How do you communicate with your teammate when you ride?
Athletes from other team sports learn to communicate with each other as an essential part of their activity. Hockey, soccer, basketball, cricket - or any other game where players rely on each other - requires excellent communication between players. Regardless of the rules and the playing field (or rink), athletes coordinate with each other through voice, signals and body language. In fact, you could say that communication is the single most important factor in a team's success aside from raw talent.
Horseback riding is unique among team sports precisely because of the horse that becomes your athletic partner. The difference between other sports and ours is that we must learn to communicate to our teammate in less obvious ways.
We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel - something very alien to people who don't have to interact with a 1200 pound partner. Want to improve communication with your horse? Use these "natural" aids in rhythm with the horse's movement, at the right moment within the stride, and see how you can speak in full sentences through the body.
The seat is where all riding starts. Without a stable, balanced seat, you will always have trouble staying with your horse. But more than that, you can communicate so many things through your seat that you can make your hands and reins become the icing rather than the cake.
Soft, "breathing" calves can communicate confidence and reassurance to the horse. Use a stronger calf aid to ask for bend or reinforce a two-track movement but then release again to reward and reinforce your horse's response.
Although the lower back is technically part of the seat, it can send distinct messages through the seat that are not necessarily connected to the buttocks. Brace with the lower back to resist the horse's forward movement, or release and follow to amplify it.
The knees deserve to have their own section here because they have their own effect on the horse's movement. Often, riders release their seat only to pinch with their knees. The resulting conflicting messages could cause the horse to hollow his back or slow down despite the seat aids. Release the knees moments at a time and see how your horse responds. If he gives you rounder, bolder movement, you know that you have been gripping too tightly with the knees. Keep them soft (but not so soft that you lose balance) and see what your horse thinks.
The thighs have a similar action. You can grip through the thighs to resist and restrict movement or you can soften, which will allow your seat to move along with the horse. The thighs also help the rider in finding a deeper balance in the saddle by settling into the saddle. Finally, they can reinforce your bending aids so that there is contact with your horse's side from the seat, through the thigh, to the calf and foot. This is the imaginary "wall" we speak of when we want to create an aid that the horse will step away from to create the bend or lateral movements.
Your shoulders hold more power that you can imagine! If you lean back within the movement (ie. don't stay leaning back), you can influence your horse to shift his weight further to the hind end without jerking the bit in the horse's mouth or causing him to hollow his back.
The average head weighs 10 pounds! Use your head purposely and it can also act as an aid, and influence your other aids. In general, keep your head up and eyes looking slightly ahead of your horse. If you want a bend, turn your head slightly toward the bend - but don't overturn your head or it will encourage an overbend in your body as well as your horse's!
Yes, these can also "talk" either in conjunction or not with the seat. Squeeze the gluteus maximus and lighten the load on your horse's back. Soften the glutes and become heavier in order to deepen your seat aid or reinforce your rhythm.
The feet factor into communication as well. Keep your feet parallel to the horse's side to follow and "breathe" along with the calves. Turn the toes out to create more of a wall especially for a lateral movement. Alternately, take the foot off to invite the horse's rib cage into that space.
We always teach that the fingers should be closed in a soft, light fist so that the communication going to the mouth is consistent and steady. Sponging the reins can wiggle the bit in the horse's mouth and conversely, closing the fist can keep the horse from pulling the reins out of your grasp. Some moments might require a more solid feel while other moments can be "butterfly" soft. But in all cases, avoid opening and closing the fingers.
We've spoken about the effect of the elbows before. In general, the effect of the elbows can be similar to the fingers. Keep a soft bend so that you can follow the horse's movement. Momentarily hold them on your sides to resist for a half-halt.
The eyes deserve their own section here because they can control so many aspects of your body. If you can find your "soft eyes" (a term first taught by Sally Swift), you can communicate softness through your skull and shoulders, which then can influence the rest of your torso and aids. Use "hard eyes" when you want to abruptly influence the horse (say, during a sideways deek when you were asking for a turn) but return to soft eyes to resume going with the horse.
Many people write about the breath as it relates to horse riding. It is essential to breathe uniformly while you move with the horse. If you find that you hold your breath at times, break the pattern by singing (even under breath - no one needs to hear!). Find a fun song that you know well and sing in rhythm with your horse's movement. You'll find that your body releases without any forcing on your part.
You probably know from experience that voice can be a huge support to your body aids. If you can teach your horse certain words or sounds, you can give him a heads-up while you apply your body aids or even before. Just remember to keep it quiet if you enter the dressage ring!
Of course, as we all know, there is no such thing as riding with aids separated from each other. Although you can learn to develop arms and legs independent of the seat, and we can dissect each body part to the core, the secret to riding is that everything you do is received by the horse in one moment. So it is more of a holistic exercise that involves the whole body, than moving a hand or a leg or sitting in a given position.
But by breaking down the aids, we can isolate the ones we need to develop. Then we can go back to putting it all together again - when we are on the horse's back!
Can you think of an aid to add to this collection? Please comment below.
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More reading about the aids:
The #1 Rider Problem of the Year – The Leg Aid: You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want.
Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.
Why A Release Is Not A Let Go in Horseback Riding: Many people interpret the term ‘Release’ literally – but that’s not what really means.
In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!
10 Tips for the Average Rider: Are you an average rider? Then join the club!