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Horsemanship - Applied Use Of The Aids

( Originally Published 1962 )

IN ORDER TO MAKE THE CO-ORDINATED USE OF THE AIDS CLEAR the problems must be related to movements and conditions of a purely practical nature that any rider must be able to handle on any kind of ride. Before a beginner goes out on the trails he must know how to turn his horse, how to stop him, how to put him in motion, how to obtain and maintain the gait he wants. He must know how to do these things without frightening or exciting his horse. He must be able to make his mount understand what he wants and be in a position to enforce his will without starting a fight, in case the horse is unwilling to respond. He must be able to make his horse perform everyday movements without endangering himself by clumsily throwing his mount off balance, causing him to stumble, or otherwise disturbing him. He must be in complete control of direction and speed.


The small circle, the volte, is a school-ring movement practiced to teach the student how to turn his horse or change direction. To accomplish this end with security and ease it is not enough to pull on a rein or apply the cowboy's neck-reining technique. The popular idea is that all it takes to turn a horse is to yank his head sideways with the reins. If this fails, the standard alibi is that the horse lacks training and schooling. The fact is that it is the rider who is short on these attributes, regardless of the high opinion he may have of his own ability.

It is not sufficient to pull the horse's head left or right to make him change direction. In order to enforce the turn the rider must also get hold of the shoulder and hindquarters to assure a safe, smooth performance.

In executing a turn it is, as usual, the rider's weight that constitutes his main aid. Before the change of direction is started most of the rider's weight must be transferred to the inside seat knuckle, placing his center of gravity in the direction of the inside hind leg, not by bending the body but by sliding the seat a trifle over to the side to which the turn is made. He must accordingly also lean slightly backward.

The outside boot is pulled well back and acts to prevent the hindquarters from swinging out and to force the hind feet to follow the track of the front feet.

The inside boot remains in its normal position, immediately behind the girth. Its task is to maintain the tempo, which invariably has a tendency to slow down as soon as the turn is started. This boot must consequently increase its animating action. The narrower the turn the harder it is to keep the tempo and beat and the more vigorously the inside boot must work. The horse's response depends on the rapid, nervous motion of the boots and not on the strength of their pressure or of the kicks.

The inside rein then points the horse's head in the new direction with short, gentle straight pulls in the direction of the rider's outside hip. The horse's neck must not be bent to any noticeable degree except immediately behind the jaw. The rest of the neck, from this point to the shoulder, should, for all practical purposes, remain straight. The inside or direct rein acts directly on the horse's mouth.

The outside or indirect rein is applied against the horse's neck with the hand raised above the low inside hand. By pushing against the neck near the shoulder this rein will force not only the head but the entire forehand into the turn. The outside rein will also help prevent excessive bending of the neck by acting against its outside bulge. Extreme care must be taken to avoid any pronounced pull on the outside rein. If a direct pull is executed on both sides, the horse will stop instead of turning.

When two pairs of reins are used the curb reins must be kept completely inactive during the turn. The hands must be twisted slightly from their normal position in such a way that the little fingers approach each other and the rider's body.

An added difficulty in riding a circle is to make it round, to ride it out. When the first part of the volte has been covered the horse will usually try to take a short cut back to the main track. To prevent this and to complete the circle correctly the inside rein must begin to act indirectly, as soon as the turn has started, by pushing out against the neck. In other words, all inside aids, in addition to their functions as already explained, will during the circling tend to push the horse out on a bigger circle without disturbing his form.

To put the whole thing into a nutshell, when executing a turn or a volte the horse must be bent from ears to tail, so that he covers the curve he is moving on without loss of tempo and action.

It is obvious that the beginner should not be expected to perform this movement at all correctly if the circle is too small. He can make a success of the small volte only when he has developed the coordination of his aids to the extent required to make them most effective.


This movement, which also occurs frequently in practical riding, is of great value and importance in developing the co-ordinated touch of the aids. It consists of turning the horse on the spot, with one front leg as a stationary pivot. The object is not to make the horse spin around this front leg as quickly as possible but to make the turn with a distinct stop between each step taken by the hind legs and with every step under full control.

To make the picture clear, let us take as an example the short turn to the left—that is, with the hindquarters moving to the left around the stationary right front leg. The rider's weight is transferred to the right seat knuckle to enable it to apply a pushing action toward the left.

The boot on the same side is brought into action a trifle behind its normal position. The left boot remains passive unless the horse attempts to take more than one step over. In this event it must be used to stop the turn as soon as the one step has been completed. Should the horse show any tendency to back during the turn both boots must at once be brought into action to prevent this and bring him on the bit again before the next step is taken.

For the short turn to the left the horse is flexed slightly to the right by direct action of the right rein. No actual bend is allowed in the neck. The left rein is used indirectly, mainly to prevent the horse from walking away over his left shoulder and to keep this shoulder in. Short steps forward by the left front leg are, of course, permissible.

This movement sounds and looks easy, but a very delicate adjustment of the aids is necessary for its correct execution.


Pulling a horse in from a faster to a slower gait is a half parade. Puffing him in from any gait to a halt is a full parade. To the ignoramus who knows it all this is, of course, a very simple matter. According to him, if a pull is strong enough the horse should quite obviously stop. If anything should happen to spoil the success of this "sound" idea the remedy is a sharper curb or some other torture instrument. The current idea seems to be that no one except a rider with strong arms can manage a horse with a tough mouth unless he is furnished with some kind of special equipment to give him an advantage in the contest of brute force. This popular notion is the source of numerous bad accidents and a criminal abuse of horses. Riding is not a struggle between two brute forces. It is a sport in which science is matched against brute strength.

Under normal conditions the action of the aids in half and full parades is identical. A rider's safety depends on his ability to stop his horse easily, regardless of how strong his arms are or what auxiliary aids he happens to be equipped with. This part of the technique of equitation, like all the others, must be drilled into the student thoroughly in the quiet of the school ring. It is too late to start learning and practicing when faced by catastrophe.

It is quite true that the pull on the reins is the fundamental means of checking a horse. This pull must, however, be transmitted in such a way as to take effect on the horse's hindquarters. As already explained in connection with turning, it is not enough, in aiming at control, to work on the horse's head. The hindquarters provide the motive power by pushing the horse forward. His progress can to a certain extent be retarded by working on his forehand, but as long as the hind legs are allowed free action the checking cannot be depended upon.

To make the pull on the reins reach the hindquarters it is first necessary to bring the horse's head down in such a position that the pulls on the reins will pass through the rider's seat to the back and hindquarters. For the execution of an effective parade the horse's neck must be flexed, his head vertical, and his neck moderately raised.

The full weight is applied in a heavy driving seat with a slightly backward-leaning position. The boots continue their animation in their normal position. At first glance it does not seem logical to apply seat and boots this way, as if to urge the horse forward, when we actually want to stop him. The explanation, however, is that we want to slow him down or stop him with his hind legs well under and supporting him in a well-balanced stance. Besides, by applying the heavy seat, we accomplish a through-going parade through action on the hind legs.

It is also required that the horse respond to the parade without leaning on the bit—in other words, that he stop into the halt or slacken to the slower gait as lightly as a feather in the hand. This is accomplished by using short successive pulls on the reins, each pull followed by a loosening, properly adjusted. The action of the reins must never become a dead, heavy drag. The parade must never be sudden or violent. It must convey the impression that the horse is being urged forward from behind and checked in front, as if ridden against an elastic wall that gradually forces him into a halt.

A sloppy or violent parade is a spectacular exhibition of bad horsemanship and will frequently result in a stumble or a sprained hock or fetlock. Just because it looks flashy in a Wild West movie is no proof that it is good riding.


The most common errors in backing consist of puffing the horse back by main force, with all four feet dragging, or turning him sideways. When backing correctly he must remain light in the hand; he must really step straight back by lifting his feet and without leaving furrows in the ground. The movement cannot be performed with the reins alone, any more than the rest of the most elementary maneuvers can.

The heavy seat must be replaced by a light one. The rider eases the pressure on his seat knuckles by squeezing with his thighs and pulling the small of his back in somewhat. The boots remain active, although to a lesser degree than when animating the horse to advance—just sufficiently to tell him that action is expected of him and to keep the hind legs well under. In this movement the reins are the most active of the aids. The sharpness of the short pulls becomes more pronounced but never sufficiently sharp or rough as to cause the horse to throw his head up. It is imperative that the horse back with his head down, in order to prevent the back muscles from sagging, which again will prevent the hind legs from staying well under, in a supporting position.

The horse must be correctly balanced before he can be correctly backed.


We again start our discussion with a warning against the technique of the horde of badly educated equestrians. Their method is simple and to the point—give the horse a kick in the ribs and he will go faster. If hedoes not, give him a harder kick or perhaps the spurs. To whack him with a whip, an end of rope, or whatever is handy is also effective.

The trouble is that this procedure, besides being very dangerous, is as crude as the use of square wheels, and depends entirely on whether the horse will accept it in the right spirit. He may resent it and do some kicking of his own, or he may become frightened and bolt. The rider will usually get caught off guard as far as a proper hold on the reins is concerned, and find himself in a tough spot. A sudden and violent kick in the ribs may also make the horse jump and stumble. All these complications take more imagination to anticipate than the average Sunday rider is capable of.

To make the horse advance from a halt into a walk or from a walk into a trot, seat and boots are brought into action first, while the reins check him until he is prepared to advance. All that should then be necessary is a slight loosening of the reins. The point is that the horse must be under complete control of seat, boots, and reins before he is allowed to go ahead. The advance, like the parade, must be gradual and undisturbed. When starting from a standstill the horse should, when properly prepared, start with a front leg and not by first puffing the hind legs under him.


The simple principle of the two-track is to walk or trot the horse with his hind feet following a track to the right or the left of the track followed by the front feet. The horse is, in other words, moving slightly sideways.

He should be prepared for this movement by practicing the short turn on the spot until he responds to the action of one boot at time.

In the two-track the horse's head may be pointed straight forward or flexed to one side or the other and his body may be bent to the left or right. The various combinations of the oblique position of his body, relative to the direction of his advance and the way in which his body is curved, result in several forms of two-track, presenting a very interesting but rather complicated problem. The horse can move with his hind legs inside the track of the forehand with his body straight or bent. He can move with his hindquarters outside the track, with or without bend. The resulting movements are the verser, traverser, contra verser, and renverser.

In modem practical riding the two-track in its various forms has lost most of its importance. In its simplest form it is, however, still used as an effective means of developing the horse's obedience and suppleness.

In connection with the training and schooling of the horse-man, particularly in regard to the coordination of his aids, the two-track can by no means be disregarded. Its execution requires a finer application of the aids than any other elementary exercise. For its proper performance the rider must have perfect control of his own body, a well-developed feel, and the ability to apply his weight, boots, and hands in a detached manner that mechanical horsemanship never can attain.

In order to clarify the picture let us suppose you are riding in the regulation square ring with your left side toward the center. You want to push your horse's hindquarters out toward the fence. The easiest way is to start the movement in passing a corner. Continue the curve and wheel your horse's forehand a foot or two inside the track. He will then be in the correct position for the two-track. When this point is reached, increase the action of your seat on the left side of the saddle and apply the left boot a trifle farther back than normal, in quick, sharp stabs. Bend the horse's head, immediately behind the jaw, slightly to the left by direct action of the left rein. Prevent his right shoulder from slip-ping back on the track by indirect action of the right rein.

The right boot must also be active but distinctly further forward than the left, to keep the horse in motion. The rhythmic use of the boots will be found most effective in two-track.

Care must be taken not to exaggerate the oblique position. If the horse is put too strongly sidewise on the track his advance will stop and nothing will be gained by forcing him to move like a crab. The rider must be satisfied as soon as he senses a willing response to his left boot and the horse moves with a slightly limping action of the hindquarters. The beat as well as the free, elastic action must at all cost be maintained.

If you want to execute the two-track with the hindquarters inside the track, still riding in the same direction as before, your weight is, of course, applied on the right side of the saddle in co-operation with the right boot. In this case the movement is also best started when passing a corner. Just before the turn is completed the horse is in the right position. Stop the turn right there by indirect action of the left rein, bend his head slightly to the right, and proceed as explained before, with your aids reversed.

The two-track must not be kept up for more than a few feet at a time and the tempo must be slowed down decidedly, whether the gait is walk or trot.


In spite of its fancy-sounding name, the pirouette is a very useful movement in practical horsemanship. Every rider should be able to turn his horse around the hind legs without a struggle, at least at a walk and a trot. There is not always room to turn around in a circle. For the polo player the importance of the pirouette is obvious. If he is acquainted with its technique he will not need "spade bits" to turn his horse quickly, and there will be fewer polo ponies with lacerated mouths to disgrace the sport.

Let us assume that a small half circle, correctly executed, is gradually made smaller and smaller, with the hindquarters always kept in by the outside boot to prevent the hind feet from getting outside the track of the front feet. The outside boot in particular must make itself felt more and more the narrower the turn becomes, in order to keep the hind legs, if possible, a trifle inside the track of the forehand. A point will finally be reached where it is impossible for the horse to advance with all four legs in this manner, due to the abruptness of the curve. The hindquarters then will come to a complete standstill while the fore legs continue their beat around them. The small half volte in a perfectly natural way will then have developed into a pirouette.

The most active aids in the performance of this movement must be the seat and the boots. The weight, strongly on the inside seat knuckle and somewhat back, tends to keep the inside hind leg in a supporting position. The active hold with the outside boot and the indirect action of the outside rein will do the rest. It is no longer a pirouette when the horse is dragged around by main force with the reins.

There should be no stop immediately before the pirouette and the beat should be maintained without interruption during the turn. This means, if the pirouette is made from a walk, that the front legs walk around the stationary inside hind leg; if made from a trot the front legs trot around, and if from a canter they keep the beat of this gait. It is quite obvious that it is more difficult to execute a pirouette from a canter than from a walk or a trot. In fact, the former is listed among the high school movements for various reasons, one of them being that it must be combined with a change of lead without breaking the beat.


To convey a clear understanding of the use of the aids in obtaining the canter it is necessary first to explain briefly the action of the horse in this gait.

The correct canter has three beats—never four. One hind leg makes the first beat, the other hind leg and the opposite front leg simultaneously make the second. Finally, the second front leg makes the third beat.

If, for instance, the left hind leg and the left front leg are leading—that is, stepping in front of the other two—the horse is cantering in left lead. With the right legs leading he has right lead. The correct lead is the fundamental and deciding factor of the problem of balance at canter, and it is imperative that the rider at all times have complete control in this respect. A horse can keep on his legs only with difficulty when turning sharply with the wrong lead. A number of accidents on the polo field are the direct result of the rider's lack of horsemanship and inability to change the lead.

An untrained colt cantering around the pasture will al-ways take left lead when turning to the left, and right lead when turning to the right. He does this because his instinct of balance tells him to. When interfered with by a clumsy or ignorant rider his balance may be disturbed, forcing him to do the wrong thing, frequently with disastrous results whether on the polo field, the jumping arena, or the bridle path.

The problem facing the rider when he wants to put hishorse into a canter, particularly in a closed ring, consequently consists both in somehow obtaining this gait and getting the correct lead. Such commonly used "signals" as kicking the elbow, shaking the reins, or scratching the neck have, of course, nothing to do with horsemanship. This also applies to the horse-show technique of pulling the horse's head out toward the fence, putting him partly crosswise of the track, and then suddenly yanking on the reins and digging in the boots while leaning elegantly forward and expertly watching the shoulder. These violent calisthenics will unquestionably result in some sort of a canter—the horse is sufficiently surprised and frightened to go straight through the fence. But how it can have any reliable influence on the lead, unless the horse follows his own instinct without paying attention to the convulsions of the rider, is somewhat beyond human comprehension.

It is true enough that if the horse is entirely green or the rider inexperienced in the use of the aids a simplified technique is adopted in order to get the canter and the correct lead. This technique is based on the principle of interfering as little as possible with the horse's natural instinct. In a case of this kind the tempo of the trot is increased toward a corner or a turn. The moment the corner is reached the head is pulled out in the direction of the fence with a sidewise movement of the hand, and both boots, particularly the inside one well forward, are applied vigorously. The horse is then allowed to throw himself forward into the canter and, since the hampering of the free action of the inside shoulder has been prevented by pulling his head slightly out, the correct lead will be the easiest and most natural for him.

When dealing with a rider who has been taught the correct use of the aids, mounted on a horse that responds to a certain extent to the aids, the procedure is entirely different for several reasons. We want to make it possible for the rider to get his canter and correct lead easily, smoothly, and quickly. We want to avoid disorganizing the horse, with one lead in front and another behind. We want to develop the ability of horse and rider to start the canter from a halt, walk, or trot on a straight line without sidewise movement and with left or right lead at will. We want to be able to change lead effortlessly, with or without intermediate beats or trot. These things can be accomplished only if the canter work is started on the right principles.

One fundamental principle that must always be kept in mind is that the canter starts in the horse's hindquarters and that the lead is decided by the hind legs and not by the front legs. This fact alone knocks the popular horse-show technique into a cocked hat. Even a perfunctory study of the horse's action will prove that the front legs always follow the lead taken by the hind legs. But the hind legs may not take the same lead as the front legs when the canter is not started properly. The result is the numerous cases of disunited canter in evidence everywhere.

Another fundamental principle is that in starting the canter the horse's weight must be brought over on his hind-quarters so that he swings into the gait by lifting his forehand. Only the green remount can be permitted to throw himself into the canter with a rush. When the canter is started correctly from a trot there must be a distinct slowing down of the tempo, enabling the horse to balance himself on his hocks immediately before the first beat of the canter.

Even a superficial observer cannot fail to notice that when a horse prepares himself, for instance, for the left lead he will bring his left hind leg under him in a more supporting position. In other words, he balances himself on his left hind leg.

The unhampered action of the horse, therefore, clearly indicates the way the rider must act in order to get his results without disturbing or cramping the horse's action. The procedure of starting the canter must be analyzed in two parts—the balancing and the animating.

In order to balance the horse over the inside hind leg the rider's weight is transferred sharply to his inside seat knuckle by sliding the seat slightly to the inside and by leaning a trifle back. The result is that the horse will bring his inside hind leg more under him, to receive the added weight.

In connection with the initial preparation of the horse for the canter there is another important detail that must not be overlooked. This is the correct flexing of the neck. It must be remembered that we also want the inside shoulder to come forward, in front of the outside, and there must be nothing to hamper its movement in following the lead of the inside hind leg. If the neck is stiffened and the muscles tensed on the inside, the horse can no more bring that shoulder forward than if there had been a number of iron bars, instead of muscles, between his jaw and the shoulder. The rider must accordingly assure himself that there is no stiffness in the inside of the neck. By playing lightly with his inside rein he must flex the neck to the inside. This flexing, accompanied by a slight bend, must be immediately behind the jaw. There should be no bend in the neck between this point and the shoulder. If the head is bent in too much the rider will defeat his own ends by creating a new difficulty for the horse to overcome in bringing his inside shoulder forward.

The horse is animated into action by lively application of the inside boot, kept well forward just clear of and behind the girth. This use of the inside boot, in addition to animating the horse, will tend to encourage the bringing forward of the inside hind leg.

It will also have two other effects that must be recognized and overcome: a tendency to increase the tempo of the trot and a tendency to swing the hindquarters out toward the fence. The increase of the tempo must be checked by the use of both reins, in the way previously described, and care should be exercised to prevent the horse from leaning on the bit. The moment the horse becomes heavy in the hand the rider will know that he has thrown his weight over on his forehand, which, of course, is the exact opposite of the desired result.

The horse is prevented from obeying the action of the inside boot, as far as the swinging out of his hindquarters is concerned, by the application of the outside boot well to the rear. The outside boot, in other words, assists in keeping the inside hind leg in its supporting position.

It is strictly required that the horse start the canter on one track, with the hind feet in the track of the front feet.

It is easier to secure the correct lead during a turn, and the beginner should use the corners of the school ring or a circle until he becomes familiar with the proper coordination of his aids and develops sufficient feel to apply the necessary well-adjusted touch.

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