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Layers of Equitation Part 5: Timing & Balance: When & How Much?

Updated: Jul 23

We all love watching those elite horse and rider pairs that make a performance look effortless, despite doing some incredibly difficult tasks. The harmonious execution of unified intention is enough to make our hair stand on end. How can something so complex as communication between horse and rider become so sensational? The timing of the rider’s aids is impeccable and so light that it is almost imperceptible. So light, yet so effective. What we don’t see are the decades of practice and the hundreds of horses that it took to cultivate the timing and balance of the aids that brings the rider to the present moment.

Timing our aids properly requires knowing when to apply an aid and when to release it based on where the horse’s feet are and what we would like them to do. We can ask them to move a certain foot, to push more, to step the foot forward or laterally. We can also ask the horse to take a shorter step, half halt, or halt into a certain foot.

To do any of this, it’s critical to know when each of our horse’s feet are coming off the ground and when they return to the ground within the cycle of footsteps at each gait. If we ask the horse to move a foot when it is on the ground (bearing weight), he can’t do it. Similarly, if we are half halting when the foot is in the air, the horse will have a hard time slowing down and may loose balance. Poor timing will cause a horse either to get frustrated and resist or to tune us out; both responses will require increasingly more effort on the part of the rider to manage. We should begin by learning the footfall patterns within each gait, and then we can focus on a specific foot to influence.

Most riders don’t do enough to get the horse in front of the leg, and the horse becomes heavier than it could be as a result. The masters know that in order for the horse to be light and responsive, it must have a healthy respect for the aids to go forward. (a combination of leg, spur and/or whip). If we want our horses to be light and in front of the leg, we must be diligent about them listening to our “go forward” aids and ready to enforce them as needed. Some riders have hesitations about wearing spurs or using a whip. Usually, this is due to a lack of confidence in their ability to use these tools and fear that they may hurt their horse in some way. In reality, a long life of nagging the horse to go while he half ignores us is more detrimental; so we’d be wise to utilize the power of negative reinforcement to get our horses listening, and we must never be satisfied with half-hearted, begrudging efforts. At a recent Carl Hester clinic, I witnessed Carl coaching a young lady, let’s call her M— . He was stressing the importance of expecting quality transitions every time, and if a transition was poor that it should be ridden again. M— rode a particularly poor transition from walk to canter where her horse elevated its neck to get into the canter instead of pushing from behind. She kept riding, and was met by Carl’s warning voice, “M—, would Charlotte (Dujordan) have accepted that transition?” To which M— agreed that, no, she would not. “Then neither shall you,” Carl said. “Come back and try again with more leg.”

In the book, Give Your Horse a Chance, Lt. Col. A. L. d’Enrody says, “The rider must not try to increase the animal's sensitivity by augmenting the strength of the knocks of his legs, as this will only result in a deeper apathy. But if mild touches of the legs are accompanied by a flick of the whip, the horse will realize more and more clearly the meaning of the leg signals in relation to the riders actual intention. The moment the animal recognizes the leg effects as virtual signals its apathy toward them will cease. From this period onwards the strength of the leg effects can be gradually decreased without danger of a relapse in the horse's standard of obedience… In cases where the horse is too insensitive or inattentive to refined drive-on signals, the rider should not hesitate to apply an energetic 'shake-up' (a sudden animation by the legs or whip) even if it results in a momentary loss of regularity. But this firm 'shaking-up' should not be confused with a nervous roughness arising from impatience. It is an auxiliary measure only. The 'shaking-up' should be carried out by a few biting flips of the whip on the horse's side in quick succession, with a strength suitable to its sensitivity, while allowing it complete freedom with the reins and letting it ‘jump' a few strides forward.”

To have balanced aids, we have to decide how much pressure to apply, and how to time the pulses of pressure so we meet resistance with quick and firm correction, and meet suppleness with softness the instant the horse changes. Thus, a long steady pull or clingy leg has no meaningful effect. d’Enrody continues, “balancing the horse means that the rider conducts in each situation by combined functions, like balancing a cane on the tip of a finger. As the cane cannot be kept erect with an absolutely steady hand, so the horse will become upset when the rider tries to direct it by single, passive functions during the completion of a certain task.”

Through the use of properly timed and balanced aids, we can direct the horse to seek self-carriage. This is why advanced riders keep routinely going back to the basics: feeling where the horse’s feet are, and seeing if they can influence them to take a bigger step, to step under the body, to half halt (take a shorter step), or to halt without resistance. Gaining control over all four corners of our horse improves their balance, body awareness, and permeability to the aids. Proper timing and balance are keys in helping our horses find self carriage.

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