The Blurry Line Between Aids and Cues

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

As a horse works its way up the training tree, its handler needs to stay aware of the difference between an aid and a cue or signal. A lot of people mythunderstand the difference because the line between an aid and a cue gets blurry sometimes.

An "aid" is a pressure that helps a horse feel the shape you want him to take or the direction you want him to go or the amount of energy you want him to put into the deal. When we start a baby green horse in training, we first develop a feeling of rhythm and relaxation that helps him feel safe around us, then we start creating corridors of pressures around him that help him feel what it is we would like him to do. When he figures out the correct way to respond when he feels those pressures, the pressures go away. The key thing about these pressures or aids is that you can modify them.

Once the horse understands what you want him to do, you can use signals—or call them "cues"—that tell the horse what you want him to do. Signals cannot be modified. They are like switches. They either are "on" or "off," "do" or "do not do" something. The horse develops an association between the cue and the performance of a certain movement at a certain speed in a certain rhythm, etc. Professional trainers use aids to develop a horse, then they put cues on him so that an amateur can ride the horse in the show pen and come out grinning with a ribbon.

Some people try to train a horse by giving him a cue and then finding some way to make him do what they want until the horse finally associates the cue with that activity. For example, they might want to train a baby horse to walk alongside them on a loose lead. So they make a big show of stepping forward with their foot or they shake the lead rope and hope the horse will follow along. Those are signals.

Someone else might stand alongside that baby horse with a long whip in their outside hand and make a little motion with the whip to catch the horse's eye and create a feeling that he wants to move. If that doesn't work, the handler can modify the motion, making it a little bigger or faster or even touching the horse's hindquarters with the whip to create a feeling in the horse that he wants to move. The handler may lean forward just a bit. Or he may move slightly behind the secondary line of influence that runs through the horse's shoulders, perpendicular to his spine, to create a feeling in the horse that he wants to move forward. Those are aids. When the horse moves, the handler moves along with him in the same direction at the same pace.

As the horse begins to understand what the handler wants, he picks up on things the handler does like moving a foot or squeezing with the legs or using the seat and makes an association between a particular corridor of aids and the desired behavior. Now the line between aids and signals begins to blur a little. The fact remains, however, that a corridor of aids can be modified and enforced. A signal or cue is just a "do this" button that cannot be modified or enforced.

When new students start our training classes, they usually mythunderstand the difference between aids and signals. When they step off back home and their trained horse steps off with them, they think that the act of stepping off is causing the horse to follow them. So they try to show their project horse how to follow them by stepping off. When they find that this signal that their trained horse understands perfectly is meaningless to the baby green horse, they start learning how to use aids to cause the horse to feel like moving.

When people use cues long enough, they can forget that a cue does not cause the horse to do anything. A cue is just an on/off switch for a specific behavior initially developed using a corridor of aids. In the case of the amateur rider with a professional trainer, they may never have learned the corridor of aids in the first place.

The problem is that, over time, the horse's response to a cue or signal can get dull. When that happens, it becomes meaningless and there is no way to enforce it. Repeating and repeating and repeating the signal just makes the horse duller and the handler or rider frustrated.

Pavlov figured this out years ago when he did his classic studies on conditioned responses in dogs. He wanted to use a response that the dog could not directly control itself so he used the production of saliva because he could easily produce it with food. So first, he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs and then he found the dogs would salivate when he rang the bell even though there was no food around. He did all kinds of graphs about how much saliva each dog produced when there was food and when there was not. He found each dog had a different learning curve for associating the bell with food. And when he continued the basic experiment and stopped presenting food each time he rang the bell, he found that each dog also had a learning curve for realizing the bell no longer had any meaning so the dog stopped salivating on cue.

The lesson here is that we must constantly support a signal or cue if you want the horse to keep the association between that signal and a particular behavior. When we are training, we have a sequence of learning going on:

  • First, we show the horse a corridor of aids that helps him feel the shape, direction, etc., that we want.
  • Then we apply that corridor of aids to ask the horse if he understands what we want.
  • Once the horse understands, we can use that corridor of aids to tell it to do what we want.

At this last point in the training sequence, the horse will now respond to that corridor of aids as though it were a cue. And here is where a lot of the mythunderstanding about aids versus cues comes in. When the horse does not respond when they tell him what to do, the first thing they think about is enforcement. However, you cannot enforce a true cue like Pavlov's bell. And true enforcement does not mean punishment.

If the "cue" is an association the horse has made between a particular corridor of aids and the behavior you want, you can remind the horse what that association means by going back to the applying or showing phases of the training sequence and support the horse. When you go back to the corridor of aids the horse understands to enforce what you have told him to do, you can enforce those pressures methodically without creating any disruption. You cannot enforce a behavior with a signal.

When the line between an aid and a signal gets blurry, remember that you want to be doing more than flipping on/off switches. You want to be a presence that the horse is aware of. You want to be able to modify the horse's "feel" of your presence by the way you modify each of the parts of any corridor of aids. What true horsemen know, what the "whisperers" know, is that you have to be completely aware of everything you are doing. You pay attention to what you do and to how the horse reacts to what you did. Then you analyze the situation from the horse's perspective, modify your corridor of pressures and show, ask, or tell the horse again. With each repetition, you refine the communication a little more.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I had a great time at the Manor and really enjoyed my education there. More than anything I loved all of the riding theory we got there. They really care to tell you WHY you are doing what they are telling you to do. I love having the huge bank of knowledge that I was given at the Manor, and I would not trade that for anything.
Amy Krentz Ford: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate