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Aids vs cues

Text: Hayley Kruger

There is no single correct way of training a horse – for years there have been people who follow different schools of thought, like the French versus German dressage methods, Western versus English riding, and jumping versus trail riding. In each of these disciplines, the rider will probably train and ride the horse in different ways, yet the horse still understands what the rider wants. The importance of training is not what we teach our horses, but how we teach our horses and that it is done in a way that is absolutely clear and consistent for them to understand. A happy horse is the result of certainty and trust.

How horses are misunderstood

Horses do not understand the difference between an aid and a cue – they understand clear messages and respond to them accordingly. When messages are unclear, we can receive a variety of responses, including the horse overreacting, doing nothing, trying or ‘offering’ different answers to what he thinks you may be asking, or evading you altogether. The excuse that arises is “oh he is just being naughty today”. Horses are not naughty – they react to whatever situation they find themselves in and will do whatever will help them survive, as nature intended. It is therefore highly important that you are clear and consistent with your training and riding. You do not necessarily have to train a horse in a specific way because it is the ‘done’ thing; do whatever your horse understands and responds to positively. When your horse trusts you and understands you, you create a strong foundation to train him effectively.

What is an aid?

Aids are soft pressures that help a horse feel the shape you want him to take, the direction you want him to go in or the amount of energy you want him to put into a movement, essentially having a direct effect on the biomechanics and balance of the horse. When he figures out the correct way to respond when he feels the pressure, the pressure goes away by a release, a reward and the opportunity for relaxation. Aids should always be applied methodically and consistently. It’s important to note that this does not mean forcefully or repetitively.

Aids can be broken down further into natural and artificial aids. Natural aids include the legs, body language, body weight (when riding), hands, voice and eyes. Artificial aids include crops or whips, halters, cavessons, bits, spurs and neck straps.

What is a cue?

Cues are conditioned responses supported by rewards. The horse develops an association between the cue and the performance of a certain movement at a certain speed in a certain rhythm. Pressure (the aid) is used initially to create the shape you want, and the cue is given as soon as he creates the shape. The horse is rewarded to let him know that was what you wanted. Eventually you can stop using the aid, because as soon as the horse gets the cue, he gives you the shape and looks for his reward. A cue can be said to be the ‘fine-tuning’ of the aid, which sticks with the horse mentally, whereas an aid needs to be applied each and every time. The cues applied on a trained horse should be almost invisible to the observer, but clear and definite to the horse. Each cue should involve harmony of the rider’s hands, legs, seat and voice. For the best performance from the horse, all cues are properly timed together, not each one by itself.

Putting them together

In essence, we can summarise the use of aids and cues as how we help the horse’s body to move in a specific way. Cues condition the mind to respond to our direction or movement automatically. Aids are used to help the horse, and cues make things easier for the rider. In the early stages of training the horse, aids are used to help the horse learn to make better use
of his body by directly influencing movement to develop muscle, balance
and relaxation. We aid the horse to move in specific ways in order to prepare him to better carry a rider. By consistent and clear use of the aids, they can be lessened until they are reduced down to the subtlest of actions, where the lightest aid becomes a clear influence over the well-balanced horse’s movement, and translates into a cue.

What are my aids?

The aids can be broken down into three basic groups:

1. Hand aids: The hand aids affect the elevation of the neck; flexion or bend; the mobility of the mouth and relaxation of the jaw and poll; and also influence the movement of the forehand. If executed properly, with softness and accuracy, these aids gently influence the desired frame of the horse, but do not demand it.

2. Leg aids: The legs aids are executed by the thigh, calf and heel. The legs influence the horse’s haunches and hind legs. Correctly timed and subtly applied pressure sends the horse forward; moves the haunches to the left or right; encourages the horse to step further under his point of mass (engage); bends the horse’s barrel; and ultimately promotes collection.

3. Seat aids: The seat aids are reflected in accurate weight shifts, which are meaningful to the horse. These can include sitting slightly more in the direction of a movement you wish to increase; shifting weight from the forehand or hind; or encouraging the movement of one leg. The seat bones can also be used to influence forward movement.

Common mistakes

For aids to truly be aids, you have to know when and how to apply them in conjunction with the movement of the horse. It’s not just about putting your leg on the horse, leaning to one side or pulling on the reins. Cues, on the other hand, come in a number of forms, from a particular sound or word, to a touch in a specific location, to a change in body language. If you say the word ‘canter’ and your horse picks up that gait, or your horse turns left when your rein touches the right side of the neck, he is responding to cues.

Common mistakes include asking the horse to move forward while giving stopping instructions; not rewarding or releasing quickly enough or at the right moment; striving for perfection instead of progression; and not guiding the horse to what you want him to do. A lot of riders make the error of kicking every stride due to a lack of balance or thinking that will keep the horse moving forward – the horse actually perceives this as he should just maintain the speed he is going, seeing that you are constantly asking the same thing with no reward. Horses who snatch on the bit are teaching the rider to yield to pressure, and not the other way around. It is the smallest things that make a difference to our riding. We need to become quicker with our feel and more logical with our training.

The importance of correct schooling

Training with aids and progressing to combining them with cues takes a lot of time, effort, experience, knowledge and patience. A lot of riders do not have the time or patience to invest in progressing through the schooling levels correctly. However, taking the longer path is highly beneficial – there is a greater connection between horse and rider and the mental development is unparalleled. Once your horse understands clearly what
you are asking, and you understand how your aids and cues affect the
biomechanics and mentality of the horse, your training potential really is
endless. Correct schooling results in a horse who is a pleasure to ride, and a
horse who is physically and mentally fit and strong. One factor to consider is awareness. Try to become aware of things that you might be doing without realising it, like body signals telling the horse to slow down while asking the horse to move forward. Self-awareness comes with time, practice and feel. Be aware not to ask too much of your horse in one training session, and always leave on a high note. Horses are likely to be more motivated when they know there is something in it for them as well.

We could sit and debate the correct way of schooling for hours, but the bottom line is to do what works best for your horse and for yourself. Take the initiative to educate yourself with regard to equine behaviour and biomechanics, and leverage knowledge from your riding instructor or a knowledgeable friend. Riding with clear and concise intent is far more enjoyable for both you and your horse. Take each training session as it comes, and focus on one thing at a time – soon your horse will progress into a horse who is light, obedient and a pleasure to ride.

Aids vs cues

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