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 Rider's Vigilance and Discipline

At every clinic, I meet people that have a lot of talent to be good horse people. I see in them an ability to not only have the physical aptitude to apply their knowledge, but they also have a good sense of awareness and feel when working with a horse. They are very capable of seeing what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what needs to change to help their horse. But for some reason, despite the diligent work they have put into their horsemanship, the improvements I expect to see from one clinic to another don’t always meet my expectations or theirs. I know they are putting in the time and I know they have a desire to see improvement, but the dream and the reality don’t always come together.


It was maybe 3 or 4 years ago when I was home, taking a break from clinics, that I had the crazy idea to ride one of my own horses. It was both a shock to me and a shock to my gelding, Riley. I was riding in the paddock when I noticed my wife had come out to see what I was doing. I guess she was as surprised as Riley that I decided to saddle up and ride and maybe she was checking to see if I had a brain embolism.


After a few minutes of watching, Michèle said, “If that was a client’s horse you wouldn’t let him do that.”


I can’t recall what it was that I was letting Riley do, but I do remember turning to her and replying in a whiny little boy’s voice, “Yeah maybe, but it’s Riley.” As if Riley was the cutest and smartest horse in the whole wide world and made of chocolate.


I knew at the time and I know now that Michèle was right. I was letting something slip by with Riley that I would have definitely addressed with somebody else’s horse. Why? Because I knew I could with Riley and because I was being a lazy arse.


I have thought a lot about that day. When it comes to working hard I have always been a minimalist. Some have called me lazy, but I prefer to view myself as a more highly evolved member of the species. It is my ambition to not die from overwork. The problem with that philosophy comes when others depend on me to not be lazy. By not being vigilant and mindful in my session with Riley I was failing my horse. I made Riley the victim of my lack of self-discipline. I had the skill and the awareness, but I was just being lazy.


Since that day, I have tried very hard to not repeat my sins when working any horse - whether a student’s or one of mine.


However, I see the same vice in many people who attend clinics. Usually while at a clinic, their work ethic and self-discipline are very high. Yet, it falls apart for so many when they are alone at home and the teacher’s eyes are not on them. For some reason, when we are not paying money to be picked on and terrorized by our teachers our vigilance and discipline become secondary to our need to have a pleasant ride. I am convinced of this because so many people I see are much more capable than their horse’s performance would indicate.


I realize there are many factors that contribute to the problem. I think many people are like me and they own a nice horse (like Riley) that generously forgives their lack of discipline. Other people struggle to find the confidence to push the boundaries when the guiding hand of some expert is absent. And of course, the biggest problem for most people is to find the time to be consistent in the work.


But having said all that, the point I want to make today is in regard to a person’s discipline. Awareness and feel are no help to us if we don’t have the self- discipline and vigilance to use them all the time in every session. They are like money – it’s nice to have but bloody useless if we don’t use it.


As a teacher, I struggle to know how to motivate people to have a high degree of vigilance and discipline if it is not naturally present in every sweat gland. Sometimes serendipity takes care of it by giving a person a horse that requires these skills in order to minimize visits to the hospital emergency room. That tends to motivate people to dig deep. But when a person has a “Riley” horse in their life, what is a teacher to do?


To be honest, I have found only two approaches that have successfully driven people to greater discipline and consistency.


The first is for the people who have the skill but are unmotivated. Basically, they are being lazy. My strategy has been to call them out for their laziness. I have told people they are just bloody lazy and if they don’t use the talent they have I can’t help them and they have achieved as much as they ever will. I hate doing that. A couple of times it has led to tears (but I tried not show my tears too much). I always feel like an ogre and worry I have ruined their confidence. But each time it has always worked out well. People seem to take it as a challenge and when I see them again 6 months later the changes have always been amazing. This is always a last resort for me and I still feel worried about putting people in the naughty corner and coming down on them so hard, but so far it has never been a mistake.


The second approach that I have used successfully is to work the student’s work to demonstrate what their horse is capable of doing and then guiding them step-by-step through the process. For some people, this approach seems to excite them to try to achieve what I was able to achieve. They doubted their horse's ability to make a change, but when shown what it could be like they step up. They challenge themselves to make a difference and both the owner and the horse turn out winners.


I have even on occasion made bets with people that if they achieve a certain goal by the next clinic I will buy them a bottle of wine and if they don’t succeed they owe me a bottle of Scotch. So far I am several bottles of wine down and am still waiting for my first bottle of Laphroag. But I am more than okay with that.


What I have learned from these experiences is what I learned from Michèle critiquing my ride on Riley. Despite being a more highly evolved individual than most humans, I am trying to get in touch with my more primitive instincts and work harder at being vigilant and disciplined in both my horsemanship and my teaching. So my message to all of you other highly evolved people is try to be more like the less advanced of our species by not being lazy in your horsemanship. We owe it to the horses.


Photo: Thanks to Ben Moxon and Sari Maydew who kindly gifted us the rainbow halter and lead, Riley and I were able to ride in support of equal marriage rights for all.

Incremental Training

I have talked before that training is about changing a horse’s ideas or thoughts. The only way training truly teaches a horse what we want it to learn is if we cause it to believe our idea is a better idea than the one we don’t want it to think. Without changing a horse’s view on this a horse can never see any benefit to working with us and simply goes along with our idea to minimize the trouble in its life. It becomes a reluctant employee instead of an invested partner.


We can force obedience and submission, but we can’t ever force willingness if changing a horse’s idea about what is its best option is not the most important part of the training process. This is the single most important principle I have tried to impart on this page and at my clinics.


The reason a horse makes the choices it does is that in its thinking those choices are the ones that will lead to the greatest comfort and safety. It doesn’t matter if the reality is different. It only matters that a horse believes doing the things it does are its best options.


If you accept this hypothesis, then it seems self-evident that if we want a horse to change its ideas, and therefore its behaviour, we should present an idea that is closest to the idea a horse already has while still asking for a progression in the training. It is easier for a horse to find the new answer if we are asking for a change that is close to what it already thinks is the best option.


Making a new idea as close as possible to an old idea, while still progressing towards the idea we eventually want, makes it easier to convince a horse to change it’s thought. It is much harder to convince a horse to change its thought by asking for a 180 deg turn around in behaviour and thought. Incremental changes are more doable and powerful in training if possible. The greater the gap between the thought a horse has and the thought we want it to have, the harder we make it for a horse to choose our idea.


This is not always possible. But this inevitably puts a strain on a horse’s ability to feel okay about the training and has a strong potential to hinder having a better relationship.


Sometimes safety requires we need to insist on a 180-degree change in a horse’s response and ideas, but for the vast majority of times this is not necessary. Yet people still do it. A good example of people not caring too much about adding incremental layer upon layer is when horses are started under saddle in a few days, such as during colt starting clinics. This form of starting horses is fundamentally the antithesis of what every good horse person understands to be in the best interest of the horse and its relationship with the rider. Yet, people still do it and people still teach it. But the nature of the training means there is no time for a horse to become comfortable and confident with each step. It is training from the school of “get by” horsemanship.


This is just one example where we don’t give enough thought to how to make the learning easiest for our horse. We are guilty of doing this in every discipline. As soon as we believe a horse is on the right path, we don’t linger there trying to consolidate the new lesson just learned. Instead, we introduce the next lesson as soon as we think it is safe.


For instance, it is so common to see a horse just starting to get the picture that we then start asking it to repeat it with more effort. I remember learning as a kid that once my horse could hop over a caveletti with ease, it was time to ask it to jump barrel height and then combination jumps soon followed. Within a few weeks, I was competing the horse at events way beyond what he was comfortable doing. The result was that we won several competitions, but the level of control was always in question. It took too long for me to learn the lesson of going back to square one and repeating the basic training one layer at a time and letting the horse tell me when he was ready for the next piece of the puzzle.


If we don’t take the time to ensure our horse understands and feels okay at each step of the training, we are doomed at best to mediocrity and at worst to failure. Leaping from one important lesson to another is purely a mechanical approach to training because true learning and understanding only come in thin layers. We should try to make each new idea as close as possible to the horse’s old idea in order to speed up the learning. It has been said by numerous people, “the slower I go, the fast I get there.” This is no less true in the training of horses.


Video: I don’t know enough about traditional Mongolian training methods to know if this is common or not. But in any case, there is not a lot of incremental learning for the horse going on here.