Horse-Riding: Engagement on the Aids

Bringing the horse to the aids is done primarily by driving leg aids and only secondarily with the concurring seat and derivative hand aids, as they all work together in a system. The horse cannot be engaged through the hands, not because I think it is wrong, but because it is physiologically impossible. This is not a matter of style, emphasis, method, or taste. It is a fact of objective physiological data.

When the horse is properly on the aids, the neck coincidentally arches and the poll flexes as part of the total longitudinal flexion. On top of the spinal column of the horse, following its entire length, runs the cervical ligament. At all times, this ligament should be fully stretched. When it is fully stretched, not only does its elasticity and resultant swinging activity increase, but it also will elevate the horse’s back. To elevate the back, a rider ought to lower the cervical ligament at both of its ends; that is, have the horse “tuck his haunches under” and stretch his neck forward and down simultaneously.

That is why just “showing the ground” to the horse, effectively lowering his head, is not enough. One must also simultaneously drive his haunches farther under him. The cervical ligament, and the back, will fully stretch and elevate only when both ends of the ligament are approaching the ground!

When the haunches engage more, then the biceps femoris muscles perform a major function and visibly press the stifle farther forward and upward while lifting hocks higher in their rotation, a lesser function. These muscles, running on the back side of the horse’s rump, are observable at the walk, trot, or canter as they “tuck the haunches under,” that is, they pull the back end of the ligament tight. The front of the ligament is attached to the horse’s skull and can be stretched by riding the horse’s head forward and down while engaging the haunches and tucking the pelvis. Without this activity, the horse is physiologically incapable of carrying the rider properly and developing gymnastically.

Once the back has been elevated, then the horse can balance himself. Thus, the correctly stretched horse, driven correctly by the rider, will “hang his head” from the muscles at the top of his neck just below the crest, the splenius primarily and the scmispinalis capitis secondarily. The horse does not need to support his head carriage by “shelving it up” with the brachiocephalic muscle of the chest. On the longitudinally flexed horse, regrettably referred to as being “on the bit,” all other muscles also automatically relax and move with a great deal of flexion or stretching to create ample, loose, effortless locomotion. These relaxed muscles can be observed “playing” in ripples under the fine summer coat of a correctly moving horse.

The greatest hindrance to driving the horse properly comes from riders stiffening their legs. Gripping the horse with tight legs, pinching heels pressing on his ribs, or banging legs are incorrect leg positions and deny aiding. Riding with the seam of the boots in contact with the horse’s side is a bad habit held over from the “beginner stage” when the rider needed to grip in order to balance himself to stay on. Often quietly elegant legs are confused with tight, gripping legs. The horse cannot monitor tight legs as aids and will sour to the pressure, which he will interpret as a meaningless second girth.

Weight on the horse’s sides will be tolerated much as he tolerates the weight in the saddle, but gripping legs cannot modulate and therefore never “converse.” In human terms, tight gloves do not communicate what gently squeezing hands can. Tight legs also create pain and discomfort much like tight shoes. In fact, with the passing of time, the pain induced by both tight shoes for humans and tightly gripping legs for horses sharply increases and gradually approaches the intolerable level.

Much has been written about the incorrect use of the rider’s legs, including the rhythmic upward “scratching” of the horse’s sides by rocking the toes down on the stirrup irons and scratching or digging the horse with the heels upward. The correct pushing aids depend on correctly placed, stretched, and draped legs that are hanging in relaxed yet continuous contact with the horse. Such a leg position can only be maintained if the ankles are relaxed, flexed, and can rotate to absorb the horse’s motion.

Rhythmically repetitious, yet not visibly obvious, forward-driving aids are the only legitimate driving aids. Of course, they must coordinate with the properly anchored seat. While learning correct driving aids or while teaching them to the horse, the frequent and light use of the whip is necessary. The horse must react to these rhythmically light and harmonious aids and if he “forgets” to react, a rider must remind him with a touch of the whip. The whip serves as a conduit from the rider’s mind and will to his horse’s mind and helps to create submission of the haunches. It is much better to insist on the horse’s attention to the aids early than to nag at him for years!

Effective aids are not exhausting to the rider and not souring to the horse. The horse is capable of flicking a fly off his skin and therefore can tune to the lightest aids if that is what you teach him. The horse can and should always pay attention to the rider while working, and should also be given frequent rest periods. The horse’s ears should not point forward but should be relaxed and slightly slackened back—a position indicative of attention to his rider. The horse’s eyes should not stare forward or roll sideways as if observing objects but rather look as if in a daze with an inward vision. As soon as the horse goes off the aids, tune him back with a stronger application of seat and leg aids.

We can ride neither forward nor sideways by physically displacing horses with force. That is, we cannot push them around. Regardless of how much power a rider may use, he cannot force the horse to do anything. No amount of strength can compel the horse to do anything. The simple reason is that the rider is not on the ground. Being seated on the horse, the rider becomes analogous to the horse’s own body parts. Therefore, a rider is as helpless in influencing the horse’s direction or impulsion by muscle power as his own earlobe is in determining where he should go and at what speed. Thus, muscle power and force will not ride the horse. Schooled aids will, and they might as well be light and harmonious. Since the horse has the neurological aptitude to react to very slight stimuli, he has the mental aptitude to perceive mild stimuli and differentiate between them for a sustained period of time. He has an excellent memory. Use of force and power will only stiffen the rider and horse. Sensitive aids will result in exquisite communications. If a horse pulls, remember that it takes two to pull! If the rider unpulls by yielding one rein at a time, the horse cannot and will not pull. Horses will learn anything. They will learn to gymnasticize on light communications just as easily as they will learn to do the same by harsh and heavy communications.

To increase the horse’s attention to the leg aids, two-track exercises are the most valuable. Two-track movements have terrific gymnastic value. Nothing else “brings the horse into the aids” more firmly than obedience to the complex two-track aids.

To build the horse from the hindquarters forward is not lightheaded idealism. It is a physiologically predetermined, compulsory training commitment. The effort begins as soon as one succeeds in gaining the horse’s attention to the forward driving aids. As soon as the horse accepts the legs without rushing, on the lightest aids he should produce the result of slower but greater rotation of the joints in the haunches. Nothing good can be developed from the horse’s mouth backward. The way is forward and upward in a slow rhythm in order to finally create a tall carriage.

Another method for collection is through “longitudinal engagement activity.” First of all, a rider must feel the gait of the horse and harmonize with it. This is easiest in the trot, but the same applies to the walk or canter. This activity provides a short diagnostic period during which the rider is a listener monitoring what the horse offers. Awareness of relaxation, submission to the aids, balance, rhythm, and impulsion allow a rider to produce desirable change.

The goal of aiding is always the “disturbance” of the status quo. A rider cannot disturb something he does not monitor and understand. He should ask for a change only according to need. Often, improved impulsion or regularity of rhythm may be the most important needs. A rider must begin to ask for longer or higher steps than those the horse volunteers. That is, a rider should lengthen or shorten the horse’s base by extending and collecting the strides.

Work on improving the gaits by lengthening and shortening the base, and alternate between the two modes. Extend the strides to the utmost that the horse can offer in pure rhythm and then collect as much as you can, without slowing the rhythm. It is important that the horse move forward fully stretched and instantly when asked. He should increase the amount of weight assumed by his haunches to “come back” when half-halted into collection. Gradual transitions in these exercises of going from extension to collection can weaken, while crisp ones with demarcation can increase their gymnastic value. Use hands, only in passive resistance, well connected to the rider’s pelvic structure and with the perpendicular torso pressing down to balance the horse back into collection. With every repetition, the aids should become much more refined because the horse’s understanding must be verified and rewarded. The horse will learn to respond quickly and to add longer periods of suspension to the gaits.

Further schooling of collection and resultant extension can be done on a circle 20 meters in diameter. This circle is one of the most important patterns on the way to Grand Prix. Incidentally, if one had to, one could train a horse in an arena that is a 20-meter circle. I am not recommending that type of confinement; however, in the nineteenth century, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria rode in a 20-meter diameter circular blue tent and achieved sophisticated results.

When riding a medium trot, the horse’s hind legs must pass over the hoofprints left by his forelegs. In that sense, the medium trot is an extended trot with modifications. In the medium trot, in contrast to the extended, the horse is not allowed to stretch his topline to full length and therefore some of the shoulder action of the horse is kept in reserve. The horse is not allowed to fully extend in the shoulders. Thus, the medium trot is ample in length but not fully extended to the horse’s utmost stretching ability. In the medium trot, the taller neck position and the higher but shorter use of shoulder action “compose” the horse into a very energetic and elegant movement. His haunches are well engaged but produce higher steps and a distinct lightening of the forehand, bouncing the withers up and lifting the knees higher. The medium trot is the bread-and-butter exercise on the way to Grand Prix. Without the medium gaits, the proper muscular development that produces the proper skeletal rotation just does not develop. The Grand Prix is born of development in the medium gaits. They build a strong, athletic body. The 20-meter circle is a wonderful gymnastic tool that, being a continuous line, allows the perpetual flow of motion. Riding the medium trot on the circle can give the trot special significance in furthering the improvement of balance.

For the development of medium gaits, a sense of “perpetual motion” is highly important. Riders feel that working often in medium gaits is detrimental, hard work. Remember that just a century ago in Paris, London, and Vienna and in the world’s other metropolises, horses were driven in medium trot across cities, pulling their passengers in carriages to dinners, dentists, theaters, and shopping—maintaining the tempo for miles, clock even, and on pavement.

The medium trot has the distinct signature of great engagement and impulsion in the quarters, combined with a slow and elevated motion of the forehand that “waits” for the arrival of the haunches. That relative restraint in the forehand, in relation to the reach of the haunches, defines that wonderful forward yet upward bouncing motion that gives the feeling of a horse rising in front of the rider’s thighs and sinking behind his seat bones.

The passage is born out of the medium trot. Both the strength and the skills needed by the horse for passage develop from medium trot work. Once the horse is ready for it, a bold half-halt during a medium trot can make the horse collect into passage. Medium gaits discourage speed or shifting the weight onto the forehand.

I hope that riders will engage their horse by using the three fundamental methods I have recommended here: put the horse on the aids, teach him the meaning of light legs, and use bending and two-track exercises. To increase his impulsion and confirm his balance, use transitions from longer to shorter strides. To stabilize the rhythm and build overall athletic and muscular development with skeletal proficiency, ride the medium trot on a circle.

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