no natural connection between the word and the horse's action, but if you taught the horse to associate the movements with the words, those words would become cues. If you've ever watched a trick horse perform - "counting" with a forefoot, bowing, sitting, lying down next to its owner, reaching over to pull a blanket off with its teeth, you've seen a horse responding very well to cues.

There's a place for cues and a place for aids in training. If you are interested in the sort of riding that involves constant improvement and refinement of the horse's gaits and movement - classical dressage, in other words - then you will be using aids rather than cues. Aids require more thought and knowledge on the rider's part, but also allow more complex and subtle communication between rider and horse.

Enjoy your mustang when you get him! I've always found mustangs to be clever, quick to learn, and easy to work with, and I hope that your experience will be similar.


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