The Language of the Aids

The Language of the Aids - Summary

The sounds which are the basis for human language are arbitrary and become meaningful only through learning. The touches which are the basis for the language of the aids are also arbitrary. Their meaning can only be explained to the horse through long and patient training. When a highly schooled horse responds to subtle balance or weight cues, the rider may feel that these cues are automatic or natural to the horse. For these cues to work, the horse must first learn to balance underneath a rider with an independent seat. Then he or she can learn to understand these cues in association with the more conventional aids.

Four reasons why the horse has to be taught to understand the rider's aids are discussed below.

1) Riding involves communication between species. A foal may be born with some innate understanding of how to communicate with other horses. There is no reason why evolution would imprint hm or her with any innate understanding of how to communicate with humans.

2) The language of the aids requires the horse to give to pressure. The horse's natural instinct is to push against pressure (1) or pull away from pressure (2).

3)The meaning of our basic aids has to be patiently explained to every young horse. He or she can best understand these aids in association with what has already been taught on the ground.

4) Horses can be taught to respond to many other types of cues, such as the ones used by Moyra Williams. (3)

The standard model of horse/human communication is response to a stimulus, which is taught through reward and punishment. This model may apply when communication is at an elementary level or tricks are being taught. However, it is predator oriented. Whether or not prey animals can learn through punishment is questionable.

What distinguishes the language of the aids used in advanced horsemanship? This form of communication utilizes much more than one simple stimulus. Hands, legs, and seat should all be used to communicate every request to a horse. Except for the limitation to the here and now, this language does meet the criteria which have been established to define communication among humans (4).

This form of complex communication depends on the horse being trained to adhere to certain rules of behavior. He or she should maintain gait, pace, direction, and flexion until the rider requests a change.

Like words, aid combinations can have more than one meaning. The horse has to use other factors to guess at what his or her rider wants him to do. Four such factors are discussed below.

a) Sequence. Hands can be used before legs or legs before hands.

b) Timing. Aids should be applied when the horse's feet are in the right place to exceute the requested movement.

c) The level of pressure used. For example, if the horse is at a halt, the rider would normally use more pressure to ask for a trot than a walk.

d) Context. The meaning of aid combinations may vary with their placement in a pattern of movements.

If more riders and trainers understood the complexity of this form of communication, horses would suffer far less abuse when they misunderstand our aids. All too often horses are punished when they did what they thought their rider wanted them to do.

(1) Roberts, Monty. The Man Who Listens to Horses. NY, Random House, 1997.

(2) Wynmalen, Henry. Dressage. NY, A.S. Barnes & Co., 1952.

(3) Williams, Moyra. Adventures Unbridled. NY, Barnes & Co., 1960.

(4) Hockett, Charles. A Course in Modern Linguistics. NY, MacMillan, 1958. pp. 574-80.

The original vesion of this summary was published in The Classical Riding Club Newsletter, Summer, 1999, p. 18.