Horsin’ Around: "Basic Aids"
by Roger Thompson
Fort Collins, Colo.
Well, it has been awhile since we last talked about the basic aids in horsemanship and I apologize for the length of time it took to get back to it. Especially since I said we would cover them in the next session. I got caught up in some articles that needed to be written at the time.
So now, for those who are mad at me for the delay, we will get back and finish the “Basic Aids” part. I repeat once again how important these aids are to horses when trying to teach them when to move, turn, stop, and stand on command.
The last time we ended on check-and-release when asking a horse to stop. Once we have learned how to ask a horse to go forward, we need to know how to ask him to stop and all four natural aids are necessary.
Keep your weight balanced and your seat deep in the saddle. I like to lean back just a little with my upper back and swing my feet forward slightly. This keeps me from being thrown forward and also tells the horse we are preparing to stop. When training a young horse, I use my voice to tell him “whoa” in a low gentle tone. As I use my voice, I shorten the reins and gently check back with my hands, then release. If the horse does not stop, I do it again and again with a little more force on the bit each time until he gets the idea to come to a stop.
It’s important that the student doesn’t use hard force on the bit in the beginning. Too much force with the hands causes a horse to throw up his head in an attempt to avoid the pain to his mouth. A person who yanks on the bit is called a “heavy-handed” rider. You can see many heavy-handed riders in Western movies. Look for a part where they are all sitting in a group a-horseback, talking, then one rider turns to ride off in a hurry. The horse will throw his head up high as he turns to move off.
Hollywood thinks this looks cool, but remember, the rider is an actor not a horseman. Back when they were making a bunch of Western movies I was asked to be in a number of them while I was out in Hollywood, because of my riding ability and horsemanship.
When starting a horse to walk off from a standstill, all four natural aids are at work and they each are important. First keep your weight balanced. I do like to lean forward just slightly to let the horse know we are going to move. This keeps my center of balance forward and the faster I ask him to move, the further I lean forward. Then I squeeze with the lower legs while at the same time, using my voice in a “clucking” tone.
Once the horse and I become familiar with each other I usually make no sound with my voice. If the horse does not move, I squeeze a little more the second time.
The hands should be still … except I like to pick up the reins slightly and move my hand forward toward the horse’s head. This is also an aid developed to let the horse know we are going to move ” but do not pull back while asking the horse to go forward.
After mastering moving forward and stopping, we are ready to learn how to turn. A turn has two sides: an inside and an outside. The inside is in the direction we are turning. Keep your legs still on the horse’s sides ” not a lot of pounding and kicking. I have developed an aid that involves touching a horse on the side we are going to be turning into just before asking him to turn.
If you want to see how this works, stop and have your horse stand still. Let your rein hand lay on his neck so he knows you are not asking him to move. Watch his ears and when his attention is on something in front of you, move your right or left leg (not both) and slightly touch his side with your heel. The ear on that side of his head will flick back in that direction. This tells you that his attention is on that side of his body and he will move in that direction smoothly if asked. If his attention is on the other side of his body or in some other direction, he will not move as easily and he will probably throw his head up if reined in an opposite direction.
Understanding how the hands work is best studied in English and Western riding, separately. In Western riding the reins are held in the left hand and only the left hand will move. This is called neck reining because the hand moves slightly up the horse’s neck, then slightly pull across the neck in the direction you want to go. The pull across the neck signals the horse which way to turn. With a young horse, we use the aids and it takes the horse time to understand.
With a young horse I use a rein in each hand (in English style or in Western riding this is called plow reining). I move my hand out in the direction to turn and lay my other hand across his neck. When teaching this I use a snaffle bit in the horse’s mouth or a hackamore to eliminate any pain to the mouth until the horse has learned to respond. In English riding, both hands are on the rein. One hand is going to pull the horse’s head to the side you want to turn to (inside hand) while the outside hand gently follows the horse’s head in movement. To turn, use your inside hand to pull the rein out away from the horse. The horse’s nose will turn to the inside. The head will follow the nose and the horse’s body will follow his head. If you are having trouble developing these skills, find a good instructor to help you.
Roger Thompson is a CHA certified instructor of advanced Western horsemanship and beginning English riding.