We ask ourselves this question repeatedly. Should we be "loud" in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?
The answer is not simple. To determine the strength level of your aids, you need to know several factors that go into making your decision:
What is the educational level of the horse? If you are riding a young or fairly inexperienced horse, the horse will need a lot more "support" from you than a more mature and developed horse.
You need to, in effect, be there for him. He will likely be less balanced and responsive than you would like, and your aids will need to be strong and secure enough to clearly explain to him what you want. You do not need to be "punishing", but the amount of strength you put into the movements may be more than you think you should be using.
How sensitive is your horse? The sensitive horses generally do not do well with a "shouting" aid. They are the ones that often resist the aids. They get tense, unresponsive, or outright demonstrate their displeasure through "disobedience" such as kicking out, bucking or even head shaking.
For this type of horse, you really need to "zone in" to your own body language and be absolutely clear on your expectations. Being sensitive, your horse might be over-reactive to your aids in the first place, so you have to be sure to not be too overbearing yet absolutely clear so as not to confuse. Be careful to be firm and clear, but at the same time, look for every excuse you can to be light and respectful. The trick is that you need to be so balanced as to be "on" with your aids all the time without increasing the volume. Sensitive horses do best when there is consistency and clarity. This can be very challenging for a rider.
Analyze your horse's conformation. Believe it or not, your horse's conformation plays a large part in the use of your aids. If your horse is built "downhill", he will probably always have difficulty lifting up through the forehand, and will likely always need support from your aids to be able to maintain his balance in a way that keeps him moving correctly and staying sound through the years. If you are riding a thicker, larger horse, chances are, you might need to be "louder" in your aids to get the same results that you would from a smaller horse. If the horse is built for his job, you might be amazed at how light you can be to get phenomenal movement.
Analyze your horse's previous training. If you are riding the horse after someone else has ridden him, you may have to adjust your aids to the level that the horse is expecting, or blueprinted at, by the previous rider. You might start with the level that is sufficient to be clear enough for the horse and work toward the lighter level that you want to achieve.
How does your horse feel today? Like people, horses change moods and levels of inspiration from one day to the next. On a windy, fresh day, your horse might be enthusiastic and even a touch over-excited. On a hot, humid day, your horse may not be so inspired and would rather be having a sun bath than working in the heat. In each case, you will need to adjust the strength of your aids.
What is your level of training? This one must be said! If you are a beginner rider, your aids will be executed in a very different manner than those of a more experienced rider. You will have to develop the level of coordination needed to be able to become lighter over time. Lightness does not mean you simply let go of all your aids and hope for the best (in fact, an educated horse might be offended by that)! Light aids are very difficult to acquire and even harder to execute. It all comes down to experience and education.
So to answer the question: it all depends! You have to be the judge, and know how to read in between your horse's lines.
The difficulty here is that on different days, the same horse may require a "different" rider. You must step up to the challenge, and be willing to change your "style" to suit your horse. Many horses sigh with relief when they discover that their rider knows what she wants and is willing to put the work in to be clear and consistent.
In the meantime, you are always seeking the ultimate lightness of aids. You are always seeking the moment when you and your horse "become one", moving in harmony, balance and lightness. It will come sooner with some horses than others. The main goal is for you to enjoy what each horse offers each day, in the best way that you can.
So, how do you decide how "loud" you need to be in your aids?
Just for fun (and almost completely unrelated to the post), here is the song that inspired the title. Thanks to Kiirsten for inspiring the topic!
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