Applying Natural Aidsby Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
Riders use a combination of influences to communicate with their horses. Within equestrian tradition we refer to these influences as "aids" and we further subdivide them into "natural" and "artificial" aids.
The natural aids are influences on the horse that come from the rider's body. They include the legs, the rider's weight, the hands, and anindependent seat. Whips and spurs are the artificial aids most people are familiar with and these are used as extensions of the natural aids to help reinforce them.
The leg is primarily a driving aid. Ideally, the leg lies quietly against the horse's side at all times, softly following the horse's motion. The rider then influences the horse by using the lower leg with variable pressure and by applying this pressure either unilaterally with one leg or bilaterally with both legs. At the simplest level, unilateral pressure asks the horse to step more under himself with one leg or to move sideways. Bilateral pressure asks the horse for more impulsion. The rider's goal is to apply the leg with the right degree of pressure and the right timing to achieve the desired response from the horse. This takes a lot of practice, paying attention to the horse's feedback, and trying again. The feedback of an observant instructor is essential to reach the upper levels.
The anatomy of both the horse and rider determine how easy it is for the rider's leg to lay against the horse's side. Riders with long legs and thin thighs have an advantage. To help the inner thigh lay flat against the saddle, riders with less-than-perfect anatomy can reach around and pull their thigh muscles back and up. As riders move back and forth from narrow to round-barreled horses, they will need to change their stirrup length and the degree of knee bend to find the length that allows them to rest their lower legs against that horse's sides.
If the rider's seat and upper body are in the correct position, the leg will fall into place more easily. Rider fitness comes into play here. Strong abdominal and back muscles make it easier to keep the upper body in correct alignment.
The rider's weight sets the horse's rhythm, the basic skill that underlies all of the horse's progress up the training tree. The rider softly weights and unweights both seat bones to help the horse find and stay in a particular rhythm. Increasing the weight in one seat bone encourages the horse to turn in that direction because he wants to keep you over his center of gravity. Horses respond to very small weight shifts. Most people try to do too much, pumping with their seat or physically leaning to one side. Bending sideways and breaking the straight line of the spine at the waist is a common fault of lower level riders.
The best way to visualize what happens when a rider adds weight to a seat bone is that the rider's leg appears to stretch a little longer on that side without the upper body position changing. To help you develop a feel for what is correct, think of using weight aids as "burden-ing" or "lighten-ing" the seat bones rather than merely sitting heavily. Burden a seat bone by exhaling and allowing your weight to settle deeper as your lower pelvis tips forward. To make a seat bone lighter, imagine that a rope attached to your head is lifting your upper body as you inhale, helping you grow taller. The hips must stay open and relaxed which, in turn, helps the rider's arms and elbows to remain relaxed.
The rider's hands channel the drive created by the leg aids into soft contact with the bit through the reins. To achieve this, the rider needs to have relaxed shoulders, relaxed elbows and relaxed wrists. The elbows are the primary joints that enable soft, elastic bit contact. They should follow the horse's motion, opening and closing in motion with the hips, as they rest loosely, not clamped, against the rider's sides.
The rider's wrists should lie in a straight line with the lower arm with no break or bend. The thumbs should be on top with the knuckles pointing out. In this position, the pinkie fingers will be held a little closer to the body than the thumbs. The use of the rider's "hands" really refers to a slight movement of the pinkie and ring fingers toward the body to "take" rein or a slight movement away from the body to "give" rein. Resisting means taking a rein and holding it for a moment rather than immediately returning the fingers to their neutral position.
An independent seat allows the rider to coordinate the natural aids and communicate clearly with the horse. An independent seat means that the rider can remain balanced over the horse's center of gravity without gripping with the legs or without grabbing with the hands to maintain position. The rider sits on the horse without any tension in the body. All muscles are relaxed; all joints are loose and flexible.
Achieving this means working on balance, fitness and body awareness. Riders must learn to isolate body parts. Their weight should be equally distributed in both seat bones and both legs with their heels angled down and toes pointing fairly straight ahead. Any muscle tightening has the effect of pushing the rider out of the saddle.
Viewed from the side, the ankle should line up with the hip and neck. The riders head, shoulders, torso and hips should be aligned correctly. If the rider's lower back arches or shoulders slump forward, he or she is off balance and will grab or grip to stay over the horse's center of gravity. In order for the joints to work as shock absorbers, they must remain flexible, held in position by strong but relaxed muscles.
It takes a long time and a lot of work for the rider to develop an independent seat. Once that is achieved, however, the rider will be able to develop a subtle feel for the results when a particular corridor of aids is applied. At this point, he or she will be able to begin using the degree of each aid pressure and correct timing to influence the horse very subtly. Then the rider can listen to the horse's feedback, interpret the effectiveness of the aids, and adjust the pressures or timing accordingly.