Horses are extremely sensitive to touch. If you have ever watched horses out at pasture in the summertime, you might be aware of the effect of a mere fly on a horse. As soon as it lands, the horse might stomp his foot, swish his tail, or "shiver" with the muscles under the fly in attempt to get it off. When it comes to more painful types of pressure, the horse's first defense mechanism is prevention (run away!!!). As you have already learned, horses are prey animals, so they have a keen sense of pressure "in the air." The presence of fear around them signals danger (this is one major way that your mood or fear affects the horse's mood or fear!). If running away is not an option or the horse is overtaken, he fights. If a predator gets her teeth into the horse, the horse moves into the pressure - in other words, he will bite and kick to get the predator off of him before he runs away. This actually makes a lot of sense, because if the horse were to immediately move away in such a situation, he would likely have his flesh torn away by the predator's teeth.
When the rider wants to signal her horse to do something, she will use some combination of four different aids: voice, legs, hands, and weight. Voice does not apply physical pressure on the horse, but can supply emotional or psychological pressure. Horses do not usually respond much to what you say, but rather they respond to how you say it. A loud, frightened WHOA!!! will probably cause your horse to do the opposite of what you want! Horses hear the intonations in your voice, which can encourage them, frighten them, soothe them, etc. Since your legs are in direct contact with the horse, they are extremely important. Well-trained horses have been taught that a rider is not a predator, which is why they are much more willing to allow you on their backs than wild horses. However, even horses trained for riding respond somewhat instinctively to pressure, especially if it is painful. If you clamp your heels into the horse's sides, he might just start wondering if you are a predator after all! If, however, you give a gentle squeeze with the inside of your calf, release the pressure (predators leave out this part...), and then give another gentle squeeze, the horse will understand that your intentions are not to hurt him. His instincts now signal him to move away from the pressure. How quickly? - that depends on how much pressure you put on him.
If you are worried at this point about the horse responding simply out of fear of you, don't. As the horse learns to trust you not to hurt him, he gains respect for you and begins to enjoy doing what you ask of him.
The same principle of gently squeezing and releasing should be applied to the reins. Too much pressure will cause pain in the horse's mouth. Constant pressure will make the pressure points in his mouth go numb after about 3 seconds so he will not feel what you want. (Although he might not feel constant pressure at the time, don't think he won't feel the pain later from the sores left in his mouth!) Tension in the rider's arms and hands caused by straight elbows, crooked wrists, etc. can also cause pain in the horse's mouth. The best remedy for this is correct position.
The last aid the rider uses is weight. Basically, the horse does not like to be out of balance and would prefer you didn't fall off him! So if you put more weight onto his left side, he is likely to go that way in order to "catch you". If you lean your weight forward over the horse's withers, he will usually go faster or will be hard to halt (sneaking in another step... and another...). This is because, again, he is trying to stay beneath your weight. Leaning back helps a horse slow down, coming back under your weight.
In effective riding, all four types of aids are used in combination to ask the horse to perform specific tasks. If one aid is missing, poorly applied, or applied at the wrong moment, the horse becomes confused.
by Heidi Hesterman
former Certified CHA Instructor
Minor in Equestrian Studies, Houghton College, NY
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