by Mitzi Summers
When we first begin riding, and start to study the theory behind horse-human communication, we are taught that the four natural aids to be used are our seat, legs, hands and voice, and that they are usually used in that order. The ability to correctly use our bodies so that our horses progress in their training is a lifelong process for rider and horse.
First, the beginning rider needs to start the goal of being able to ride with an independent seat. This essentially means that the rider has acquired enough balance so that she can use her legs and hands independently; that she is not miscuing the horse because of her lack of coordination, core strength, and suppleness. Ideally this is partially obtained by being correctly longed on a horse. The educated instructor will require the rider to undergo a series of exercises with and without stirrups and reins which will eventually lead to acquiring the elusive independent seat. It has been estimated that this requires a minimum of 60 hours on the longe line.
It is more common in Europe to have a beginning rider go through this longeing discipline. Some riding schools require six months on the longe line before other teaching begins. However, being longed should at least be part of our learning process.
We are taught that the usual progression of the use of the aids to be used are, in order, the seat, legs, and then hands. This order can be so rapid that it takes a nanosecond to achieve. But HOW to use these signals is always confusing in the beginning.
The location of the “seat” of the rider is actually from the waist to above the knee. The upper thigh can also be used. Usually we want the seat to be able to follow the movement of the horse’s back, not to interfere against the desired action, but also to be able to retard or assist in forward movement. In order to accomplish this we have to develop flexibility and suppleness and balance. All of our joints need to absorb and follow the shock of the horse’s movement. The hip joints are especially part of this goal.
The seat should initiate the action required of the horse. Often I see riders “pumping” with their bodies on a lethargic horse to activate more movement. Actually, it does just the opposite as it causes the horse discomfort and results in his dropping his back. The horse also does not understand this excessive movement as a directive to move faster. Your seat and legs should encircle the horse’s back and barrel in the same manner that a wet towel would hang on the edge of a bathtub. It is an accepted reassurance of the rider’s presence, and serve as a constant and interpreting signal.
The seat bones, pelvis and spine of the rider should match the movement required of the horse. I teach my students an exercise that I call the “swivel” so that they can begin to ask the horse properly for turns of direction and bending in corners. It is surprising when I begin with a new student who already has been riding, how many have not been taught how to ask their horse for the basic requirement of bending around a corner. To help a horse to bend, the rider’s inside leg is on the girth for impulsion and bending. The outside leg follows the elongation of the outside of the horse’s body. This is brought about partly by the flexibility of the rider’s hip joints. The rider’s seat bones are in a position to exert influence over the horse’s back and allow his back to develop the necessary curve. An inside direct rein is often employed, with the outside rein acting as a supporting and bearing rein. To try to absorb these directions and to alert the horse of these aids in the timing necessary seems daunting unless the action is directly begun and influenced by the rider’s seat.
So now try the “swivel” yourself. You do not need to be on your horse to start. In fact, you will first feel it more easily on the ground.
Stand with your legs a little further apart than they would be in a natural stance. Slightly flex your knees and hip joints as if you were riding. Place the thumb of one hand on your navel and the rest of your hand resting below it. Place your other hand behind your back a bit below your waist. The space between your hands is your “center”. Most of your signals to your horse will originate from here. Now take a few abdominal breaths and feel your core “settle” and grow a bit heavy. Imagine a connection between your front and back hands. Imagine energy flowing back and forth from your front to back hand. Pretend you are riding a 20-meter circle to the right. Point your front hand in the direction of the circle allowing your body to follow. Imagine that your front hand is a large belt buckle or a laser beam pointing in that direction.
Become aware of the change in the position of your body. Does your right (inside) leg feel a bit heavier, a bit more connected? Does your outside leg feel as if it has opened up a bit, (softened) because of your giving hip joint? There is your inside leg at the girth and outside supporting leg already started by your center! Try this both ways, bending to the right and to the left. Almost none of us are ambidextrous, yet we expect our horses to be straight. Which way are you a bit crooked? Be aware that this probably affects the effectiveness and evenness of your aids.
Put your hands in front of you in riding position. Now swivel again. How does this automatically affect their position? Your right (inside) rein will coincide with the movement of your seat and direct your horse with a direct rein that does not pull backward. Your left and outside rein will follow and act as the important supporting rein. So now you are asking your horse to turn and to bend with coordinating aids; all of your body is telling the horse the same thing at the same time.
My students are amazed by how simple turning their horse becomes. The energy in the ring changes. The horses become more responsive and are quieter. Now when directing a rider to turn their bending line into a fence, or describing the aids to a shoulder-in, the added directive of which way to swivel aids in the understanding of the exercise to horse and rider.
Often we unknowingly give our horses conflicting and confusing aids. The agreement when applying your body directions to your horse must be as clear as possible. As a judge and clinician I find this to be one of the top three problems that riders have. Things should get easier and you and your horse happier as a team as you continue in your schooling.