The Effect of Timing of a Rider's Aids

I recently came across a video discussion regarding the importance of a rider’s aids in order to obtain correctness. Specifically, the video discussed a real-life problem of training a horse to perform a flying change. During the flying change, the horse changed leads in the front end, but not in the back end resulting in a disunited or crossfire canter. The trainer concluded it was a problem with the timing of the request for a lead change being after the moment of suspension, which they said was too late and causing the screw-up. 
What I am about to say will raise the hackles of a lot of instructors and coaches, but stick with me for a little bit and I will explain. I know I am going to struggle to get the words right because I am not 100% certain what I am trying to say. My thoughts on this subject are not yet totally clear, but I think the topic is worth examining whether I am right or wrong.
I believe the timing of the aids has its place in achieving our goals and we should all be trying to improve our timing, but I also believe it is a generally misunderstood concept. Let’s talk about three examples that I hope will better clarify what I mean.
If you ask a horse to yield its forehand to the left and move the left foot first, then timing the signal to coincide with the moment the horse is prepared to take his weight off the left fore will be important. But if the rider is late with their signal (and applies it when the right fore is about to become un-weighted) there is a good chance the horse will lead with its right fore rather than its left fore. So this is a case where the timing of a rider’s aids affects the “when” of the response, which leads to affecting the “how” of the response.
However, if the goal is to yield the shoulder to the left and it doesn’t matter which foot moves first, the timing of the rider’s aids is irrelevant. The difference between the rider being early or late will be a difference of one step. Therefore, the difference in timing does not lead to a difference in whether the horse will yield its shoulder or not, but rather a difference in when it will yield its shoulder.
Now let's look at the flying change issue talked about in the video I watched. The trainer was arguing that the reason the horse disunited (cross fired) in the flying change was because the rider was not asking for the lead change during the moment of suspension in the canter stride. I have heard several big and small name trainers talk about this and I have to say I don’t believe it. The loss of a correct and balanced change of leads is not related to the poor timing of a rider’s aids, but due to crookedness and tension in a horse. If a rider misses the moment of suspension to give the signal to the horse to change leads (and assuming every element to do that is in place) the horse will simply change leads a stride later. No biggie. But it won’t screw up the ability of a horse to change leads if it has already been taught how to do that.
Let’s look at another example that I saw at a clinic by a visiting American trainer about a year ago. He was trying to help a rider lengthen the stride of her horse’s walk. He had her apply more left leg pressure when the left hind foot of the horse was furthest back and then right leg pressure when the horse’s right hind leg was the furthest back. The idea behind this approach was the rider’s left leg would help the horse put more effort into bringing the left hind foot forward and visa versa when the rider applied right leg. In theory, this was meant to elongate the horse’s stride at the walk. What was interesting is that more than half the time the rider got their timing wrong and applied their left leg when the horse’s right leg was maximally back and right leg when the horse’s right hind was maximally back. Yet, the horse still made a good change and was able to reach under itself with much more effort despite the poor timing of the rider’s aids.
Before I say anything more, I want to be clear that I am assuming that a horse already knows and understands how to respond to the aids without stress and without confusion. If this is not true, then this article is not talking about that horse.
In my view, the timing of a rider’s aids influence when a change of movement will occur, but it does not directly influence how it will occur. I think this is a general rule and not a golden rule, but I believe overall it stacks up pretty well. For example, when asking a horse to yield its shoulder in a particular direction, when it happens will depend on a rider’s timing and result in whether the left foreleg first or right foreleg first. But the timing won’t determine if the horse yields its shoulder or doesn’t yield its shoulder, just when. The movement can be influenced by the “when”, so it could be argued that the timing of the aids indirectly effects the outcome via when the aids are applied. But that is different to the timing of a rider’s signals directly altering the way a horse performs a movement. 
I’m unsure how far you can take this argument because I think it is probably 100 percent true. As I said in the beginning, this hypothesis might create some disturbance in the cosmos and cause a few people to experience seizures, but whether you agree or disagree thinking about it can only be a good thing. 
Photo: This perfectly timed photograph makes it look like the handler is lifting the horse. Now that’s great timing!

The Essence of Good Horsemanship NOW an eBOOK

After a lot of harassment from various people who like ebooks rather than paperback, I have finally pulled my finger out and my book The Essence of Good Horsemanship is now available in kindle format from​

Stop Driving Your Horse Crazy

It's difficult for people to not pick on everything a horse does. We all seem to want to touch our horse and ask him not to look away or not to eat etc even when we are not wanting anything from them. We drive them crazy with our nagging. 
In this video I illustrate the typical situation many horse people deal with that is about constantly criticising a horse without bringing clarity to what a horse can do to avoid being nagged and corrected by the owner.


A Horse's Perspective

For many years I would spend several weeks a year in Arizona visiting and working with my friend, Harry Whitney. One time Harry and I went to the general store to get some groceries in the small country town where he lived.  As I was browsing the aisles I noticed a big burly rough looking bloke at the other end of the store. But what caught my eye more than his general appearance was that he had a gun holstered to the side of his hip. My eyes instantly widened and my blood pumped faster. Everything inside me went on alert mode. In my head, I heard sirens blaring and saw strobbed warning lights everywhere.


I sidled up to Harry as casually and inconspicuously as I could and said in a quiet voice something like, “Harry I think we should get out of here. There’s a guy over there with a gun.”


Harry looked at the man and calmly replied, “It’s okay. He’s allowed to carry a gun into the store. Don’t worry.” I couldn’t have been more shocked by Harry’s nonchalant attitude than if he had told me he was taking me to a Satanic prayer meeting. I never took my eyes off the man while I waited for Harry to finish his shopping. It was a huge relief when we finally drove out of the parking lot leaving the man and his gun behind us.


I was convinced we had just had a lucky escape from a life and death situation and I was troubled why Harry didn’t see it that way. If the same scenario had occurred at home, I know there was a high probability it was not going to end well. The event made such an impact on me that I still think about it 15 or more years later, yet I suspect if Harry were asked about it he wouldn’t be able to recall it because it probably made very little impression with him.


So what is the point of this tale?


I have recounted a couple of times in previous posts that one of the most important lessons I learned when I was a PhD student came from my supervisor who said, “Assume everything you are told is wrong until you are satisfied it is not.” This is a lesson I had to learn and it has been both life changing and invaluable. But while it took more than two decades for me to learn this lesson, horses are born with this insight.


From day one a horse knows that their best chance of staying alive is to assume everything they don’t understand is dangerous until they are convinced it is not. Their reaction to new things or things that are not on their “okay” list is to assume it is dangerous.


This was my response to the man in the store with the gun. I didn’t understand that an ordinary man in the street with a gun did not necessarily pose a threat, so my reaction was to invoke the flight response. I was confused why would a person carry a gun into a shop if it were not to do harm?


Now consider a horse that feels the tightening of a lead rope for the first time. The pressure the horse feels from the halter when a person pulls on the lead rope must have a horse asking the same question I did about the man with the gun. A horse must wonder why would anyone apply pressure on its head if it were not to do harm? So why wouldn’t a horse try to pull away? Why wouldn’t it try to resist? Doing nothing or yielding to the pull might get it killed. Of course, it has to resist or defend itself in some way.


A horse is made to see the world in terms of life and death. Their sense of survival is always close to the surface and strongly linked to every decision they make. When you begin to appreciate this truth about horses you begin to respect that the bad choices they make are never personal and never intended to make our life harder. That’s why there is no place for punishment in good horsemanship. A horse’s mistakes and their bad choices are not about us, but about the lack of clarity and the poor job we have done in satisfying their need to feel safe and comfortable.


Photo: Both Jana and her horse Arnie exhibited resistance to the leg yield because from their perspective it threatened their safety. But I am trying to convince them it is not with a very stylish demonstration.

Breaking a Pattern of Ill Feeling

When a horse feels poorly it is always accompanied by a degree of resistance. This resistance can appear as a multitude of different symptoms that range from almost imperceptible (eg a slight leaning on the reins or minor crookedness) to quite severe (eg bolting or uncatchable). Sometimes the resistance has many faces and is not represented by a single symptom.


It is common that the emotions that are the source of the trouble are so established that it is as if the request from the rider and the ill feelings and the poor response (resistance) are super glued together. Every time a horse is asked for a response the emotional trouble and accompanying resistance are triggered simultaneously. They are inseparable. This is often because a pattern of ill feelings and resistance are tightly linked to a rider’s request.


It’s quite a common occurrence that simply adjusting the pressure or changing the timing to add more clarity to the rider’s cues cannot break this pattern. It’s like when asked by a person at the supermarket checkout “how are you?” a person always gives the same response even without thinking about it. It’s a tried and true pattern that isn’t broken by simply changing the speed of the question or the volume or pitch the question is asked. In order to break the pattern it might require asking the question in a different way such as “If I were to ask you are you suffering any health issues today, what would your response be?” This change in the way we were asked might break our traditional response or at least give us pause to think about the question for a moment.


Let me give you an example. A while back I posted a series of stories about my horse Satts. He had developed the pattern of feeling defensive in an aggressive way when I applied leg pressure. He would feel my leg being applied to his sides and instantly swing around to grab my leg. It was almost like a reflex. The behaviour came from ill feelings caused by lack of understanding about how to yield to a rider’s leg pressure. Just applying more leg pressure or alternating my left leg and right leg pressure or using a tap from a whip to support the notion of moving forward to my leg pressure was not enough to eradicate those bad feelings. The aggression and the attempt to bite my leg persisted.


I knew I had to break the pattern and I chose to break it by doing something totally different that Satts would not expect and would not automatically trigger his aggression. So I rode with a dog toy that would squeak when squeezed. It instantly broke the pattern of aggression because Satts did not know how to respond – he did not have a pattern of response to squeaky dog toys. He quickly figured out that when he heard the sound, relief was found in moving forward with energy. At first, it was fear driven, but then it became a response from understanding. Once this was established, introducing my leg to accompany the squeaking was a minor issue. In a short time, I could dispense with using the dog toy and Satts was very comfortable going forward from leg and seat pressure alone.


In a second scenario with a horse that was stuck about going forward from my leg pressure, I used a very different approach to break his pattern. He was a very stuck gelding that would plant his feet harder the more leg pressure I applied. Whenever I wanted a bigger walk or a trot or a canter, the horse would wring his tail violently, fling his head and make only a token attempt to put out more energy.


This went on for a couple of weeks or so and I wasn’t making a lot of headway. Finally, I was riding in a large arena with a friend. I ask the friend to ride around the outside of the arena at a trot and as she came up behind me I wanted her to ask her horse to canter. At the same time, I would ask my horse to canter (something I never been able to achieve up to then). So my friend trotted ahead and went around the perimeter of the arena, while I kept encouraging my horse with more forward. I heard her approaching from behind and when she was within about 4 or 5 strides behind me she asked her horse to canter alongside my horse. At the same time, I asked my horse to canter.


As my friend’s horse started to go past us, my horse took off like a NASA rocket. We went past my friend and her horse like they were a blur. There was no holding my horse back – he was gone and bolting as fast as he could. Everybody else in the arena scattered and we were heading for the fence out of control. My horse was either going to slide to a stop or try to jump and I prepared for either event. But in 2 strides before the fence, my horse skidded to a stop and hit the wall with a bang against his chest. From that time on he showed amazing improvement and I was able to ride him with a lot more forward and far less ill feeling. The pattern was broken. I’m not suggesting you try to make your horse bolt to break a pattern, but there is a lesson to learn here.


When we allow a pattern to become ingrained, sometimes we need to think outside of the box of our own patterns. The link between a trigger (pressure), a response (horse’s behaviour) and poor emotions needs to be broken if we are to help horses that carry deep ill feelings change for the better.


We are the smarter species and it seems a shame that we sometimes fail to use our smartness and default to our own pattern with no change in our clarity.


Photo: I don’t know what is going on in this photo, but there is something about the thinking of a fellow who works a horse in his pyjamas and dressing gown.