Have you ever given your horse an aid and got nothing in return?
Perhaps your horse simply didn't respond? You did it again, and nothing resulted even the second time.
Perhaps your horse gave you an unwanted response - did he pin his ears, scramble forward or even throw out a little buck or kick?
Most of us would then repeat the aid, and expect the horse to "learn" the correct response, because after all, it is the horse that needs to understand what we are doing, and not the other way around!
If you ever find yourself in a vicious cycle with the horse not improving and possibly deteriorating in response, there could be one other variable that you might not have considered - the TIMING of the aid.
The timing of the aid has to do with everything - time it wrong, and you might as well be doing nothing, or worse still, irritating your horse.
Every gait has an inherent rhythm to it. You can probably already feel the "swing" of the horse's back in that gait. You might already know how to post and/or sit rhythmically in the trot, and follow the canter gently through your seat so you don't smack the horse's back with each stride. You can already use your seat and leg aids and steadily, with feeling, use your hands to keep the energy "recycling" back into the horse rather than let it all out the front.
For the most part, your horse is quite pleased with your riding skills! But you know that you and your horse are not yet "one" - there is something missing that prevents you from moving together in tandem - the type of communication that makes onlookers think that you can read each other's mind.
Breaking down the stride
Simply put, the horse cannot respond to your aid if the inside hind foot is on the ground. Once that foot lands on the ground, it is immobilized and unable to do anything other than bear weight.
The time to use an aid is when that foot is heading off the ground into the air. You need to energize the leg as it is cycling through the air into the next stride. It is through that moment when the horse is able to reach further underneath the body, or take a lateral step, or change gait. The moment resurfaces every time the horse takes the inside hind leg off the ground, but it is there only for that moment!
You have to find that moment and make it useful. Applying an aid should be done in rhythm within those moments - stride by stride rather than maintained steadily through several strides. You may find yourself, in effect, dancing your aids to the horse, in the rhythm that works best for him.
It may sound complicated to time your aids, but it really isn't too difficult. Rather than having to focus on the inside hind leg (which can be difficult if you haven't developed the "feelers" in your seat), you can look to the inside front leg for a clue as to what the inside hind leg is doing.
When to time Your Aids
Walk or Trot: Apply your aids when the inside front leg is on its way back.
Canter: Apply your aid when the horse is in the "down stride" of the canter
(as Jane Savoie says, when you can see the mane flop down in the stride).
In both examples, the inside hind leg would be in the moment of elevation. Should you apply the aid in that moment, the leg would be able to respond as it is still gliding through the air.
That is all there is to it! Pay close attention, wait for the moment, execute the aid during the moment, and let the horse respond.
Try it and tell us know how it works out!
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Other posts you might enjoy:
Secrets to a Great Turn (a.k.a. Shift Out To Turn In): Turning a horse is all about using the outside aids!
Speaking "Horse" (a.k.a. Pushing the Envelope): Your horse would be happy if you could ask him in his own language.
To Lesson or Not To Lesson: That should not even be a question!
Stepping "Forward" in Horse Riding: What does the term "forward" really mean?