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Horsemanship - The Aids

( Originally Published 1962 )

THE IGNORANT RIDER CAN AT BEST BE BUT A PASSENGER. TO make matters worse, he will as a rule insist on more action than mere transportation can provide. His clumsy attempts at using his horse for the same purpose he uses a handball, for play and exercise in the open air, makes little allowance for the fact that his tool is a live creature, with feeling and a limit to its endurance. His control of the horse is largely imaginary and based mostly on the animal's fear of the abuse and punishment he knows is waiting for him on the slightest provocation.

The safety of this type of horseman and the fact that he can get away with a ride on the trail at all depend on some-one's selecting a horse for him that needs little or no guiding and is too broken in spirit to resist unwarranted torture.

His main goal is to acquire a certain feeling of security in the saddle. As soon as this is achieved, he can convince a credulous public that he knows all about riding, because he himself is thoroughly convinced. From then on nothing but the most spirited and "fastest" horse in the stable will satisfy such a rider. Should an unsophisticated stableman comply with his wish, this rider will return from his ride brimming over with criticism of the "bad-mannered" horse that showed so little appreciation of his prowess. It is very regrettable but nevertheless a fact that the best and most carefully schooled horses are as dangerous as rattlesnakes to riders who believe that it is unnecessary to learn even the fundamentals of horsemanship.

It definitely must be understood that the ability to stay on a horse, even under difficult circumstances, is only the first step in the progress of the horseman's education. The difference between a rider and a passenger is that the rider knows how to control his mount under all circumstances, regardless of the animal's docility or lack of it. The passenger helplessly depends on his horse's behavior. Besides, the skilled horseman knows how to execute his control with gentle firmness without the use of mere strength or brutality. He knows how to make his horse understand what he wants him to do with-out application of strong-arm methods. He must under no circumstances achieve his mastery through the bully's attitude toward a slave.

An abused horse is never safe and never willing to give his best. The rider who knows how to obtain his horse's confidence, friendship, and cooperation does not need to be afraid of treacherous behavior on the animal's part.

The rider guides and controls his horse with the help of his aids. His weight, applied through his seat, his lower legs against the horse's flanks and his hands on the reins, represents the contacts through which he transmits his will to the horse and assures its execution. There are occasions when sharper means are necessary to make a horse obey and ac-quire the proper respect for a rider's aids. For this purpose there are various auxiliary aids-spurs, whip, martingales, curbs and other kinds of special bits. There are many fantastic bits constructed for the purpose of stopping an over-ambitious horse suddenly and violently by hurting its mouth.

Like most of the auxiliary aids such bits are as dangerous in the hands of the ignorant rider as a surgeon's instruments in the hands of a hospital orderly.

The intelligent use of the aids distinguishes the horseman from the passenger. Through their correct use the rider has the power to make the horse as easy to handle as parts of his own anatomy. It is obvious that the most careful and pains-taking attention must be given to training in the use of the aids. The fact that their effective application depends on their delicate coordination and developed sensitiveness of feel and touch makes the problem far from simple. Knowledge of the purely mechanical motions will not bring the desired response. Only continued practice over a long period will bring results. Nobody can learn to ride from a book.

The execution of the most elementary movements such as turning the horse, setting him in motion, stopping him, and signaling and maintaining the various gaits requires the co-ordinated application of all the aids. It is quite true that a moving horse, for instance, can be guided to a certain extent by the reins alone, but he will remain under control only as long as he wants to.

It is impossible to give a complete picture of the functions of the aids by discussing them separately. Before we start studying their application in connection with the everyday problems of riding we shall, nevertheless, look at a few fundamental principles that will make the subsequent analysis of their coordination clearer.

Roughly speaking, the seat and the boots always support each other and have as their main object to urge the horse forward. The reins are for guiding and regulating, and their function consequently is of a more passive nature than those of the other points of contact.

The proper application of the rider's weight is easy for the horse to understand and hard for him to resist. If the rider is passively relaxed, especially if the horse is standing still, the effect of the seat is neutral because the impulse of the rider's weight is lost in his slack back muscles. On the other hand, if the rider is actively supple and able to control the direction of the impulse by maintaining a perfect balance the seat as an aid becomes extremely effective. This is particularly true when the horse is in motion, and provides the rider with the necessary momentum to make the action of the seat more distinct.

If the rider directs the impulse of his weight down and forward in the direction of the lower part of the horse's shoulder by leaning slightly back and tightening the muscles of his loin, the reaction of the horse will be a strong urge for-ward. A maximum of pressure is in this way put on the two seat knuckles and results in what is called the "heavy seat." If the weight is transferred more definitely, for instance, to the left seat knuckle it will help urge the horse to the right. A "light seat" is obtained by removing the pressure from the seat knuckles. The correct way of doing this, when applied to green horses, horses with tender backs, and to the act of backing, is to pull in the small of the back a trifle, relax the back muscles, and tighten the muscles of the thighs. The light seat must not be assumed by merely leaning forward.

As an aid, the seat must always be active and not just something provided by nature to sit on. The function of the rider's supple back muscles is to transform dead, heavy bumps into controlled, elastic impulses which the horse will find more compelling than spurs and whip. One of the main advantages of using the seat instead of rougher means is that the horse will not be disturbed or frightened. An excited horse is never responsive to the rider's control.

The best example of the effective use of the seat and of weight shifts appears in the handling of the balky horse. The unschooled rider will instinctively throw himself forward and start pulling on the reins, even when his horse suddenly stops and refuses to advance, and so do all he can to make matters worse. The more confident roughrider may try to overcome the horse's resistance by kicking him violently in the ribs or using spurs or whip. He may win the battle by sheer brutality, but in most cases the horse will start fighting back and the rider's position will become more and more dangerous.

If the rider, instead of accepting the fight, starts by loosening the reins, leaning back, and then applying a vigorously driving seat assisted by insistent boot action, the entire disgraceful performance can probably be avoided. When a horse balks he will try to throw the rider's weight forward over his shoulders. The rider's first concern is to prevent this and remain leaning backward, with his back muscles stiffened. It is the persistent distribution of the weight in this manner that actually overcomes the balkiness.

It is quite obvious that an active seat cannot be combined with the dishrag variety of relaxation that is required during the first period of learning. Before the seat can be used effectively as an aid, this passive relaxation must be turned into an active suppleness.

When the forward seat is used, the seat ceases to function as an active aid because the seat knuckles no longer carry the rider's weight. He must then depend on his boots alone to animate the horse and urge him forward.

Whenever possible, seat and boots must be applied in unison. If the seat is urging the horse one way and the boots are trying to persuade him in another, the result will be more or less unsatisfactory.

In the more advanced stages of horsemanship the importance of the seat as an aid increases. Careful instruction in the use of weight and seat for control cannot be started too early.

"Ride your horse forward" is probably the most important principle in the horseman's manual, and in this connection the seat plays the predominant role.


The active and uninterrupted use of the lower legs, the boots, is not a popular idea. The suggestion of any kind of effort in the saddle not directly connected with the problem of hanging on feels too much like hard labor. What every beginner wants is a horse that needs no urging. Many experts are no better, and they yammer and complain to the instructor for giving them horses that they have to kick every step out of. It is so much easier to have the horse "whip-trained" and so afraid of the rider and of everything in general that all one has to do is to hang onto the reins.

This principle has gained so much favor among certain civilian riders that it is regarded as very elegant to ride with the lower extremities sticking out at every kind of angle except the correct one. Following the line of least resistance has unfortunately become fashionable.

The first feeling of awkwardness and unpleasant effort disappears very quickly, however, provided the pupil tries the proper boot action in earnest the first few times. The leg muscles involved are used very little in walking or running, and consequently they are somewhat atrophied; but they will soon grow stronger with persistent practice. From then on the rider begins to get a feeling of really having hold of his horse and will readily admit that the results more than justify a little hard work to start with. Gradually the sense of effort disappears almost entirely.

There are feeble signs that the horse shows are beginning to take some interest in horsemanship. For some time we have had "hands and seat" classes, although they have been somewhat of a mystery both to judges and competitors. The judges can never agree on what to look for and the riders are equally uncertain. All I have been able to gather is that it is not meant exactly as a test of the rider's control of the horse through the medium of the hand and seat aids. And if this had been meant, why were the boots as an aid left out? Is it not logical to take advantage of all points of contact that the position in the saddle offers?

Lately the hands and seat classes have been replaced by equitation classes, consisting mostly of a number of contestants strutting a few times around the ring at a walk, trot, and canter. The only faint sign of movement designed to test the use of the rider's aids and the obedience of the horse seems to be aimed at getting the correct lead at the canter, generally through the use of a technique that makes it a real feat.

It is still an unanswered question whether all this vagueness is deliberate and a result of a strange horror of even mentioning the lower limbs as a means of guiding the horse or whether it is due to a lack of knowledge, which in this day and age seems scarcely possible. I have actually had the surprising information sprung on me that use of the boots was something that only the horse soldiers practiced. The very important riding instructor at a very important girls school in the East explained to her pupils that the boots must not show any sign of having touched the horse when they returned from a ride, because it was not done in the "best circles." The feet should be as far forward as possible to protect the rider from falling off her horse.

In spite of all the hokum it stands to reason that some control is obtained by using the reins alone, more control results from adding the use of the seat, and still more is assured when the boots are applied to help out the other two.

It is a common misunderstanding that the boots are used for more or less violent kicking, as a reminder to the horse that he is not traveling fast enough or is otherwise not behaving like a trained seal ought to. "Bootin'" the horse has nothing to do with the use of the boots for control and can be ineffective, dangerous, or clumsy.

If the boots in their normal position are kept entirely free of the horse but occasionally connect with his ribs in a sudden kick they will disturb or even seriously frighten a spirited horse but will be ignored by a dull or lazy one.

The boots are not meant to be used as an instrument of punishment, but of guidance. The horse must accept them confidently, understand and obey them—not because he is afraid of them but because he has learned to depend on them for communication of the rider's will. The action of the boots must be constant and uninterrupted, so that the horse is always aware of them and never for a moment escapes their control. Their application must have the character of carefully modulated animation—never that of a sudden assault.

It is the lively, slightly nervous motions made without removing the boots from their contact, that will attract the horse's attention. It is not so much the strength of the application that varies as it is the intensity of the vibration.

The boots must never become inactive, even if the rider rests himself and his horse at a relaxed walk. Contact and response are established as soon as the rider has mounted and takes hold of the reins, and should not be interrupted from then on.

Two main principles are followed in the application of the boots—the irregular vibration and the rhythmical contacts. The irregular vibration is possible only when the boots are in permanent contact and can be used only at a stand-still, at a walk, and when a rider sits the trot. The intensity of the vibration must be carefully adjusted according to the willingness and sensitiveness of the horse.

The rhythmical application is unavoidable when posting, as well as when riding at a canter or a gallop. The skilled rider will also use a variation of it at a walk and when he sits the trot. In the last two cases the boots connect with the horse's sides alternately and in step with the hind legs. A short, sharp tap with the boot at the exact moment when the hind leg on the same side is in the air, moving forward, will create a muscle reflex in the side and hindquarters and make the hind leg in question lengthen its stride an inch or two.

Sensitive use of the rhythmic application of the boots is an effective means to regulate the beat, which in this manner can be accelerated or slowed down perceptively. It also saves the rider a good deal of effort, due to the fact that the motion of the horse itself will swing the legs into contact at the right moment. What actually happens is that the front leg moves back at the same time as the hind leg on the same side comes forward. The rider meets the distinct bulge in the foreshortened side with his boot.

The alternate application of the boots when walking or sitting the trot may seem complicated, and the right moment hard to catch. Until he acquires the feel of the 'action the beginner should use the motion of the horse's shoulder as his guide instead of trying to watch the hind legs. The correct time for the application of the right boot, for instance, is when the right shoulder has reached its forward position and starts moving back. The hind leg on the same side is then being carried forward. The horse moves his legs diagonally both at a walk and at a trot.

In case the horse shows signs of ignoring the boots used in this manner he must immediately be pepped up with a more intensive vibration of both boots simultaneously.

The rhythmical use of the boots when posting is executed by bringing both of them into sharp, short contact each time the seat is descending and immediately before the rider's weight comes down in the saddle. If he is posting correctly the rider will find this a perfectly natural motion as soon as he has discovered exactly the right moment and gets into step with his horse. This is due to the fact that as long as the stirrups are used for support the legs lose their freedom of action, and their use as an aid becomes extremely awkward. The only moment in posting when the boots can be brought back easily is when the rider's weight is momentarily removed from the stirrups.

The rhythmical use of the boots at a canter and a gallop is equally logical and natural in its execution. Each time the rider's weight comes down the hind legs are on their way forward. The application of the boots at this moment will urge the horse on and also stimulate the forward action of the hind legs and bring them under in a position affording more support. This will result in a lengthening of the strides, if more speed is desired, and make it possible to slow down the tempo considerably without having the horse break into a trot.

To the beginner, both the clutch with thighs and knees and the constantly active use of the boots feels awkward and difficult. This is because the muscles brought into play are very rarely used when on foot and are consequently more or less atrophied. They must be systematically trained and strengthened in the saddle, and during the first period of training the instructor must insist on the pupil's keeping his legs active for purely gymnastic purposes. If this important point is neglected it will prove impossible to make a rider out of a passenger, to whom the idea of control is limited to steering the horse around with a pair of reins.


The third of the three main aids is represented by action on the horse's mouth through the medium of reins and bit. Without a good hand, nothing worth-while can be accomplished in equitation.

The function of the hands is to regulate and guide the natural impulses of the horse in coordination with the action of seat and boots. It must always be remembered that the point of contact of this aid is the horse's mouth, which is infinitely more sensitive than those parts of his anatomy to which the action of seat and boots is applied. A hard hand and a stiff wrist will cause more trouble than mistakes with the other aids, and will counteract correct use of seat and boot.

A good hand cannot be acquired merely by application of mechanical principles. The delicate feel and sensitiveness of the hands are possible only when the rider is perfectly balanced, and can be achieved only through patient practice over a long period of time.

A young horse or one that has not been abused by iron-fisted riders or with the still-common fantastic bits reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition has a mouth as tender and sensitive as that of any human being. It will sooner or later become dulled by rough handling. The horse develops a tough mouth and an instinct to resist the reins, and eventually becomes difficult to handle. On the other hand, excellent horses that have retained their sensitiveness and a good mouth will, as a rule, acquire a reputation among the hard-fisted gentry that they by no means deserve. The panic caused by violent and meaningless jerks in a horse accustomed to guidance from the reins, instead of punishment, should not be interpreted as bad manners. It is only another demonstration of the fact that a good horse can be appreciated only by a good rider and is dynamite to the ignorant horseman.

Most horses handle more easily and are safer with a mild snaffle bit, used properly, than with a sharp curb in a clumsy hand. A gentle pull on the reins at the right moment is more effective in checking the horse than the application of brute force. A horse that understands that his mouth is not going to be hurt is always safer than one tormented by an unsteady and rough hand or annoyed by a too tight rein. High-spirited horses, in particular, must never be given a chance to fight the bit. Active resistance will irritate or frighten them into frantic rebellion. The experienced rider knows how and when to loosen the reins, whereas a beginner instinctively pulls harder when the horse becomes restive.

This warning must not be understood to imply that a slack and dangling rein is desirable. Or the contrary, it is as dangerous as a loose steering wheel on a car. The cowboy's way of reining is permissible as long as he rides his own horse, but should not be imitated with different breeds and equipment.

Even the rider whose knowledge of horsemanship is limited to hanging on to a horse should realize that the reins are not something to cling to for safety. On the other hand, his safety demands a rein that is sufficiently short and tight to establish contact with the horse's mouth without exerting any unnecessary pull. A properly adjusted and handled rein will prevent stumbling and will help the horse to regain his balance if he should stumble. It also is a means of bringing him under control quickly should he become frightened or for any reason try to get out of control.

The hands and wrists have a delicate and complicated function. The tightness of the reins must be regulated constantly. Motions coming from the rider's body and the horse's head must not result in jerks on the reins but must be absorbed in the wrists. The bit must be kept alive by the play of the fingers.

In coordination with the other aids the reins have a three-fold purpose: to control the speed, to guide the horse's direction, and to regulate his balance.

When the hands are closed too tightly both they and the wrists will lose their sensitiveness. For this reason it is advisable to have the beginner practice a fairly loose grip, with the reins well out toward the finger tips, until experience permits him to close his hands more firmly without loss of feel. At all times, however, the hammer-lock grip with the thumbs must be firm enough to prevent the reins from slipping. It is important that the student learn to depend on this grip to secure his reins, in order to allow the other fingers free action and prevent the bit from becoming "dead."

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