Use All of Your Aids
If you’re like most riders, you use more rein than legs and seat. In fact, you are probably in your horse’s mouth way too much. To be a well-rounded rider you need to learn to use your seat and legs in equal measure with your hands. When you pick up on the reins you should always be doing something with your legs and/or seat at the same time. Ideally, you should be able to ride without your reins entirely. Check out Stacy Westfall’s marvelous bridleless reining videos on YouTube. Not many of us will achieve this level with our horses, but we can all improve and grow.
Learning to ride using all of your aids takes practice. With a little patient practice you can learn to use your seat to ask for the stop, your legs to ask your horse to yield the front– or hindquarters or for side passes and leg yields, and while backing and turning use both your seat and your legs. This is well worth the effort. You will become a better rider, better able to communicate with your horse, and he will thank you for getting out of his mouth. Begin by practicing the exercises below.
Sit on your horse quietly at the stop, facing forward. Pay attention to the position of your legs and seat. Now turn and look 90 degrees to your left, (at your 9:00 o’clock), turning your whole upper body, not just your head. Swivel so that your shoulders, chest, and belt buckle are all facing 90 degrees to your left. Feel what happens to your seat and legs. Close your eyes and do it again. You should feel your legs scissor slightly with your right leg moving back, your left leg moving forward, and your weight shifting slightly to your right hipbone. This is almost exactly the position you want to be in when asking your horse for a circle to the left.
With the reins slack, move forward at the walk. You are going to ask for a small left-hand circle. Turn (using your whole upper body) and look to your left, at a spot on the ground about 10 feet off your girth line; this will become the center of your counterclockwise circle. Keep your head up, but watch that spot with your peripheral vision. Your left (or ‘inside’) leg should stay at the girth. Pressure here will keep him moving forward. Allow your right (‘outside’) leg to move back slightly behind the girth. Pressure here will hold the horse's hip in, keeping a nice arc to his body. Your weight should be slightly greater on your outside hipbone. This helps you stay centered on your horse so that you won’t lean into the turn.
If your horse doesn’t respond by turning, lift the inside rein slightly until you just make contact with his mouth. Lift; don’t pull back, down, or to the side. This helps keep both your shoulder and your horse’s from falling in on the turn. Pick up as much contact as you need to bring him onto the circle. As soon as he comes onto the circle, release the pressure on the rein by lowering your hand and releasing the contact. If he falls out of the circle, pick up the rein again. He will quickly get the idea.
After circling to the left several times, ask for a circle to the right. Again, the keys are to turn and look where you want to go, keeping your inside leg at the girth, your outside leg behind the girth, and your weight to the outside. Lift the inside rein only when necessary to bring your horse onto the circle. Soon you will be able to look to the right and, with only your seat and leg aids, your horse will turn. Practice, praise and let it soak in.
Children, Go Where I Send Thee
You shouldn't have to constantly guide your horse to keep him on the rail of an arena, to one side of a trail, or going in a straight line if that is what you have asked him to do. He needs to learn to take some responsibility to go where you send him.
Practice this in an arena, large round pen, or paddock. Take up a walk along the rail and drop the reins onto your horse’s neck. If he drifts away from the rail, lay your inside leg on him to ask him to move back against the rail while you pick up on the reins to guide him back. When you are back on the rail, drop the reins and take your leg off of him again. As soon as he begins to drift away again, repeat the correction with your leg and hands. If you correct him every time, he will soon understand that he is to stay on the rail. Once you have this working at a walk, try it at the trot and, eventually, at the canter. Bear in mind that any breakdown in communication between you and your horse will just get worse the faster you go, so fix things at a walk first.
Once your horse will stay on the rail without constant nagging from you, try him on a straight line down the middle. Begin at a walk at one end of the arena and set him on a straight line toward the other end. Let go of your reins. If he moves off of the line, correct him using your leg and hands. When he is once again on a straight line, release all aids. This is much harder than riding a good circle, so be prepared for it to take some practice.
Stop Off Your Seat
Many a rider learns, the first time she sits on a horse, to kick him to go and to pull on the reins to stop. Wrong, and wrong again. Although this will work to some extent, you will never achieve either good communication or a happy horse.
Your horse should stop off of your seat, not off your hands. Here's how to achieve this.
At a relaxed walk, you are going to signal for a stop using three steps, in this order:
- Say "Whoa" using a calm, deep voice
- Sit down in the saddle, rocking your hips forward slightly and taking off all leg pressure
- Pick up on the reins and ask for a stop.
He won’t get it at first, but be consistent. Say ‘Whoa’, sit down, pick up the reins. Always give him time to react. If you are too quick to go to the reins, he won’t learn to stop off of your seat and voice alone. Keep with it. Soon he will begin to stop off of just your seat and voice, and you will never have to touch your reins.
For some additional exercises using all of your aids, see Backing Up and Did I Ask You To Speed Up? Did I Ask You To Slow Down? in my series, Grounded In The Saddle.