A topic that comes up frequently at clinics and during lessons is the rider’s aids. How to ask for this movement or where to put the hands for this maneuver… it seems many riders get very stuck on how much to use which aid, where and when. Without getting into specifics about each particular thing we could ask of our horse (because that could be nearly infinite) I’ll give you my thoughts on what I call the “ideal ratio of aids.”
The ideal ratio of aids, as far as I can tell, works at 80, 18, and 2. 80% seat, 18% lower legs, and 2% hands/reins. Let’s break these down a bit…
When we talk about the rider’s seat, for right now, we’re referring to everything “from the knees, north.” In other words, everything from your knees to the top of your head. A turn of your head, a drop of your shoulder, momentarily holding your breath – all of these things have an effect on your seat, so we’ll include them as the “seat” in this discussion.
Your seat is the initiator for your horse – or at least it should be. The conversation you have with your horse happens primarily through your seat. It will signal things to your horse like a change of direction, a new movement, a change in energy or impulsion, a complete pause or halt, a shift of weight, the lengthening or shortening of a stride, reaching of a step, and so much more.
By making a change in your seat, you’re signaling or requesting a change in your horse (whether we like it or not, which is why it’s so important as a rider to develop a solid and independent seat). The seat initiates a change in the horse – and if the horse doesn’t make the desired change, the leg supports (when we’re talking about a movement, engagements, transitions, etc) or the hand supports (when we’re talking about stepping a foot, slowing a foot, etc).
18% Lower Leg
When the seat initiates a movement or postural change, the horse either understands and responds appropriately, or he doesn’t understand or doesn’t recognize the request. If he doesn’t understand or simply doesn’t recognize that we made the request, the leg will support the message that we originally sent first through the seat.
It’s fairly common to see riders using their legs to ask something of their horse without first making the request with their seat. This is a big mistake, in most cases, when we are aiming to reach a high/refined level of communication and control with our horse. In the most basic sense, we are saying to our horse, “if you make this change when I use my seat, I won’t have to use my leg.” And the horse helps to “train you” to use your leg less and less by becoming more responsive and sensitive to the communication through the seat,. Naturally, if the horse responds to the change in the seat, there’s no reason to add the leg. (Additionally, if the horse doesn’t respond or understand the leg, we’d follow through with our whip, quirt, mecate, rein, etc to support the leg).
Whether we want the horse to change direction, make an upward change in gait, move his shoulders or haunches or ribcage to one direction or another, we ask first through the seat and then support our request with the leg.
And then we come to the hand….
Now, sometimes when you want a change in your horse, the leg is not a good support to the seat. A downward change in gait, for example… If you were to make a change in your seat to go from trot to walk, and then added leg to support the seat when the horse didn’t make the necessary change, you’re more likely to increase his gait or speed instead of bringing him down to the walk.
In this particular instance, the hand would be a better support to the seat. But, just as with the leg, we need to be sure that we only use the hand after first using the seat to initiate the change.
The hand can also come in to support the leg after the leg has been used to support the seat. Let’s say you’re asking your horse make a turn… the seat gives the suggestion to turn. The leg comes in to support the seat and help the horse understand that you’re asking for the turn. When/if the horse doesn’t understand or respond appropriately, only then does the hand come into assist the rest of the aids.
Just as we see riders often using too much leg without first using the seat, we also see riders using too much hand without first requesting through the seat or leg. This, also, is a big mistake when we are aiming for refined and high levels of communication with our horses. We want our conversation with the horse to sound something like “if you make this change when I talk through my seat, I won’t have to use my leg. And if you make the change when I use my leg, I won’t have to use my hands.” So the horse can learn to “train us” to use our hands less and less by becoming more responsive to the seat and leg aids.
The horse can also be supported in carrying himself in the proper frame by an understanding of the hands. When the horse is properly educated in lightness, the length of the reins becomes a reference for the length of the horse’s frame and balance – again, as support to the rider’s seat.
(To be sure, I am not suggesting that we “hold” the horse in a frame or balance. That would surely be using a lot more than 2% hands in the ratio of aids. We are talking about the horse truly understanding lightness and contact through the bridle/reins, supported in the frame by the seat.)
So when we’re talking about the when and where and how of using our aids, let’s always try to keep in mind this ideal ratio of aids as a way to attain a high level of communication and refinement. 80% seat, 18% lower leg, 2% hand. Initiate everything first with the seat and support as needed with the leg and/or hand. And if you make a mistake – don’t worry too much about it. Nothing is perfect. This ideal ratio is the goal, but not always the reality. Sometimes, in order to save the rider and help the horse, there will be occasions that we’ll be using more hands or legs than the ideal. Does that make it wrong? Absolutely not, as long as we keep that ideal ratio as a goal in the forefront of our mind.