The Training Tree: On The
WAVERLY, WV--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 on the bit is one of those terms. As a horse gets near the top of the training tree, we like to talk about him being on the aids rather than being on the bit.
Saying that a horse is on the aids takes the focus off a mental picture of the horses mouth and front end. It puts it on the horses 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 riders aids,
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 dont want him to lose those basics. As we get closer and closer to where hes going to be at the top of his game, were making a lot more physical demands on him. If weve taken the time to bring him up through all the in-between training levels, methodically developing his body as well as his mind, hes still going to be rhythmic and relaxed as he reaches the top.
Resistance means that the horse has lost that basic rhythm and relaxation. Youll know hes 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 hes uncomfortable about something. The trainer needs to back down the training tree until she finds the place where the horses 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 its basically invisible. Sometimes people talk about a horse being obedient to the riders aids. Thats 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 horses 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 didnt 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 on the aids, 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 obedient to the aids is as much the riders responsibility as the horses. It isnt 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 shes coordinating her seat and weight aids, leg aids, and rein aids so that none of the horses energy leaks out anywhere. Hes using all of his body with just the right degree of muscular tension to correctly take the shape shes asking for at the speed shes 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 youre 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. Thats the sweet spot that makes all the hard work up to this point worth every minute. Its that quiet thrill when, even for just a few moments, everything is perfect.
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 its probably not all that
boring for you as you work with him. But someone watching oftentimes isnt
seeing a whole lot happening. And maybe it can even be a little boring
for the trainer whos starting his ninety-fifth young horse and hes
just kind of waiting for it to come along and theres 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. Thats what it feels like when a horse is on the aids.
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Updated: October 2005.