14 Ways to Communicate While Riding Your Horse

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

How do you communicate with your teammate when you ride?

Athletes from other team sports learn to communicate with each other as an essential part of their activity. Hockey, soccer, basketball, cricket – or any other game where players rely on each other – requires excellent communication between players. Regardless of the rules and the playing field (or rink), athletes coordinate with each other through voice, signals and body language. In fact, you could say that communication is the single most important factor in a team’s success aside from raw talent.

Horseback riding is unique among team sports precisely because of the horse that becomes your athletic partner. The difference between other sports and ours is that we must learn to communicate to our teammate in less obvious ways than people do in other sports.

We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel – something very alien to people who don’t have to interact with a 1200 pound partner. Want to improve communication with your horse? Use these “natural” aids in rhythm with the horse’s movement, at the right moment within the stride, and see how you can speak in full sentences through the body.

Seat

The seat is where all riding starts. Without a stable, balanced seat, you will always have trouble staying with your horse. But more than that, you can communicate so many things through your seat that you can make your hands and reins become the icing rather than the cake.

Calves

Soft, “breathing” calves can communicate confidence and reassurance to the horse. Use a stronger calf aid to ask for bend or reinforce a two-track movement but then release again to reward and reinforce your horse’s response.

Lower Back

Although the lower back is technically part of the seat, it can send distinct messages through the seat that are not necessarily connected to the buttocks. Brace with the lower back to resist the horse’s forward movement, or release and follow to amplify it.

Knees

The knees deserve to have their own section here because they have their own effect on the horse’s movement. Often, riders release their seat only to pinch with their knees. The resulting conflicting messages could cause the horse to hollow his back or slow down despite the seat aids. Release the knees moments at a time and see how your horse responds. If he gives you rounder, bolder movement, you know that you have been gripping too tightly with the knees. Keep them soft (but not so soft that you lose balance) and see what your horse thinks.

Thighs

The thighs have a similar action. You can grip through the thighs to resist and restrict movement or you can soften, which will allow your seat to move along with the horse. The thighs also help the rider in finding a deeper balance in the saddle by settling into the saddle. Finally, they can reinforce your bending aids so that there is contact with your horse’s side from the seat, through the thigh, to the calf and foot. This is the imaginary “wall” we speak of when we want to create an aid that the horse will step away from to create the bend or lateral movements.

Shoulders

Your shoulders hold more power that you can imagine! If you lean back within the movement (ie. don’t stay leaning back), you can influence your horse to shift his weight further to the hind end without jerking the bit in the horse’s mouth or causing him to hollow his back. 

Head

The average head weighs 10 pounds! Use your head purposely and it can also act as an aid, and influence your other aids. In general, keep your head up and eyes looking slightly ahead of your horse. If you want a bend, turn your head slightly toward the bend – but don’t overturn your head or it will encourage an overbend in your body as well as your horse’s!

Buttocks

Yes, these can also “talk” either in conjunction or not with the seat. Squeeze the gluteus maximus and lighten the load on your horse’s back. Soften the glutes and become heavier in order to deepen your seat aid or reinforce your rhythm.

Feet

The feet factor into communication as well. Keep your feet parallel to the horse’s side to follow and “breathe” along with the calves. Turn the toes out to create more of a wall especially for a lateral movement. Alternately, take the foot off to invite the horse’s rib cage into that space.

Fingers

We always teach that the fingers should be closed in a soft, light fist so that the communication going to the mouth is consistent and steady. Sponging the reins can wiggle the bit in the horse’s mouth and conversely, closing the fist can keep the horse from pulling the reins out of your grasp. Some moments might require a more solid feel while other moments can be “butterfly” soft. But in all cases, avoid opening and closing the fingers.

Elbows

We’ve spoken about the effect of the elbows before. In general, the effect of the elbows can be similar to the fingers. Keep a soft bend so that you can follow the horse’s movement. Momentarily hold them on your sides to resist for a half-halt.

Eyes

The eyes deserve their own section here because they can control so many aspects of your body. If you can find your “soft eyes” (a term first taught by Sally Swift), you can communicate softness through your skull and shoulders, which then can influence the rest of your torso and aids. Use “hard eyes” when you want to abruptly influence the horse (say, during a sideways deek when you were asking for a turn) but return to soft eyes to resume going with the horse.

Breath

Many people write about the breath as it relates to horse riding. It is essential to breathe uniformly while you move with the horse. If you find that you hold your breath at times, break the pattern by singing (even under breath – no one needs to hear!). Find a fun song that you know well and sing in rhythm with your horse’s movement. You’ll find that your body releases without any forcing on your part.

Voice

You probably know from experience that voice can be a huge support to your body aids. If you can teach your horse certain words or sounds, you can give him a heads-up while you apply your body aids or even before. Just remember to keep it quiet if you enter the dressage ring!

*****

 Of course, as we all know, there is no such thing as riding with aids separated from each other. Although you can learn to develop arms and legs independent of the seat, and we can dissect each body part to the core, the secret to riding is that everything you do is received by the horse in one moment. So it is more of a holistic exercise that involves the whole body, than moving a hand or a leg or sitting in a given position. 

But by breaking down the aids, we can isolate the ones we need to develop. Then we can go back to putting it all together again – when we are on the horse’s back!

Can you think of an aid to add to this collection? Please comment below.

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 More reading about the aids:

The #1 Rider Problem of the Year – The Leg Aid: You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want. 

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

Why A Release Is Not A Let Go in Horseback Riding: Many people interpret the term ‘Release’ literally – but that’s not what really means.

In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!

10 Tips for the Average Rider: Are you an average rider? Then join the club!

 

 

 

Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions

half halt backThe term “half-halt” is used in the English riding disciplines, and the Western folks call it a “check”. In both cases and regardless of bit type and rein length, the feeling that goes through your body is the same. Because under most circumstances, the half-halt shouldn’t start from your hands.

What it’s not: 

- a jerk

- a strong and steady pullback

- a taking up of rein followed by a full drop of rein

- a sideways movement of the reins either left or right or both

- a turning of the wrists downward

Technically, it’s not something done by the hand. Although the hand certainly plays a role in the end of the sequence of aids, it shouldn’t be where the aids begin. And it can’t be active through the beginning, middle and end of the half-halt.

Because just messing around in the horse’s mouth isn’t where the riding’s at! (Click here to tweet if you agree)

The Whole Body Half-Halt

Good riders ride from the body.

They use their seat, their torso, their abs, their legs. They stay tall and supple in their position, and rather than allowing the horse to carry their weight in the mouth (through an unreleasing rein aid), they influence their horse through every other aid possible. The hands become the icing on the cake after the body has done the talking.

In all the cases below, the hands strive to do nothing but stay lightly closed and steady. They should take up the rein contact so that the horse can feel some pressure, but they don’t use pressure to cause pain in the mouth. Instead, they work with the torso to send one collaborative message to the horse. The elbows should be on the body, softly bent and allowing or resisting as needed. The rein and the bit in the horse’s mouth should be the last part of the aid sequence.

Since we’ve already talked incessantly about the half-halt, go here to find out what it is and here to figure out how to say “go” and “no” at the same time. This time, I want to take a closer look at where the half-halt actually originates.

The Seat

Most half-halts will originate at the seat. This is the area that is in direct contact with the saddle, and the root of our balance and position. By resisting the horse’s movement through your seat, you will bring the horse’s energy and weight more to his hind end and therefore off his forehand.

So as he goes along, you can either flow along (release) or resist (brace) to stop his forward (and maybe downward) energy. You can tighten through your legs, your thighs and “grip” more with your rear end (!!).

In any case, the horse will feel this through the saddle. His response will come from his back rather than his mouth. Beware of using too strong a seat and stifling the horse’s flow of energy. You want to resist for a few strides, in rhythm with the horse’s movement, and then release.

The Lower Back

You can focus your attention a little higher in your back, to the lumbar area. Rather than gripping with your seat, your back does most of the resisting. In making a slight backward motion in rhythm with your horse’s strides, the lower back can send a softer, less demanding half-halt.

Use this starting point for a “ballerina” horse – the one that doesn’t need much input and responds quickly and honestly.

The Upper Back

This half-halt helps the horse lift the front end more than the others. If you begin your aid from just behind your shoulder blades, you can influence the horse’s head height and the amount of weight he is putting on his front legs.

Use this starting point for the “rooters” – the horses that grab the bit and plow down to the ground. It gives you a nice alternative to just slamming the horse in the mouth with the bit. This way, he learns to actually rebalance himself rather than having to deal with pain in his mouth.

The Hands

Did I just say that the half-halt shouldn’t start at the hands? Well, there might be one time when you can use just finger strength (although your arms are still part of your torso as you move along with your horse).

If your horse is already on your aids, and he feels soft and supple and is confidently moving along, you might want to just not stop your communication with him. You might want to keep the flexion of his head, or softly touch his tongue to prepare for a transition. You might want to just continue “talking” to him so that he doesn’t end up tuning you out.

Use your fingers. Keep the same lightly-closed fist, but soften and tighten your fingers within that fist. Some people call it “squeezing a sponge” because that’s what it should feel like. Pay close attention and see if you can literally feel the horse’s tongue in your fingers.

Just remember that you can’t do even this lightest of half-halts without the seat and the body. The hands must be a part of the body’s communicating aids and not acting on its own.

So there you have it. I use these half-halt locations interchangeably, depending on the horse and how he feels. I find it helps to zero in on the specific body parts so that you can intentionally send the message you want to send.

Do you begin your half-halt in a different location? Comment below.

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 Read more about the half-halt and more.

What To Do When A Half-Halt Just Won’t Do: How to make a half-halt “go through”.

Why A Halt is Not A Vacation – in Horse Riding: Why you shouldn’t turn off when you halt.

How to Halt Without Pulling on the Reins: Finding the harmonious halt.

Top 10 Ways to Reward Your Horse: … while you are riding!

The Art of Slowing Your Horse’s Legs Down Without Losing Energy: How to establish a calmer, more reasonable rhythm that will allow your horse to swing more through the back.

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The Art of Slowing Your Horse’s Leg Speed Down Without Losing Energy

 

 Black and White

Many horses tend to just go faster faster when you ask for more energy. They translate leg aids to speed, thereby coming more to the forehand, heavier on the reins and less balanced.

We often talk about how a good rhythm is one of the most basic aspects of good riding. When you find the “right” rhythm for your horse, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that the balance and weight can improve with little effort on your part. Your reins lighten up. You stop feeling like you’re on a roller coaster going down.

In our previous article, we talked about why you should help your horse slow the legs down. Now, let’s see how you can establish a calmer, more reasonable rhythm that will allow your horse to swing more through the back, stride deeper under the body and carry the rider’s weight with better strength.

1. Slow Down the Legs

Sounds easy and fairly obvious. First off, just get the horse to stop the leg speed. Do this fairly quickly. In other words, don’t let the horse go around the ring a few times before you start to ask him to slow down.

As soon as your horse speeds up, slow him down. Explain to him that your aids do not translate into leg speed. Tell him that he can accept your aids without feeling like he has to brace, go faster, or otherwise become uncomfortable.

Some horses need more convincing than others to slow down. Do as much as you need, but as little as possible to get the legs to slow down. This is the first step.

2. Accept Under Power

The next thing that usually happens is that the horse thinks that he has to stop everything. Maybe he breaks to a walk or halt. Maybe he just does this low energy, super strung out under power trot.

But there is more to it than that. Because if you just slow the legs down, you will likely lose a lot of the energy at the same time. Then, the horse moves his legs slowly, yes, but continues to arch his back and drop his neck because in this case, he has to. There is no energy available for him to lift his back to carry the weight of the rider.

So it isn’t really only about slowing the legs.

The key to finding the horse’s ideal rhythm is to slow the legs while maintaining energy. (Click to tweet that if you agree.)

If, after you slow down the legs, you feel like you and your horse have fallen into quicksand, and each step feels like it has to drag to the next step, you know that’s not what you wanted.

Here are the steps to finding energy while slowing down:

3. Gently Allow More Energy

If you soften your body and begin to move along with the horse, he will often offer more energy once he settles into the rhythm.You should just ride when he offers an increase in impulsion. Pet him lightly when you feel him take initiative.

If the horse doesn’t offer, then ask in increments. When the horse goes to speed his legs, half-halt to slow down again. Ask for more energy but half-halt the speed. Do this over and over again until the horse finally gives up on the leg speed but starts to engage through the hind end.

Keep in mind that you are part of the equation here too. If you ask for energy but then speed up your posting rate, then the horse will automatically speed up his legs to keep up. So when you ask for energy, make sure you “hover” on the forward phase of the post just a split second longer. Don’t fall back to the saddle – carry your own weight down slowly enough to not disrupt the horse’s speed.

4. Find the Balance Between Slow But Strong

Sometimes, the horse might slow down and not even know that he can increase his energy. This horse needs gentle encouragement to allow the energy through his body. 

Other times, the horse might fluctuate between fast/slow/fast/slow. In this case, it’s your job to be the metronome for the horse, and to dictate the slower leg speed after you ask for more energy. This horse might become confused because he is sure that your leg/seat aids mean faster legs. You have to take the time to change your “language” so that he understands that increased energy does not mean increased leg speed. This horse might need weeks of practice before he is convinced that leg speed is not what you’re after.

5. Ride With Commitment

Once you find the energy, you have to ride differently. You can’t just push him along and let him brace. So you have to hold your own weight, release a little more through your own back, control your post in the slower rhythm, and basically “be there” with your horse in an energy-but-not-speed feel.

It’s Easier Said Than Done!

As with most things in riding, changing your internal speed, increasing your internal energy and putting it all together can be quite the challenge. Because as with all things riding, it starts with you. But it is possible and even if you’ve never thought about the horse’s leg speed, you can do it with some intention.

You know you’re on the right track when your horse takes his first few “swinging” steps in slowness.

You know you’re getting it when he gives you a snort, and his expression softens or his ears point softly forward.

You can feel it through the saddle, with a sudden trampoline-y feeling that you can describe as a “swing”. Maybe your horse arches his neck a bit, lifting the base of his neck and stretching over the top.

And you’re definitely there if you find your reins just got longer miraculously on their own, because the horse just rounded and let his energy travel over his topline. (In this case, gently take up the loose rein because you don’t want the bit to suddenly fall in the horse’s mouth.)  

How do you slow our horse’s legs down? Let us know in the comments below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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More articles on the same subject:

Can You Recognize the Sewing-Machine Trot? It is easy to get fooled into thinking that the sewing-machine trot is a good trot.

Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.

When Good Riding Instruction Becomes Great:  How much can an instructor really do to help a rider improve?

The #1 Rider Problem of the Year – The Leg Aid: You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want. 

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.