ďTo make you a perfect horseman, three thinges be requisite. Firste, to knowe howe, and when to help your horse. Secondly, how and when to correct him. And thirdlie, howe, and when to coye him, and to make much of hym. Whiche iii thynges beinge as generall kindes haue manye specialties and particularities belonginge unto them.Ē
Thomas Blundeville, The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Greate Horses (1560, p. Biiii).
As the above quote shows, horsemen have recognized for a very long time that there are specific moments in which an aid is more likely to come through than in others. The reason is this: Since the horse is so much heavier and stronger than a human, the rider cannot force the horse with physical strength to do anything Ė even though unskilled, unthinking riders attempt to do so every day. All the rider can do with his aids is accompany the horseís natural movement and enhance certain aspects of it at opportune moments by taking advantage of natural muscle reflexes, the momentum of the combined body mass of horse and rider in motion, the leverage that the riderís torso and the horseís head and neck provide, and above all Ė the horseís willing intelligence, which is much greater than most people realize. Actually, I want to say that the horseís intelligence is much greater than that of many humans.
At least since William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, whose book appeared in the middle of the 17th century, the equestrian world realized that the success or failure of the riderís physical aids depends on their synchronization with the horseís footfall sequence, as the following excerpt shows.
"But after all these came the Prince of Horsemen, the great Duke of Newcastle, who may be justly said to have given the very last and master Strokes for the Perfection of this Subject; for it was he who first describíd the natural and artificial Motions which should be made by the Legs of all Horses, when they are performing such and such an Ayre, which is the Foundation and very Ground-work of Horsemanship; for without that knowledge a Man but gropes in the Dark, and if he succeed in any Thing, he is beholden more to a lucky Chance than solid Judgment."
Jacques de Solleysel "Compleat Horsemanship" (1717, p. 245).
While the masters always recognized and valued the importance of theoretical studies, it seems that at all times, there were riders who didnít want to bother studying the theoretical foundations of the art of riding (The common mindset is: "You ride with your behind, not with your head!?"), which led de la GuťriniŤre to lament (School of Horsemanship, 1733, in: 1994, 75):
"All sciences and arts have principles and rules, by means of which one makes discoveries leading to their perfection. Horsemanship is the one art for which it seems one needs only practice. However, practice without true principles is nothing other than routine, the fruit of which is a strained and unsure execution, a false diamond which dazzles semi-connoisseurs often more impressed by the accomplishments of the horse than by the merits of the horseman. From this comes the small number of well-trained horses, and the paucity of ability one sees at present in the majority of those who call themselves horsemen."
De la GuťriniŤre's words have lost nothing of their poignancy with time. Luckily, there have always been thinking riders who studied the scientific underpinnings of dressage and went to the trouble of communicating them along with their practical experiences. Their books place a wealth of knowledge at the disposal of the interested reader.
The rider's aids are a rhythmic structuring device for the horse's footfalls which can accentuate, enhance, or diminish different aspects of each stride, as needed. The correct timing of each aid is dictated by the horse himself, by the footfall of his four legs, as well as by the lateral swinging of his ribcage, and the longitudinal swinging of his back. As a rule of thumb, the rider can influence the flight path of a specific horseís leg when it is up in the air, and he can press it into the ground, connect it to the ground, when it is bearing weight.
The riderís pelvis is connected to the horseís pelvis. The movement of the horseís hips communicates itself to the riderís seatbones. When the hind leg touches down and carries the load, the riderís pelvis gets pulled back a little toward the cantle. This is most clearly noticeable at the walk. At the same time, the rider feels a little bump under his seat bone on the same side, because the horseís hip rises as the hind leg touches down. The rider also feels a pulse in the rein of the same side at the same time. There is also a little impact in the stirrup that the rider can feel in his toes.
The short time span between the hind leg touching down and its passing the vertical line of the point of the hip is the moment in which the horseís hip and hock joints have to flex in order to support the load, while the stifle opens. This is the window of opportunity during which the half halt is most likely to go through, because the purpose of the half halt is to ask the horse to flex his haunches more, in order to execute a down transition, or to slow down, or to improve his balance. The rider can now enhance this slight backward-downward feeling in his seatbones, as he applies the half halt through a pressure on the rein.
When the riderís seat is pulled forward in the saddle, the hind leg that had just touched down has passed the vertical and is now pushing the load forward. The hip and hock are extending, while the stifle is flexing. This is most noticeable to the rider in the walk and the second beat of the canter, when the inside hind leg and outside front leg are on the ground together. This is the moment in which the driving seat aid can be applied with success, in order to ask the horse to push more and lengthen his stride.
The riderís pelvis is also connected to the horseís ribcage and pelvis in the sense that the rider can bend and turn the horse by turning his own pelvis, since the horse Ė at least the somewhat tuned up horse Ė will try to mirror the riderís pelvic alignment with his own ribcage and pelvis. Lateral movements are also ridden with a rotation of the riderís pelvis as the center piece of the aids, while legs and reins have a supporting role.
The riderís calves are connected to the horseís abdominal muscles and hind legs. The swinging of the horseís ribcage communicates itself to the riderís calves, which is most easily felt in the walk, but itís present in the trot as well. The horseís ribcage swings like a pendulum towards the side where the hind leg is on the ground, supporting the weight and thrusting. It swings away from the side where the hind leg is moving forward through the air, as if it wanted to make room for the hind leg that is in the air. If the riderís calf is in the right place and relaxed, it will feel the pendulum-like swinging of the horseís ribcage. The crucial moment to feel is the one where the horseís ribcage touches the riderís calf and starts swinging in the opposite direction. This moment indicates that the hind leg on that side is completely extended behind the horse, the abdominal muscles on the same side are completely extended as well, and are ready to contract again to pull the hind leg forward. The hind leg is about to lift off at that split second. If the riderís calf now touches the horseís ribcage at that very moment, it will amplify the contraction of the abdominal muscles that would take place naturally, anyway. The result is a snappier lift off and a higher arch of the hind leg on this side, with better hock flexion.
The riderís calves are also connected to the horseís hind legs in the sense that they can monitor the tracking of the hind legs. The calves should feel instantly when a hind leg deviates from its assigned track, and push it back in line, while it is in the air.
On the riderís part, itís important not to grip with the calves. Otherwise, the horse will start to hold his breath, tighten his abdominal muscles, and the swinging of the ribcage will be greatly diminished. The old masters used to say that the rider should feel the hairs on the horseís side, or the riderís leg should breathe with the horse, or the rider should feel the warmth of the horse through the leg of his boot. Only a relaxed muscle can feel and communicate effectively.
The riderís knees are connected to the horseís front legs and shoulders. To some extent, the riderís femur mirrors the movement of the horseís scapula ever so slightly. As the horseís shoulder blade moves forward, the riderís thigh on the same side is pulled very slightly forward. When the front leg touches down, the riderís knee drops. Of course, the rider can always glance down at the horseís shoulders, but itís good to be able to feel these moments without having to look down. The riderís knees monitor the tracking of the horseís front legs. In other words, when one shoulder starts to bulge, the rider feels an increased pressure against his thigh and knee on that side and can quickly push the shoulder back in line. The riderís knees also support in turns and lateral movements. The outside knee can help to move the horseís outside shoulder, when the outside front leg is in the air. The inside knee can prevent the horse from falling onto his inside shoulder in turns, while the outside knee prevents the horse from drifting over his outside shoulder out of the turn.
When the rider applies all the aids in harmony with the horseís footfall sequence, as described above, they intuitively make sense to the horse, since they are working with his natural movement, not against it. The rider must also take care that all his aids speak the same language and agree with each other, so that there is no contradiction between the legs and the seat, the legs and the reins, or the seat and the reins. Riding and aiding in accordance with the horseís natural movement and avoiding contradictions between the aids prevents misunderstandings and many resistances, whereas when the reins tell the horse to turn left, when the seat and weight tell the horse to turn right, or when the legs tell the horse ďgoĒ, while the seat tells the horse ďstopĒ, the contradictions between the individual aids cause unnecessary confusion, frustration and anger in the horse. The balanced, supple seat that enables the rider to feel the appropriate moment for each aid is thus where the education of the rider has to start, and no amount of time spent on these issues throughout the riderís entire career is ever wasted.