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An AIDS test for your horsemanship

Published: 3/14/2017
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Editor's Note: We welcome another guest column from Juliana Zunde of Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Zunde was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1981. She has managed large horse facilities, competed at high levels, and taught extensively, especially to hunter/jumper enthusiasts. She runs Trakai Farm in Hillsborough.
Zunde teaches clinics using her Track-Momentum-Balance Method and blends Natural Horsemanship concepts to help horses and riders work together correctly. She coaches harmony and balance for the hunter, jumper, and dressage ring.
She has studied with George Morris, Joe Fargis, Jeff Cook, Ann Kursinsky, Dr. Gerd Heuschman, Maclain Ward, Buck Brannaman, and Martin Black.
Read more about her here.

By Juliana Zunde

Every time you put your foot in the stirrup iron you use your natural “aids” -- legs, hands, seat, and voice to communicate with your horse.

I have just attended a seminar with Dr. Stephen Peters. He emphasized that horses love to be in rhythm and harmony with each other. There were great pictures with Martin Black leading a few horses and their footfalls were always in sync with each other. Also, watching horses move around in a herd they progress to moving in unison. They seem to gravitate to harmony and to the timing of being in step with each other.

As riders, we need to learn to be harmony with our horses, too. That comes in our communication by using the right placement, timing, and intensity of our aids.

If you listen to your favorite band and the players are out of sync, eventually you’d cover your ears and walk out because it sounds like noise rather than a harmonious melody. When in sync, however, each instrument is placed at exactly the right position and chimes in at the right time with the right note and the right intensity to create an appealing melody.

On a horse, we play all the instruments. If your aids are in harmony, your horse falls right into step with you and wants to be there with you. If the aids are in the wrong place, if you chime in at the wrong time with the wrong intensity, or if you are not in- sync with the footfall of the horse, it sounds like horrible noise to your horse. He would rather be anywhere else than with you.

On a basic level, our aids consist of individual reins and individual legs. Aids can then change in their placement and intensity with what exercise or movement we are asking the horse to do. Remember: all aids act independently of one another but cohesively to communicate in the best way possible with your horse.

The degree to which we use our aids depends on what we want the horse to do at any given moment. Aid use varies depending on the balance and feel of the horse and rider partnership. At one point, your aids might be at an intensity level of 2, on a scale from 1-10, (1 being the least and 10 the most) but some steps later you might need an intensity level of 8. We need to be able to use all of the aids independently but in concert with each other and each at its own appropriate intensity level.

Here is a little exercise to see if you can use your aids independently. You can do this on a horse or in a chair. On the horse, you need to be comfortable enough to let go of the reins and take your feet out of your stirrups. (You might want to have someone hold your horse.)
  • Start with moving your left toe up and down.
  • Now move your right one
  • Rub your tummy with your left hand
  • Pat your head with your other hand
  • Keep doing this for a moment or two, then stop only the hand on your tummy. Focus and concentrate to ensure that the other limbs keep moving.
Did you notice that the hand on your head also wanted to stop?
Keep repeating all of these movements while randomly stopping a hand or a foot.

Now start patting your stomach and rubbing your head and see how well that goes. If you can start and stop any movement and also switch the two hand movements around, then you are doing really well.

One of my students had a lot of trouble communicating with her horse. It left both of them frustrated.  She wasn’t aware that when she gave a cue with one leg that she had also inadvertently moved her other leg in the same fashion. Often that could lead to confusion for the horse.

For instance, if you are riding a circle:
  • your inside leg should be at the girth
  • your outside leg behind the girth.
  • then your inside leg asks the horse to move onto the outside rein. You might need a level 8 intensity leg (on a scale of 1-10) or only a 2 depending on the horse's sensitivity to aids and the degree to which you are asking the horse to bend.
The outside leg, placed slightly behind the girth, holds the haunches in place and may only rest behind the girth with an intensity of 1. That would be harmony: the right aids at the right place chiming in with the right intensity at the right time.

But when my student added the same amount of leg pressure on both sides, it sounded like bad noise to the horse and he could not execute what she was asking him to do.

Practicing this little exercise above may make you more aware of moving your leg and rein aids independently of each other.

Being able to move your hands and legs independently of each other is just like using your leg and rein aids independently in communicating with your horse. The more you are in sync with your communication, the easier it will be for your horse to listen to your “music” and be in harmony with you.

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3/20/2017 Debbie
Interesting. I noticed the tendency to stop other things as soon as I changed what I was doing! This is obviously a complex and 'new' exercise, yet I can see the relation to the multiple aids we give our horses. Thank you.

"If the horse does not enjoy his work, his rider will have no joy." - H.H. Isenbart