Does your dressage get lost in translation?

Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons, Freelance Dressage Trainer

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Understanding and using a simple aiding system to communicate with your horse can make all the difference when you are training him, and is especially important for dressage.  Let’s take a look at how we can put basic aiding principles into a simple and easy to remember system, which makes sense to both horse and rider.

Pressure on pressure off.

The basic principle for all aiding should be that of pressure and release.  The appropriate use of pressure and its timely release can mean the difference between your horse understanding an exercise or not. In their simplest form, an active aid should only be applied for as long as it takes for the horse to begin to respond in the right way. For example, from halt, if the rider applies both legs in their normal position (with the rider‘s foot vertically in line with their seat), the horse should respond by beginning to move forwards. Once this response has been achieved the rider should release the pressure from their legs, which in turn indicates to the horse that his response was correct.  This principle applies to both leg and rein aids, and when we talk about the release, we need to understand that we are releasing the extra pressure applied as the aid, not permanently releasing all contact from leg or hand, which when in a non aiding state, should both ideally remain softly in contact.


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We need to indicate to the horse which way we would like him to move.  In very simple terms, if we want the horse to move straight, we must aid with both legs equally, and maintain an even rein contact. If we want the horse to move to the side, we must aid with one leg only, and allow the horse to move in that direction with the rein contact.


An important part of aiding is the position in which we apply those aids. Up to now, we have discussed the principles of the type of aid (pressure and release) and the differences used for direction.  In this section we look at the positioning of our aids.  For this I use three basic principles:


Ÿ  Simply put, forwards for forwards, back for back. When we want the horse to go forwards, we use the legs straight under the seat, with the pelvis in a slight ‘bottom tucked’ position.  By contrast when we want the horse to go backwards, we aid with both legs back, and the pelvis in a more ‘bottom out’ position.  These differences in leg and pelvis position also relate later on to the differences between collection and extension of the horse’s paces.

Ÿ  The positioning of the rider’s legs is also determined by which is inside and outside.  The outside leg should be slightly behind the inside leg.

Ÿ  Inside and outside leg and hand are determined purely by the direction of the bend in the horse’s body, and not by the direction of travel around or across the school.

Weight and seat

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Here we distinguish between weight and seat.  One might think that the weight and seat are the same thing but this is not necessarily the case.  When we are travelling with the horse straight, we should feel our seat bones equally on the saddle, and our body weight will be fully central over the horse.  When the horse is bent, we would normally feel ourselves sitting a little more on the inside seat bone, but our body weight distribution depends on the exercise and the direction of travel.  For example, in leg yield right, the horse is bent slightly left, but travelling right, so the rider will feel their left seat bone in contact more, but their body weight should be thinking more to the right, to help the horse travel in that direction.  For a circle right, the right seat bone is felt more, and the rider’s body weight is slightly right to enable the turn to the right.  Using this principle, you should see that it would be possible to bend the horse left, but turn to the right, and vice versa, but obviously it’s best to start simple and move on from there!

Working it out

Using the ideas outlined here, we can begin to work out what the aids should be for most things that we might ask of the horse, as long as we understand what the horse is required to do.

For example, a transition from walk to trot requires the rider (having of course first applied a half halt, which we’ll cover another time!) to apply both legs equally, keep their weight central above the horse, maintain a soft even rein contact, and press and hold their pelvis in a slight bottom tucked position until the horse has responded.

In another example, for shoulder in left, the rider should position their legs so that the left is in advance of the right because the left leg is the inside leg, the left rein asks for the bend to the left, the left leg is more active in asking the horse to move away to the right, the rider feels their left seat bone more in contact, but keeps their weight a little more to the right as this is the desired direction of travel.  Or for half pass left, again the left leg is in advance, the left rein bends the horse, the left seat bone is felt more, and the right leg (outside leg) is active in asking for movement away to the left, and therefore the weight is kept slightly left to clarify this direction of travel.  If you need to remind yourself of the different bends and directions of travel for lateral movements, refer back to my article in the September 2012 issue of Pegasus Magazine.

Hopefully you can use these methods to help you work out what the aids should be for most basic dressage movements. Of course, saying what the aids are does not make the movements easy to perform, and it takes a long time to develop the necessary balance, coordination, and feel to be able to put the aids into practise.  However, understanding what the aids should be is a good place to start!

Cheryl Hammerson BHSAI Regd Bsc Hons

Freelance Dressage Trainer

07879 424330

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