Guest Author - Susan Hopf
When schooling horses you must take into account the animal’s ability to respond to your request. In general when you push against a horse their natural instinct is to push back. We need to teach them the response we want which is to move away from a touch or pressure.
We begin teaching this strange concept to horses when we first connect to them as foals. Making clear that they need to maintain a certain space between them and us involves moving them about by a series of quick pushes and releases. If you have worked with babies you know all too well that if you hold any sort of pressure on them for too long they will either launch themselves into the pressure or balk away in hysterics. Either way it means you need to develop a keen sense of when to ask and when to give. Due to their reactivity foals are great teachers.
Horses maintain their instinctive responses into their adult life and are often a bit more forgiving than their younger counterparts so the lesson is not lost on those without a foal as teacher. Horses that come into your life with a distorted view of certain aids can be retrained. Horses with no preconceived notions may be easier to move forward in their training but either way we do need a system of communication that combines human needs with a level of equine understanding.
Please take the time to read the related articles listed below. Once you establish the correct “move away” response and are able to direct such with the leading exercises and fully understand the use of the whip it is time to mount up and begin your work under saddle. A working knowledge of active and passive aids now becomes paramount to your success.
Active aids are, as they imply, the aids applied to actively ask for what you want. Passive aids need more of an explanation. These aids are not inert but are the counterpoint to your active aid.
As an example – when working a bend (article on movement listed below) your active aids are as follows: outside leg slightly behind the girth, outside rein held firm with the line from bit to hand directed toward the outside of your outside hip, your trunk is turned in the direction you want the horse to bend. Once your position is established you ask for the bend by rolling your outside thigh against the outside shoulder of the horse perhaps adding a raised and forward stroke of your outside heel to engage the horse’s outside hind thereby creating a shoulder-in. Without the presence of your inside leg held firmly in place at the girth the horse would most likely fall onto the inside shoulder and lean instead of bend. Your inside leg acts as the counterpoint to your bending aids. The inner leg displaces the ribs to the outside of the horse’s bend which then allows the horse to respond to your active outside aids in the manner you intend.
Another example involves the use of your seat as a passive collecting aid. The seat should never be used as an active aid. There is no such thing as a driving seat and when, in fact, we activate our seats while riding we cause our horses’ backs to stiffen and brace against us – done correctly and with some tact this is the beginning of collection. When the horse stiffens the back the haunches shorten their stride. Collection comes from the development of the timing between holding and giving with the seat in order to shorten the stride, allowing it forward and then aiming it up with an aid from the core of the rider – pushing your bellybutton, without hollowing your back, through your fixed hands. This passively held rein might be needed to indicate that this is not a forward idea but a lifting idea – the reins held firmly do not retract back and give by a slight opening of the fingers when the horse responds correctly.
Lifting comes from the haunches, not the back nor the mouth. Forward comes from the haunches, not the back. Activating the haunches comes from the lower leg. Given the last few statements it makes no sense whatsoever to activate the seat in order to lift or send the horse forward. The more the seat is moved the more the back of the horse becomes stiff. Once this happens and the rider fails to recognize the consequences of riding with a seat that moves haphazardly around on top of the horse compensations occur that create pain and discomfort for the horse as well as a great deal of frustration for the rider – often leading to very inappropriate corrections.
Another point to consider is that you cannot use both legs actively at the same time. In a well-schooled horse the timing of each aid often comes down to milliseconds between the use of each but it is imperative that we do not trap our horses but give them the time needed to comply with our requests. Becoming consciously aware of which aid is active and which is passive for every movement we wish to create is a great exercise for developing such timing. Timing and precision with our aids it what makes a tactful rider and a successful mount.