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Leg aids

From: Caroline

Dear Jessica,

Great website. Your explanations are always so clear. I (and my mare) found your article on spooking particularly useful! I'm hoping you can help me make sense of something that I find confusing and despite having asked 3 instructors, 2 of whom teach dressage to a high level, I have not been able to find a clear explanation!

I'm very much a novice rider (middle-aged woman, riding one year). I now have my own horse, a 6-year-old warmblood X (she is schooled by a more skilled rider between my rides). The advice I am always given (and that which I read) for aids to ask for canter is "on a bend, inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind the girth". However, it seems that to ride a circle well at walk or trot the horse should be bent around the inside leg, whilst the outside leg aid is given behind the girth to contain the hind quarters. On the face of it, the same aids! I have been given explantions ranging from "the horse will just know what you want", to "you don't need to know that yet". This latter point I found rather patronising since I am trying to ride as well as I can. Currantly, I am dealing with this by not containing the hindquarters on a turn or bend unless I want canter. I feel the need to understand what the subtle differences in the aids should be, since being a behavioural scientist (of people) by profession, I know that the horse will not "just know" as if by magic.

Can you help me understand the different aids and as a related point, how much should I give with the outside rein on a bend.

Many thanks in anticipation.


Hi Caroline! What a good question, and I agree, "The horse will just know what you want" and "You don't need to know that yet" are not very helpful answers. At the same time, they're not entirely wrong, but they're incomplete.

Have you ever heard the expression "the language of the aids"? Unlike cues, which are not necessarily related in any way to the desired action, aids are small pieces of an overall language, and they work with the horse's body, balance, and instincts to (a) help the horse understand what you want, and (b) make it easier for the horse to DO what you want.

If you think of each aid as a word in a sentence, it will help you understand how seemingly identical elements can "add up" to many different meanings. When you ride, you aren't just issuing isolated aids in a vacuum, you are speaking in clear sentences. There are the individual aids or "words", which convey meanings that can DIFFER, just as the meaning of words in a sentence can differ, and in the same way - according to context. Just as the same word or combination of words can mean different things, the same aid or combination of aids can mean different things. The order, emphasis, timing, and intensity of the aids all convey meanings.

When you are told "The horse will just know what you want", this can be true - IF you are being reasonably clear, and if the horse is well-trained AND a good school-horse.

A good school-horse is willing to extrapolate - if the signals it receives from the rider aren't precisely those that it has been taught to understand, it will do its best to find something familiar in the rider's actions. A good school-horse is able and willing to accept that that a heel in the ribs or a thump in the side might mean the same thing as a squeeze of the rider's calf, and that a pull on the reins, even an uneven pull on the reins, might mean the same thing as a soft, brief squeeze of the rider's fingers. By responding to even a vague approximation of the correct aids, the horse can help the instructor, over time, teach the rider to quiet and refine her position, her balance, and her use and understanding of the aids themselves.

For this reason, a good school-horse is generally a horse with a lovely, generous attitude and good BASIC training. A good school-horse will start, stop, and turn even with crude, inept guidance from the rider, and won't be upset or resentful. A good school-horse is an amazing animal, and THAT is why people who own good school-horses are invariably very reluctant to sell them at any price. Such a horse is truly worth his weight in gold. ;-)

BASIC training means that the horse knows SOME things and knows them very well. Too much training, too precise training, is not an advantage for a school-horse. A horse that has been trained to high levels is quite another matter; such a horse will require a highly-trained, subtle rider with excellent language skills.

A highly-trained horse that is accustomed to an equally highly-trained rider will expect - and insist on - very precise signals that involve all the finesse of a well-told joke (order, emphasis timing, intensity) - punctuation and intonation, if you will! Such a horse is NOT happy or comfortable when ridden by a novice whose grasp of the language of the aids is still at phrase-book level. To this horse, a novice rider will be virtually incomprehensible, and to the novice rider, this horse will be virtually impossible to ride. There's a language barrier! Every movement and shift and nudge and twitch on the rider's part - never mind actual, deliberate aids, I'm talking about the rider shifting one shoulderblade or looking in a new direction - will mean something specific to the horse, but the rider's reaction to the horse's response will tell the horse "That's wrong!" - followed by a stream of (to the horse) incomprehensible babble. At this point, the horse is in a position not unlike that of a human who is trying to follow instructions given through headphones, and suddenly finds that what's coming through the headphones is word chaos, like the sound of four or five different radio newscasts, talk shows, and game shows all playing simultaneously. In this situation, the human would tend to remove the headphones - the horse will usually not remove the human, but it will be confused and unhappy, and will eventually "shut down" in self-defense. An occasional "schoolmaster" will have a slightly different attitude, and will ignore EVERYTHING the rider says UNLESS the correct signal is given, but there aren't many of those horses around...

At walk, trot, and canter on a circle, the horse should indeed be bent around your inside leg, and your outside leg should be behind the girth. A signal for a canter depart will also involve your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg behind the girth, but the aids and the context are NOT identical. Again, think about using words to make a sentence!

Your seat, legs, and hands can function in several ways: they can be passive, they can be active, they can resist (or "hold"), and they can yield (or "give").

On a circle, your legs are not active, but passive; the horse, once bent and , should maintain the bend and the gait until the rider asks for something else. The outside leg is RESTING behind the girth, and won't come into play unless the horse begins to shift its hindquarters to the outside. At that point, the rider's outside leg will be there to "catch" the hindquarters and keep them from swinging out, but at that moment, the rider's leg will have gone from passive to RESISTING the horse's movement - which is not the same thing as ACTING. Meanwhile, the rider is continuing to maintain a balanced position, inside shoulder and outside leg back, and an even, light contact on the reins, with the outside rein somewhat longer to allow the horse's neck to follow the same curve as its body.

In answer to your question about how much to give with the outside rein on a bend - give as much rein as your horse needs. You will want to maintain the same light (ALWAYS light!) contact between your outside hand and the corresponding side of the horse's mouth, and so you will need to allow the outside rein to lengthen, or your outside hand to move forward, as the horse reaches into the curve with its neck. This can be a little or a lot, depending on the horse's balance and length of neck, so I can't give you a precise measurement in inches or centimeters. I can, however, give you a useful image to hold in your mind whenever you bend or turn your horse: instead of thinking of pulling the inside rein and making the inside of the horse's neck SHORTER, think of allowing the outside rein to follow the horse's mouth as you allow him to make the OUTSIDE of his neck LONGER.

When the rider asks for a canter depart, the context and the aids are both somewhat different. Both legs act - the inside leg at the girth to ask for impulsion, the outside leg behind the girth to indicate that the canter strike-off should be initiated by the horse's outside hind leg. The rider's body is straight, the contact on both reins is still light, but the rider YIELDS the inside rein. This means that the contact on the inside rein is even lighter than usual, possibly (depending on the level of the horse and rider) even non-existent, so as to free the horse's inside hind leg to step through into the second step of the canter stride. The rider's legs ACT (and then yield); the rider's inside hand yields.

When you are first learning to ride, most of your effort will go to keeping your body upright and balanced at all three gaits, and your stops, starts, and turns will necessarily be less effective and more crude than they will be later. That, I suspect, is the reason behind "You don't need to know that yet"! It can be upsetting and confusing to riders if they are presented with too many explanations and too many demands when they are still at the baby-beginner stage. Subtle leg and hand aids are not even possible until the rider has mastered her own balance, coordination, and timing - and that takes time and a lot of correct repetition.

Some riders become anxious and want to do subtle things with their fingers when their shoulders and hips and legs aren't yet under their control, and they are still getting in their horses' way. This is frustrating for riders, horses, and instructors alike, and takes everyone's focus away from the basics, which is where it needs to be for the first few years. Many instructors have learned that because it's best to keep the rider's focus where it belongs, it's more practical if they discourage novice riders from becoming distracted by thinking about things that are still years away.

Not all instructors share this view. I've found that a great many adults actually do BETTER if they can be aware of where they want to go - as long as they are also made aware of why it's important to get there correctly. It's not easy for any novice at any sport or art to understand that correctness is all-important, and that no matter where they want to go, if they don't get there correctly, they won't be able to get there at all.

For instance, everything I wrote above, regarding active and passive aids, will make sense to you in one way NOW, and in quite another way in, say, three years, and in yet another way in, say, ten years or twenty years! In three years, you'll look back and realize that what you USED to think of as "active" you now think of as "kicking and pulling", and what you USED to think of as "passive" you now think of as quiet but definite active aids. Ten years on, you'll have the same epiphany again. That's because your balance, coordination, body awareness, and understanding of the language of the aids will all increase over time. That is, they will IF you're willing to work steadily at improving your understanding and your riding skills - and it seems to me that you are very willing to work at both.


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