No matter how clear and invisible your riding aids are, your horse won’t understand what you want if you get your timing wrong.
In this article, we take a look at how you can correctly time your riding aids to make sure that you and your horse are both on the same wavelength.
The importance of timing the aids correctly
The application of the correct aids at the right time ensures that the horse will give you the response you’re looking for whilst still being able to keep his balance.
For example, it’s more difficult for the horse to step sideways if you ask him to do so while his foot is on the ground, rather than in the air.
Also, the rhythmic application of the aids encourages relaxation. If the horse is relaxed, he is more likely to be obedient and submissive to the aids, enabling his responses to be light, quick, and barely visible to the onlooker – and the dressage judge!
How to time your aids
To understand how to time your aids, you’ll need to know how your horse’s hind legs work and when to use your aids to get the best response from your horse.
Essentially, there are three ways in which the horse uses his hindquarters.
#1 – Thrust (power)
To move the horse forward and up, the hind legs push the horse off the ground. This is called thrust.
Thrust drives the horse forward, as in the extended trot, or upward, as in passage.
That means that if you want to influence the horse to push more, you will need to apply your aids when the horse’s desired hind leg is in contact with the ground.
So, you would ask for a canter transition when the horse’s outside hind leg is on the ground. Or you would ask for medium trot when the inside hind leg is on the ground so that the horse can push himself forward.
#2 – Reach
During this phase of the stride, the horse brings his hind leg forward and off the ground, giving the stride greater reach.
To influence reach, you need to apply your aids when the horse’s desired hind leg is at its most flexed and is at the highest point.
So, you can influence the reach of the horse’s inside hind leg when he has his weight on his outside hind leg, and vice versa.
For example, to ask the horse to move sideways to the right when you’re in trot, apply your aids when the horse’s right hind leg is on the ground and his left hind leg is at its highest, most flexed point. This allows the horse to step farther underneath his body and therefore achieve greater reach sideways. That will give your lateral work much more swing, fluency, and ground-cover.
#3 – Carrying (enagagement)
During the carrying phase of the horse’s movement, his hind leg is in contact with the ground, and all three of the leg joints are flexed equally to carry his weight.
To ask the horse to carry more weight you will need to slow the tempo of the rhythm. So, you’ll need to apply a half-halt during the carrying phase when the horse’s desired hind leg is on the ground. That will bring the hind leg more underneath the horse, encouraging him to “sit” more behind, lighten his forehand, and improve his balance.
Common aid-timing problems
Here are several common scenarios where incorrectly timed rider aids cause problems, together with some helpful advice on how to make sure that you get it right!
Canter lead timing
Many riders have issues when it comes to getting the correct canter strike-off, sometimes because the horse is green, but more commonly because the timing of the aid is wrong.
So, if you’re working on the left rein in trot, the best time to ask for a canter transition is when the horse’s left diagonal pair of legs is in contact with the ground.
Well, the first canter beat is made by the horse’s outside hind leg, followed by the diagonal pair, and finally, the leading leg. So, from trot, you’ll need to apply the canter aid when the horse has his outside hind leg on the ground, which ensures that he will pick up the correct lead as his legs follow the sequence.
If you want to ask for canter directly from the walk, the timing of your aids is different because the walk is a four-beat gait. You need to wait until you can feel the horse’s belly pushing against your calf, enabling you to ask for the transition when the inside hind leg is in the carrying phase and already stepping underneath the horse in readiness to propel him forward. Again, the natural sequence of the canter stride ensures that he must strike off on the correct leg.
Downward transition timing
In order for them to remain balanced, the downward transitions must be made when the horse’s outside hind leg is in contact with the ground.
To achieve that, you need to develop a “feel” for what’s happening underneath you, and that “feel” develops through practice and over time.
Unfortunately, some riders never develop “feel” and instead come to rely on blind luck or brute strength to hold the horse up and in balance through the transition.
However, if you struggle with “feel,” you can help yourself to get the timing of the aids correct by preparing well in advance for the transition.
So, when riding a transition at a particular letter in the arena, be sure to allow yourself three strides before the letter before asking the horse for the transition so that you can prepare yourself and apply the aids at exactly the correct moment.
Riding in an arena that has mirrors is helpful in that you can watch your horse’s movement to see when the aid should be applied.
With plenty of practice, gradually, you’ll learn to feel the moment underneath you without having to look in the mirrors every time you want to ask for a downward transition.
Related Read: How to Ride a Forwards Downward Transition
When you ride lateral movements, such as leg-yield, you are asking your horse to step away from your leg and to reach across forward and underneath his body, as described earlier in this article.
To do that and maximize the horse’s reach phase, you need to use your inside leg in the rhythm of the trot each time the horse’s inside hind leg is in the air to ask him to step through and across beneath you.
Feeling for the correct moment
To determine when to apply your aids you need to learn how to feel the correct moment.
Close your eyes as you ride around the arena in walk.
Feel when your knee or seat drops slightly to the left and right as your horse’s hind legs bear weight alternately.
Ride a transition to trot.
Aim to apply your aid when the horse’s outside hind leg is on the ground and the inside hind leg is off the ground.
Once you have mastered the walk-trot transition, try this exercise with different transitions and lateral movements.
You can also have a play around with this exercise and apply your aids at different times, depending on whether your horse’s desired hind leg is in the thurst, reach, or carrying phase. You can then assess what results you get and how your horse responds.
Learning how to time your aids correctly is a skill that takes time to achieve, but that effort and persistence is well worth it.
By practicing the exercises and techniques outlined in this article, you will learn how to “feel” when to apply the aids for maximum effect.
The combination of those correctly timed aids will help to keep your horse balanced and relaxed throughout your schooling sessions, improving your competition performance and enabling you to move smoothly up through the grades.
Try these techniques, and then tell us how your timing improved in the comments section below!
- How to Get a Good Rhythm
- How to Refine Your Aids for Dressage
- How to Reduce Tension and Get Your Horse to Relax
- How to Build a Good Dressage Foundation