The Rider’s Aids: An overview of how we direct the horse

Written by Wendy Murdoch

The time has come in this ongoing series of articles on lateral work to talk about the rider’s aids. In the last two articles I discussed the importance of riding accurate circles to improve your horse’s suppleness and begin lateral bending. I have intentionally given you exercises that did not require your attention to detail. Instead, I wanted you to focus on the overall feel and quality of a round circle. The ability to sense the shape of a figure, like a circle, will be important as we look at the different aids used to create that shape.

The difficulty in writing about aids 

From the beginning I want you to realize that I can only write about how aids work from a general perspective. I cannot write down what aids you need to apply in any given moment as you ride your horse. That is something that has to come through experimentation and experience and developing your motor coordination. For a while, you will need to ride each and every moment consciously and perhaps on a number of different horses before you begin to feel the influence of the individual aids for any given movement.

I can only describe the general theory because you and your horse have your own specific patterns of bias and movement. Ideally we would all move and sit in the same way. This would make my life as a riding instructor much easier. In reality every one of us is slightly different. Without watching you I am unable to see if you have all the necessary prerequisites to make an exercise work. In other words, your horse might not be going forward enough to turn properly. If you don’t sense this, you might find your horse turning in the opposite direction. You would conclude that the aids presented don’t work when, in fact, you missed a key ingredient – forward motion.

The application of the aids is just like following a recipe from a cookbook. If you don’t have all the ingredients listed, you will wind up creating an entirely different dish than the one described. It might still be delicious, but you may have trouble re-creating it a second time. The general theory on aids is like a tried and true recipe passed down through generations of horsemen. The standard aids form a repeatable process, which works from horse to horse. Of course, horses can be trained using any consistent training method and even the great Masters had disagreements about the use of certain aids and the training of a horse. But what we are looking for here is a common language that works on a majority of horses with the majority of riders; in other words, a rational system that is repeatable and teachable to anyone studying equitation.

Here’s where we run into the limit of writing and reading about the rider’s aids. Reading is not doing, and interpretation is everything when it comes to making the words yield the desired result. However, without some rational understanding of the aids, you will continue to pull and kick your horse around while kidding yourself that you are riding lateral movements. Remember there is always a choice in how you approach riding, and if you are reading this article I assume you are interested in a more educated method.

Empirical vs. Rational Equitation

Jean Saint-Fort Paillard in Understanding Equitation, described two types of equitation: empirical and rational. He further divided empirical into two forms.

“In ‘instinctive empirical equitation’ the rider exerts himself to develop his instinct by riding as many different horses as possible, no matter what their schooling, so as to eventually acquire the correct reflex, the ‘sense’ of effective action in order to counter the horse’s resistances or defenses. The advantage of this concept is obviously its extreme simplicity and the easiness that results, since it reduces to an elementary minimum the schooling of the horse as well as the theoretical instruction of the rider.”

In other words, ride lots of horses with no real theory or method and achieve results by dealing with any problems that arise through physical strength. This may be OK for the young, but the majority of my students wouldn’t fair so well with this approach, as they are middle-aged and are generally limited to riding one horse. Paillard further describes this method in regard to the horse.

“Concerning the horse… it therefore constantly expends an amount of energy notably in excess of what is actually required for the performance or movement in question. This is contrary to any sensible training methods, human or animal, in which the goal is to achieve the maximum result with the minimum expenditure of energy. Concerning rider… [It] can lead only to a kind of riding that may sometimes be effective but that is inevitably crude and too often brutal.”

Basically, Paillard is saying that those riders who are talented can use the ‘instinctive empirical equitation.’ But riders who are not so talented will be crude and brutal to their horses. This can be seen in riding today in all disciplines and all levels of riding. Paillard continues,

“Methodical empirical equitation’ is characterized by the systematic use of processes and movements employed progressively from the easiest to the most difficult, the goal being to obtain from the horse total submission and complete handiness. … Today, the most famous is, incontestably, the German method, its efficiency having been abundantly proved for a long time by the performances of the German jumping and dressage teams…. the work of systematic mechanization and of gymnastic education of the young horse which we call schooling…” 

The weak point of this method is that, as a great number of experiences in many countries prove, it cannot be universally applied, because it requires from the riders as well as from the horses some particular aptitudes and a definite capacity for adaptation to it…

In other words, systematic schooling, such as the German method, is not applicable to all horses and requires strict discipline of both horse and rider. Paillard continues,

“The ‘systematic mechanization’ which, if well done, can be accepted by some horses, could drive others mad or, at that opposite extreme reduce to slavery and kill the souls… of any hot-blooded horses.” 

The German method is not the only type of systematic training. This kind of training can also be found in racehorses and other disciplines. Paillard goes on to say,

“…. Only rational equitation tends to fulfill this condition [understanding the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ this or that has to be done or not done], by providing the rider not only with processes grouped in a method but also with a body of principles that enable him to employ them intelligently, thus more effectively. 

“The pioneer of rational equitation was Francois Baucher. His fundamental idea was that a rider could and therefore should understand the problems of equitation, which are obviously first of all problems of schooling, since the procedures for utilizing a horse necessarily depend on the procedures according to which the horse has been schooled.

“This led him logically to trace back to the causes of difficulties encountered in order to try to correct them, in contrast to all his predecessors, who, without exception, had sought only to correct by empirical processes the effects they observed. The result of this research permitted Baucher to proclaim a certain number of ‘principles,’ which, for the first time provided a basis for discussing not only equestrian method, but also equestrian doctrine. For the first time somebody told riders not only how but also why.

“Baucher’s achievement was to wrest equitation away from empiricism, to set it on the path of common sense and logic, and finally, to leave to posterity all the essential elements of a doctrine that is entirely valid for schooling and utilizing any horse for any purpose.” 

How do Paillard’s statements relate to this discussion on the aids? It relates in that I will by all means attempt to discuss the rider’s aids rationally. In future articles I will explain not only the what, where and when but also the how and why so that you more fully understand what you are doing. I will also give you exercises to help you determine your particular bias and to correct your patterns so that the application of your aids will yield the desired result. Hopefully, the exercises will give you insight into your particular body patterns and ways to correct them so that your horse can understand your aids more clearly and respond with less effort. Ultimately you must feel this for yourself. Hopefully I can lay enough breadcrumbs on the ground for you to find your way through the forest.

Finally, it is easy to get bogged down in the details. As we talk about the aids, you might find that you are “too much in your head” and lose the feeling for a circle (or any other movements we will be discussing). Go back to those simple exercises where you can let the cones or string create the shape. Sometimes you may just need to head down the trail for a couple of hours to let your head clear out. Remember that this is a process. If you lose the plot, take a break and then come back to these articles later, the same with your training. If you find you need a break, I am sure your horse could use some trail time too.

 Keeping an open mind

I am going to use the circle as an example for the application of the aids throughout the next series of articles. A well-ridden circle, with the right aids, can easily extend into other lateral movements such as leg-yield, shoulder-in, etc. You might find that what I describe conflicts with what you have previously done or thought were the correct aids for a circle. You will also find that on some points I will conflict with what is written in numerous texts. When I get to that, I will present my case and you can choose (hopefully after some experimentation on your horse) the method that is right for you. Remember, my goal is to present a consistent system of aids that will lead all the way up to advanced movements such as canter half-pass. If what you are doing now works for you, I suggest you stay open-minded and practice what I am suggesting as well. In this way you have a choice. You never know when having more options might come in handy.

The material I am going to present is based on searching the literature, research, experience and a scientific understanding of mechanics; in other words, a rational understanding of the aids. But you are the one riding your horse, not me. You need to learn to listen to yourself and your horse. Ultimately the horse gets to vote. If you find that he responds better with something that is different ftom what I state in these articles, go with what your horse tells you. It may be that you are correcting for some individual variation in yourself or your horse, which is essential for a positive outcome.

Aids (particularly leg aids) are often applied along the reflex lines on the horse. A reflex is automatic reaction, without volition or conscious control. If someone taps you just below the kneecap, your leg will twitch. You can’t stop this reaction. The reflex lines on the horse have been used for centuries to produce specific responses. For example, there are reflex lines running along the top line of the horse. If you put pressure on the horse’s back alongside the spine, he will drop his back. If you continue along this line and get past the turn of the buttocks, the horse will tuck his pelvis.

Attacking the horse with the spur on a reflex point can get the horse to react to cues. This approach is not educational. It creates a tremendous amount of tension in the horse because he cannot resist the reflex reaction. You might get the horse to lift his back but most likely he will be holding his breath and hasn’t really learned anything.

With such factors adversely influencong the response to the aids I often wonder how far a horse and rider could go in ideal conditions. For me these ideal conditions would mean that both horse and rider were athletic, pain-free and educated both mentally and physically using the most up-to-date training available. I find it quite fascinating that in all other Olympic sports the athletes are studied, analyzed, fed and clothed with the state-of-the-art techniques and equipment. But we do nothing of the sort for our equestrian athletes.

In an ideal environment the horse’s response to the rider’s aids would be immediate and correct. But there are many factors that can adversely influence the response to the rider’s aids. If you find that your horse is not giving you the desired result, you might want to rule out the following just to be sure his response is not pain-related.

Poor saddle fit is perhaps the biggest cause for miscommunication between horse and rider. Well over 75% of saddles do not fit properly. It is no wonder horses are unable to give us the correct response to an aid when we are causing them pain in the back. If you haven’t checked to see that your saddle fits, I suggest you do. If you want your horse to be responsive you have to be responsible for making sure he isn’t in pain.

Other sources of pain are the horse’s teeth, feet and your position. If you haven’t begun to look at how you are sitting on your horse, it’s time. How can we get the correct response to the aids if you are hindering your horse at every step?

The aids:

The aids can be divided into 4 primary categories: the seat, weight, leg and rein. In addition, there is the caress and the voice. These are called natural aids because they are your body and voice. Artificial aids are not part of you. They include the whip, spur, jumping bat, macate and any other aids, which are not part of your body.

The seat aid is referred to as separate from your weight. In the literature it often includes the torso. Seat aids give direction to the horse and restrain or create impulsion. The rider’s lower back is vital for correct seat aids.

The weight aids are the ability to apply weight to the horse’s back in various ways under the rider’s seat. Weight aids are used to bend the horse. There are a variety of weight aids offered and conflicting information available about weight aids. I have held for many years that you can’t apply a weight aid until you know where your weight is to begin with. When we look further into weight aids, I will offer an exercise to help you determine where your weight is before telling you how or where to use it.

The leg aids are the application of the rider’s leg to the horse’s sides. Leg aids produce forward motion and contain the horse’s rib cage between them to create bending through the horse’s rib cage. Leg aids are also involved with turning the horse.

The rein aids are used for restraining the horse, containing him within a given outline and directing him in conjunction with the seat and leg aids. They are often considered secondary to the seat. There are a variety of rein aids, which we will look at in detail later on.

Aids are often talked about as being independent and/or coordinated. It is vital that the rider be able to use their aids both independently and in a coordinated manner to achieve a tactful seat.

Independence means that the rider can apply one aid without disrupting their entire seat. A leg can be moved slightly forward or back without changing the pressure of the rider’s seat on the horse’s back. Oftentimes the lower leg is referred to as independent from the rest of the leg for this type of aid.

Coordinated aids are when several aids are used together. For clear, accurate movements coordination of the aids is critical to the fluid response of the horse. One action of coordinated aids is inside leg to outside rein, where the inside leg establishes the bend in the rib cage while the outside rein contains the horse so that he stands upright under the rider and between the aids.

Independent and coordinated aids require that the rider have stability, balance, and good organization in order to synchronize their body parts for the horse to understand the request. If you are severely one-handed, you will have trouble coordinating your aids. People who are particularly good at coordinating their aids are musicians. One of the best riders I know is also an accomplished drummer and singer. He is quitidexterous, able to do 5 different things at the same time.

Over the next several articles I will discuss each aid separately. I will talk about how the aid is used on a circle and give you an exercise to help you improve that particular aid and/or to improve your coordination in application of the aids. Until then I suggest you write down what you think and what you use for aids on a circle. Then you can compare your ideas to what I say. If you have questions, comments or contradictions, please send them to me. Perhaps I can include them in future articles. You can always email me directly at: And until then – enjoy the ride!

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.30

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