The aids and the application of the aids is something that’s frequently discussed and written about. In physical terms, there is no such thing as a universally understood or applied aid; there is only the aid that you have taught your horse to understand. For instance, placing your outside leg behind the girth and inside leg on the girth- an aid commonly taught and applied in English riding to ask for canter- is not understood by your horse to mean canter unless it’s been established as such. The first step, then, in ensuring that you and your horse have a clear line of communication is to ensure that he knows the answer to your questions and you have established a common language between you both.
If I were to ask you what first comes to mind when you think of “applying the aids”, chances are you would jump immediately to the physical; to how it is you organize your body and what prompts you apply in tangible terms to influence the direction, position or energy of your horse. Thinking of aids only in these terms, however, limits us; it prevents us from transcending a line of communication that begins at the most subtle level, and for any physical manifestations to arise from that place.
The application of the aids does not begin with the physical; it begins with thought and intention. Developing an awareness of and stepping into the practice of fine tuning your intention opens a world of potential that maximizes you and your horse’s creative possibilities.
Step 1: Establish Intention
Intention is the mental and emotional blueprint we set up to establish the quality of connection and create a clear impression of what is it we would like to see manifest in the physical. It occurs on the macro and micro level.
As soon as we engage our horses, we’re influencing every moment. Establishing how it is we wish to be as riders and horsepeople prior to setting eyes on our horse and what qualities we wish to cultivate between us is part of our generalized setting of intention.
Who is it that I need to be today? What does that require of me?
Instead of waiting for outside or external experience to inform how we feel or operate, intention calls us to step into the cultivation of behaviors and ways of working with our horses as an active practice. We don’t wait to feel calm. We practice calm. We don’t wait to feel confident. We practice confidence. Intention as the expression of our creative force.
On a more micro level, intention allows us to create an experience of the ideal in our mind’s eye that creates fertile ground for its physical manifestation. For instance, if I am wanting to ask for a transition from walk to trot, I create a sensory blueprint for how I want that to look.
I see my horse effortlessly and softly move into the transition with engagement.
I feel the connection between us and the relaxed way of being we both share.
I hear his footfalls on the ground, even and regular.
I create the ideal vision of what it is that I want in my mind’s eye then wait for the physical to catch up.
When we move from this place, our body reponds in ways that are barely perceptible to us- but not to our horses. When we create a visual template in our minds, our body responds by firing off the neural pathways and muscle triggers that support the physical creation of what we’ve imagined. This is one of the key reasons visualization is so successful in improving physical performance even in situations where the only practice that’s been engaged is an imagined one.
Intention also translates to a purposeful plan, a course of action that clearly and deliberately outlines the way forward. It begins with cultivating a mental landscape that sees what you want come to life, but also outlines the progression of steps necessary to achieving that end.
The application of the aid and the quality of the connection you establish with you horse begins always with your intention.
Step 2: Adjust Energy
Once you have established your intention, the second stage is to purposely direct your energy to support it. Being able to manage your energy also comes with an understanding of your energetic boundaries and those of your horse, your ability to ground yourself and to effectively manage your breath.
There’s a lot of confusion around what it means to “make your energy bigger” or “make your energy smaller” and I believe this is partly because we are only used to recognizing ourselves in purely physical terms. Our boundary, however, extends beyond the actual dimensions of our body. The clearest way to understand this is to think of it as personal space. If someone unwanted or unfamiliar comes close, you are acutely aware of the point where they have breached your personal boundary. This boundary is different depending on who you are engaged with and the level of intimacy between you. The same is true for our horses.
In order to make it more tangible, think of your boundary as extending an arm’s length out from your body- to the side, above and below. Most of us aren’t practiced at taking up all the space owed to us. In addition we have a poorly developed awareness of how our boundary represents our first point of influence and how it’s possible to influence the boundary of our horses without being in physical contact with them.
When it comes to the application of the aids, our boundaries vary depending on whether we are working on the ground or in the saddle. On the ground, cultivating a clear intention and developing an awareness of the energetic boundary of you and your horse allows you to fine tune what it is you’re asking and seek the earliest point of influence before you come into physical contact.
Adjusting your energy on the ground also corresponds to purposefully directing your gaze in alignment with your intention; utilizing the breath to support transitions, both emotional and physical; and subtle adjustments in posture as the pre-cursor to applying a more direct physical cue.
In the saddle, the level of intimacy is already established by the physical connection of spine meeting spine; as a consequence, your energetic influence can be much more refined.
Again, a coordination of gaze, posture and breath all blend together to create momentum behind the intention that you have established.
Step 3: Organise the physical
The next stage is the application of a physical aid. In any situation, before insisting on follow through, you have to ensure that what you are asking is understood and that you are clear and consistent. The effectiveness of the aid is directly proportional to the timing of the release. In order to communicate that the answer given by your horse is the one that you’re looking for, the release of the aid needs to correspond with the “correct” response.
If you experience confusion, the first thing to check is clarity of application and understanding. It’s also vital you give your horse time to answer the question to avoid unfair increase in pressure and situations where what you are asking him to do is outside what he can mentally or emotionally assimilate at the time.
Step 4: Thanksgiving
In each and every situation, you horse is fully deserving of your thanks. The fact that they permit us to ride and to work with them in the way we do is an everyday miracle that we often take for granted. Gratitude and thanks are the closing chapter of creating intention that focuses on partnership and connection, is part of the closing ritual of the time that you have spent together and the end point of any successful application of an aid.
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