If someone were to ask you a question and once you answered he or she did not let you know that your response was correct but instead continued to repeat the same question how would you react. Some of you would get angry, some frustrated, some confused and others would just give up and mentally wonder off.
If you, as a rider, ask a question of your horse, and this really is all any aid amounts to – can you please do as I request – and you never release your aid to indicate that he/she answered correctly, how would your horse react? As with people horses’ reactions would be varied. But the one certainty and similarity is that the next time you ask the same question the correct answer would be longer in coming, and this is where many resistances are born.
Release of the aids is just as important as the correct application of such. Push some horses too long and/or too hard and the answer you get may just land you in the dirt. Push others and they will become distracted, leery of the next day’s schooling and/or shut down in their reactivity creating dull beasts that many people would call lazy. There is no such thing as a lazy horse – there are only horses that do not know what is expected so to be safe they give the rider little or nothing in the way of a response.
There are many manifestations of inappropriately holding and/or repeating aids. Holding the reins too tightly for too long especially after the horse has released herself from the contact is a common mistake which results in horses becoming hard in the mouth and resistant to any real connection from back to front.
Another very common mistake riders make is to nudge the horse’s ribs at each stride thinking that this is needed to keep the horse moving forward. Again if this is done after the horse has responded with any sort of forward response eventually you have a horse that ignores the leg aid altogether – this is where you start to see the addition of spurs of increasing severity and sadly after each grade up in size and sharpness the horse returns to the lack of response. I have seen horses bloodied by the incorrect use of the spur as well as so calloused along the rib cage that dynamite would barely make a dent in their response time.
Jumping up and down on the horse’s back is becoming an every day event in the riding world. It is an erroneous attempt to move the horse forward and usually happens after the rider has dulled the horse to any sort of leg/spur aid. Since any movement, by the rider that is more than the horse’s back can accommodate, results in a stiffened back and shortened strides, this makes no sense whatsoever.
So how do we avoid falling into the traps outlined above? Simply put you must know your aids before applying them and you must ask, give the horse a chance to respond and even if the response is barely perceived you must then RELEASE the aid – this is the acknowledgment that the correct answer was given. If the horse holds the requested movement or position nothing else need be done until such time that a reminder is required to continue with the same. If the horse changes into something other than what was requested the aid needs to be re-applied, the rider must assess the response of the horse and if the response was correct, again even if it was just a small response, the aid must once again be released. It is a process – ask, assess, release and ask again.
If you get no response at all with the correct application of an aid the aid must be enforced. I usually relax my aid and then re-apply it with more oomph. Still no response – then you must follow through with a distinct application of the whip (please reference the article on The Whip listed below). The whip is a natural aid. By this I mean the horse will react in some fashion when the whip is used correctly. Sometimes the response is not what you want but it is your job to redirect the horse until the response is what you requested.
Please keep in mind the horse does not refuse to comply with your requests out of any sort of pre-conceived notion of being disrespectful or stubbornness. The horse must learn the meaning of each aid and then develop the muscle power to maintain what has been asked. Since the muscle mass of the horse is large this takes a great deal of time. Once you teach the aids correctly and the horse develops correctly to hold each movement and position each phase of the learning process gets easier.
Horses that have become dull to the aids can be re-schooled to quicken and lighten their response time. It may take longer and may require some harsh follow through with the whip but if you are fair in what you ask – as outlined above – the horse will soon learn that if she responds correctly the level of harshness diminishes.
In classical language all of the above is known as “descente de main and descente des jambes” – release of the hands and release of the legs. At its most basic this allows the horse to develop a deeper understanding of the aid system. As the horse develops you will discover that this is also the beginning of self-carriage and yes real self-carriage can be achieved as long as you adhere to the release of the aid being just as important as the correct application of the same.