In lessons I often see that students apply their aids somewhat halfheartedly, with no clearly defined beginning or end. This probably originates in a certain insecurity. The student is not sure whether he is applying the right aid, or if he is finding the right timing, or the right intensity, or the right coordination with other aids. So the aid becomes wishy-washy, unintelligible, because the rider is afraid of making a mistake or of hurting the horse.
Consequently, the horse can neither understand nor process the aid very well. In technical equestrian terms we say: The aid does not go through. Because the aid does not go through, and there is no visible success, the student does not release. Some students may also have the old adage in the back of their mind that the rider should give when the horse gives. Since the horse is not yielding, the student doesn't yield, either. Conversely, since the rider is not giving, the horse begins to brace more and more. Horse and rider thus end up very quickly in a tug of war that neither can win.
This tug of war is not always carried out with heavy aids. In some cases, the mutual bracing is carried out with just a few ounces of rein contact, because the rider confuses the demand for a "steady" hand, or a "steady" rein contact, with a dead hand and a stiff, lifeless rein contact. Yet, the result is very much the same as if the contact could be measured in many pounds.
Therefore, each aid has to be clearly recognizable as an informational unit. This is only possible if it is isolated by a release, a moment of silence, before and after. In this respect, the release is like the graphic signals that separate words, clauses and sentences from each other in written texts: blank spaces that isolate words, sentence initial capital letters, periods, commas, and semi-colons that visually isolate clauses and sentences, new lines and indentations signaling the beginning of a new paragraph, etc. Without these markers, a text would be very difficult to read, because information unit boundaries would not be immediately obvious.
The rider furthermore needs the periods of silence in order to listen to the horse. The rider's aids should form part of a conversation with the horse in which both partners listen intently to each other, taking turns in their active contributions. The pauses allow the horse time to respond to the rider's requests, and the rider in turn finds the opportunity to observe and evaluate the horse's reaction, before applying another aid.
The poor horse who is barraged with an incessant stream of aids does not know where one aid ends and the next one begins. He furthermore has no time to execute any one command, as the rider never gives him enough of a break in the aids to react. So he will either give up trying to understand the rider and ignore him in frustration, or he will get angry and rebellious. This usually leads the rider to intensify his aids, which sends horse and rider into a downward spiral of deteriorating communicative effectiveness.
The way out of this vicious cycle is to deliberately preface an aid for a new transition, movement, or turn with a clear pause. It can help the rider to draw a deep breath while he is releasing his legs and hands. This pause alerts the horse that something new is coming. It is very much like the orchestra conductor's tapping on his note stand with his baton, before the orchestra starts playing. Since the release is an announcement for the horse, the ensuing aid can be very small and delicate.
The previous paragraphs indicate that this isolating release is every bit as important as the active aid. You could say that the active aid derives its meaning and emphasis from its recognizability, and its recognizability depends, among other things (such as timing and coordination with other aids), on the releases surrounding it. The more the aid stands out in front of its background, the more clearly the horse can perceive it, and the more compelled he will feel to react to it. If the aid blends in with the background, the horse will not notice it.
One very important aspect in this context is that the rider is able to sit absolutely still with respect to the horse. All involuntary movements have to cease. It is a supple, mobile stillness, that is an optical illusion in a way, because it is generated by the elastic participation of all joints in the rider's body in absorbing the motion of the horse's back.
If the rider's legs are noisy, banging against the horse's sides with every stride, the horse will tune the incessant banging out as meaningless chatter. How is he going to differentiate the actual aids from the background noise of involuntary movement? He does not, he cannot recognize them, even if he wanted to. The same thing goes for hammering hands and bouncing seat bones.
When the rider has learned to follow the horse's every move with a soft contact of his seat bones, legs, and hands, he is able to modify this contact by either decreasing, increasing, or even interrupting it temporarily. This invites the comparison with music again. The rider's aids
are similar to musical notes. They have a certain temporal value (such as full notes, half, quarter, eighth, etc. notes) and a certain intensity/volume (from pianissimo to fortissimo). They are set in a certain rhythm (2-beat trot, 3-beat canter, 4-beat walk) and tempo of the gait (from largo to presto), and they are separated by pauses. The importance of these pauses is underscored by composer Claude Debussy, who said: "Music is the space between the notes." Each aid (each hand, knee, thigh, calf, seat bone, etc.) has its own score. It plays its own song. Yet at the same time, all the aids are coordinated in the same way that the various instruments in a symphony orchestra are coordinated.
The combination of all these variables enables the rider to communicate with his horse with an infinite number of nuances in his aids. The skillful utilization of all these nuances with their respective full range of possibilities also contributes to winning and keeping the horse's attention, just like a good actor can rivet an audience by making use of tempo, volume, and pauses in his delivery. Sometimes whispering can capture an audience's attention more effectively than shouting. Sometimes a pause can do the same. Monotony puts human audiences as well as horses to sleep, whereas dynamic changes in one or more of the parameters can rouse the most lethargic audience.
Pauses also have another advantage. They give the rider time to evaluate the
result. In this respect, the rider can be compared to a painter who is working on a large canvas. In order to apply a brush stroke, the painter has to be so close to the canvas that he cannot see the entire painting. He periodically has to take a step back after a brush stroke, in order to be able to see "the big picture". This allows him to see what is still missing from the painting. After the assessment, he steps closer and adds more brush strokes, followed by stepping back and evaluating the result.
The rider does the exact same thing. He has to assess the effect each aid has on his horse. The result of this evaluation tells him how to proceed, i.e. whether the aid was successful or not, or whether it was only partially successful.
The rider also has to keep an eye on the "big picture", i.e. the long-term development of his horse. He has to keep track of the development of all the different areas. Occasionally, the rider has to make a compromise in one area in order to be able to make progress in another area. E.g. the impulsion may temporarily have to be sacrificed to some extent in order to improve the horse's relaxation and trust in the rider. When these have been sufficiently established, impulsion and collection can be targeted as new goals. On the other hand, trying to obtain impulsion and collection before relaxation and trust have been established would only lead to tension and fear.
In summing up the relevance of releases as pauses, you can say that the release is the counterpart that lends meaning to the active aids. In our conventional thinking we tend to focus entirely on the active aids, while we forget that it is the release, the pause that enables the aid to come through. Often the horse cannot respond to the aid until it is released. The conclusion that every rider has to draw from these observations is that it is not the aid that gets the job done, but the combination of Release - Aid - Release. This combination has to be seen as the most basic communicative unit. Notice how this most basic unit consists of TWO releases and only ONE active aid. This in itself should highlight the importance of the release.
"We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.
We work with being, but non-being is what we use."
- Tao te Ching (11).