Timing is Everything: An Experiment with the Aids

I recently read an article about timing of the aids that completely blew my mind. The article, by Christian Thiess, dates back to the 80s, but the nice thing about horses today is they still move their legs the same way. You can read the entire article here, but I warn you – it is a doozy. In this post I am going to discuss a very small aspect of what I learned. The main takeaway for me was that I was doing everything completely wrong – again. I knew timing the aids was a thing, and I even knew how to count the footfalls of the horse. Unfortunately, I was focused on when the horse’s legs were coming down, when I really needed to know when the legs were coming up. Why? Because physics is a thing: when you push something going into the ground, it goes deeper into the ground; when you lift something coming off of the ground, it comes higher off of the ground. In other words: while an object at rest tends to stay at rest, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. WHAT ARE YOU EVEN TALKING ABOUT, THOUGH.

I did an experiment. It went like this:

I started in free walk. The horse’s walk is a four-beat gait, traveling in the order of left hind, left front, right hind, right front. Everyone says to use alternating leg aids and swing your hips to help the horse cover more ground (vague). Some people say to meet the horse’s belly swing with your leg and push it back the other way (making absolutely no sense). My tendency was to follow the front legs with my hips, and squeeze my leg when the corresponding front leg hit the ground. This frequently resulted in a slower, stiffer movement in the legs and hard, sort of dead feeling through the horse’s back. Not very free. Sometimes the horse would even jig into the trot rather than increase the walk. This was because I was using my leg and seat aids to push the hind legs into the ground, rather than swing them forward underneath the horse’s body. Once I realized my error, I changed my timing to squeeze my leg when the opposite front leg hit the ground, meaning the corresponding hind leg was coming up. I had immediate results. Luckily, the first horse I experimented with was my own mare, who always gets it right when I do, and never fails to reward me for not being a total idiot. Her hind legs were swinging up, forward and underneath and she immediately loosened her back and lowered her neck without any use of the rein. “I’ve got it!” I thought. “Duh,” she replied.

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Deysha and Trumbull, Schooling 1st Level, Leg Yield

Next came the trot. I had to completely change the way I used my legs in the trot. I wanted to squeeze both my legs at the same time. However, as the article so generously points out, horses, unlike kangaroos, do not use both hind legs at the same time. The hind legs move in diagonal pairs with the opposite front leg, so we must still use alternating leg aids in the trot. “WHAT,” I thought, “this is some more Kool-Aid.” So, I tried it. I chose to focus on just the inside hind leg at first, since that is the easiest leg to influence and also the one we ask for impulsion. Unfortunately, it is completely awkward in posting trot. If you are posting on the correct diagonal, you are coming up when the inside hind leg is coming up. It is very difficult to squeeze when you are rising up out of the saddle (inside leg), but thankfully very easy to squeeze when you are coming down (outside leg). Even though it was painfully awkward for me, my mare immediately began moving forward without the usual tension in the connection. Just thinking about it was helping. I was at least not forcing her hind legs deeper into the ground. The most obvious results came with leg yield – our absolute nemesis at first level. Usually she will travel the line, but will not cross her legs over much and will have a lot of tension through the back. If I asked her to move over when the inside hind leg was in an upswing, she did so happily and with very little effort on my part (which was good because I could not use my leg very well). “It’s working!” I thought. “Yes,” she sighed.

I followed up with some canter. I have the tendency to ride with the horse’s haunches trailing in at the canter. I have always tried to fix it with a little shoulder-fore or something clever like that. Well, I guess I would not have to do that if I was not pushing the haunches in every stride without asking the inside hind leg to come underneath. It turns out you still have to use alternating leg aids in the canter. Apparently, we naturally use our outside aids at the correct time. I guess that would push the haunches in, wouldn’t it? Just nod your head and smile. We are still focusing on the inside hind leg. The canter is a three beat gait, with the inside hind leg moving in tandem with the outside front leg. Therefore, the inside hind leg is coming up when the outside front leg is coming up. This is when the rider’s hips are swinging forward in the saddle. I have never been able to get my mare to lengthen her stride in canter without enormous amounts of tension in the rein and the whole weight of horse coming down onto my hands. Once I began to time my inside leg correctly, she really started to jump underneath me. She started to jump a little too much actually. One might say she took off a little bit. But, it was great because the connection remained light and I could bring her back without a struggle! I pointed her down the long side at the mirror, and lo and behold I could start to straighten the canter without doing anything clever! It was all going to take a lot of practice, but I could finally feel I had the beginnings of harmony with my horse. “Wee!” we shouted together.

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Deysha and Trumbull, Schooling 1st Level, Canter

Inexorably, I came to the sitting trot. My mare hates sitting trot. She hates sitting trot so much she clacks her teeth together in time with my rude bouncing in the saddle and, again, throws her whole weight into the rein. Sometimes she takes off running or stops all together. She really, really hates…wait, something was completely different. She did not seem to hate sitting trot now! Just using my legs one at a time, rather than gripping with the thigh in order to keep my balance, allowed my hips to swing correctly with the motion of her back. It kept her swinging her hind legs and helped her to move that energy through her back and into a light, significantly quieter contact. Suddenly we were a team! We could leg yield, shoulder-in, lengthen and collect without any issues. Sure, we have a lot to improve and she is still not as fit as she was before her soft tissue injury, but now we actually have something to build on! “I can’t believe it!” I squealed. “Me either!” she agreed. I was being a good human that day. Not very stupid at all.

For an experiment to be considered successful, it must be repeatable. Therefore, I have continued to apply this method to other horses with varying degrees of success. It varies because I have not quite mastered the correct timing of my aids and I am a little bit like a toddler in my clumsy delivery. However, the overall improvements have been the same for every horse: more ground cover, increased relaxation through the top line, and significantly less tension in the contact in every gait. Sitting trot was instantly approved, and all of my aids have become more effective. It will probably take at least a year before correct timing of the aids really becomes natural, and then I am still going to have to remind myself whenever I am getting into trouble communicating with my horse. Is the horse really being reluctant, or are you just making it harder for him with poorly-timed aids?

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Deysha and Trumbull, Schooling 1st Level, Leg Yield

My students have also started to achieve greater success with their horses as I pass on my new revelations. Even something as simple as moving a school pony  deeper into the corner is achieved with greater ease when correct timing is used. You do not have to be a dressage rider to fully appreciate when your horse responds to a light leg aid – or responds at all, really! Any rider in any discipline can benefit from correct timing. My advice is to focus on one side of your body at a time, and work on one goal with your horse at a time. In my initial experiment, I focused on using my inside aids for more bend, increased ground cover, better leg yields – everything we needed to improve at first level. The next phase of my experiment will incorporate correct timing of the outside aids (straightness, balance, collection and transitions) and then move on to the work at second level. My mare will let me know how it goes, and I then I will share it with you!

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