Principle 6. A rational education to the aids

A rational education to the aids (firstly from the ground and then from the saddle) is preferred over authoritarian gymnastics. In this context… the horse’s willing participation and the intelligent development of the postures necessary for relaxed and effective gymnastics are prerequisites. This is a rather complex ‘Principle’, so I am using that term rather loosely. However, it’s an important point to understand well.

What I believe Mr Karl is suggesting is that we utilise our horse’s extraordinary ability to learn, instead of relying on physical drilling of his body. And this intelligence relating to movement is our horse’s superpower if we understand how to communicate with him this way. In the Ecole de Legerete we use our horse’s capacity to learn, INSTEAD of imposing ways of moving and endless circles to create submission and ‘possibly’ a desirable way of moving. I say possibly, because in the main, endless circles when the horse does not understand what is being asked of him – and is struggling with balance in all planes – does not result in good movement. It is very much an outside-in approach. What we are interested comes from the inside and is revealed on the outside. What does a rational education to the aids mean? For years I ‘thought’ I knew what the aids were, but I didn’t really. When instructors would bellow ‘Inside leg to outside rein’ (while leaning against a fence eating crisps) I would do my darndest to respond, without really knowing what on earth this meant in practice. Push my horse from the inside leg to the outside rein – How does that really work. I mean there is quite a lot of horse in the midde?

I was fortunate enough to have a physically capable and mentally willing mare who would fill in for my lack of understanding sufficiently, but I would come out of the lesson none the wiser. As someone who has had to learn how to ride (not being born in the saddle or having bags of natural talent), what lit me up so much about the principles of the French school and specifically the Ecole de Legerete was that it was understandable by me, and teachable to a horse. The aids went from being some mystical set of factory settings that your horse either came with or they didn’t (usually, they didn’t) to being a language which you could learn together.

The responsibility sitting with the rider to understand what each aid is, and how they are going to go about teaching the horse their meanings. When we talk about the aids, people will often say, ‘seat aids, leg aids and rein aids’; usually in that order. Later in this series we will look at why from the horse’s perspective this might not actually be the most logical progression. However, if someone asked you what the leg aids are – can you be really specific? Specific enough that an animal who’s capacity to learn motor skills is about 6 times better than yours, can truly understand and never be confused? And can you explain how you are going to deliver the message primarily to his brain and nervous system, rather than relying on physical strength and persistence on your part? If the aim is for the rider to do less and less with the aids, and the horse to offer more and more, this is primarily a conversation of intelligence over physicality.

Here are some things I try to consider; have I been really consistent in ensuring that ‘one aid = one response’ ? If I have been using one rein aid, and not noticed that my horse has been offering 6 things as part of his response (maybe slow up a little, fall out a bit, bend some, lift their head) even if these things are tiny, then your horse is showing you that he doesn’t really know what that specific aid means. In that instance one aid = about 6 vague responses. Not good enough for an equine student of this capacity. Are my aids separated? For a horse to understand the aids, he needs to be given time to respond to that aid before something else is overlaid. That might be only half a stride, but there has to be a pause. You cannot use the braking and accelerating aids at the same time, as your horse will only be able to respond to one of these. It is this combination of opposing aids which lands so many horses in trouble. Their reasoning powers are defeated by this and they try their best to tell us our aiding is neither rational, logical or fair. Is the aid so well understood that it becomes more and more subtle? If you put your legs on, and also shove with your seat a little, and use your voice – and this continues to be the case – then you know your horse doesn’t really understand the leg aid. And the responsibility to change the situation is with us, not them.Rather than using endless circles in trot, possibly with side reins on, instead teach your horse all of the aids needed to ride a circle in balance (and there are many; circles are not easy for horses) and then use his mental understanding to increase his physical capability. It’s amazing what a horse will do for you when they understand what you mean.

Written by Kate Sandel