Training Mythunderstandings:
The Training Tree: On the Aids

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre The Training Tree

A lot of the terms that horse people use have been misused and overused to the point that they are no longer meaningful. Because the term means different things to different people, it is more apt to be mythunderstood than it is to be helpful, especially in a training situation. Saying that a horse is ďon the bitĒ is one of those terms. As a horse gets near the top of the training tree, we like to talk about him being ďon the aidsĒ rather than being on the bit.

Saying that a horse is on the aids takes the focus off a mental picture of the horseís mouth and front end. It puts it on the horseís whole body and on the whole package of communication tools that the rider should be using and the horse understanding at this level in the training. A horse that is on the aids:

  • Offers no signs of resistance to the riderís aids,
  • Instantly responds to all of the riderís aids,
  • Is muscularly connected from his hocks through his back and neck to the bit because the riderís whole circle of aids is closed.

Remember that at the very bottom of the training tree, we started out asking the horse to move with rhythm and relaxation. As he moves up the training tree, we donít want him to lose those basics. As we get closer and closer to where heís going to be at the top of his game, weíre making a lot more physical demands on him. If weíve taken the time to bring him up through all the in-between training levels, methodically developing his body as well as his mind, heís still going to be rhythmic and relaxed as he reaches the top.

Resistance means that the horse has lost that basic rhythm and relaxation. Youíll know heís lost it if he goes around with his mouth open, or his teeth grinding, or his ears pinned, or his tail swishing, or some other indicator that heís uncomfortable about something. The trainer needs to back down the training tree until she finds the place where the horseís comfort turns to discomfort, solve the problem, and work back up from there.

When we talk about a horse responding instantly to the aids we really mean that the communication between the horse and rider is so subtle itís basically invisible. Sometimes people talk about a horse being ďobedientĒ to the riderís aids. Thatís a mythunderstood term, too. Obedience implies things like dominance and subservience. It makes it sound like communication is a one-way street. The rider tells the horse what to do and the horseís job is to do it right away. A lot of people ride with this attitude.

Communication between the horse and rider should always be two way. When the horse was a baby green learner, we made sure that we first showed him what we wanted him to do. When he understood that, then we could ask him what to do. When we were sure he understood what we were asking, we could tell him what to do, or reinforce our asking, if he didnít respond to our aids.

To get that invisible connection, the rider has to ride stride by stride by stride and keep her focus on her horse now and now and now. When a horse is ďon the aids,Ē the rider asks, the horse listens, the horse responds, and his response gives the rider feedback about how to apply her aids at the next stride. So invisible obedience to the aids is as much the riderís responsibility as the horseís. It isnít just about the horse being obedient and doing whatever the rider told him to do.

The rider also has a responsibility for making sure that the horse has a muscular connection from his hocks through his back and neck to the bit. In order for the horse to give her that response, she has to make sure her whole circle of aids is closed. That means that sheís coordinating her seat and weight aids, leg aids, and rein aids so that none of the horseís energy leaks out anywhere. Heís using all of his body with just the right degree of muscular tension to correctly take the shape sheís asking for at the speed sheís asking for stride by stride by stride.

Being on the aids is hard work for both the horse and the rider. If you ride an advanced level horse for 40 minutes youíre not likely to have him on the aids that whole time. But as the horse comes farther along in his training and as your partnership with him develops and your communication becomes more and more sophisticated those moments when you and the horse are 100 percent in sync will come more and more often. Thatís the sweet spot that makes all the hard work up to this point worth every minute. Itís that quiet thrill when, even for just a few moments, everything is perfect.

Good training is boring. When the rider is keeping everything relaxed, everything consistent, everything logical it looks like nothing is happening. A lot is going on between you and the horse and itís probably not all that boring for you as you work with him. But someone watching oftentimes isnít seeing a whole lot happening. And maybe it can even be a little boring for the trainer whoís starting his ninety-fifth young horse and heís just kind of waiting for it to come along and thereís not much satisfaction yet. Then comes one of those moments when everything comes together and you feel like all you have to do is think something and the horse understands it. Thatís what it feels like when a horse is on the aids.

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