Using Artificial Aids

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Equestrians refer to communication aids that are associated with some use of the rider’s body as “natural” aids. These include the legs, the rider’s weight, the hands, and an independent seat. They call anything else an “artificial aid.”

In a very broad sense, if you are using the arena wall or the corner to help you shape your horse’s movement from the ground or the saddle, it becomes an “artificial” aid in the full corridor of aids you are using. A martingale or tie-down on a ridden horse or side reins on a horse being longed are other examples of artificial aids that people use to shape their horse’s activity.

However, whips and spurs are the aids most people think of when the subject of artificial aids comes up. The rider’s goal is to communicate with the horse using light natural aids. If the horse begins to ignore the rider’s natural aids, whips or spurs can be used to reinforce the natural aids. They should never be used to punish the horse and the rider must be sure that the horse completely understands the request being made by a particular corridor of natural aids before using a whip or spur to reinforce that request.

The whip is used as a reminder, not as a punishment. A constant pressure (like the pressure of the girth) “goes away” as the horse learns to ignore it. The same thing can happen with the rider’s leg. When leg pressure is first introduced to a green horse, he moves away from it. Gradually, however, the horse begins to ignore the constant feel of the rider’s leg lying against his side. If the rider increases leg pressure to ask the horse to increase its activity level and the horse ignores that change in pressure, the whip becomes a reminder of what the change means. The rider wants the horse to respond to light leg aids and the whip helps direct the horse’s attention to that.

As with natural aids, the rider’s timing and the degree of pressure with which the whip is applied are both critical if the horse is to understand and correctly respond to them. If the horse does not respond to the rider’s increased leg pressure, for example, the whip should be applied immediately, not a stride or two later. If the rider has to use the whip twice before the horse responds, the rider needs to use more whip pressure the next time the horse ignores the leg aid. The degree of pressure needed will vary from horse to horse. With each horse, the rider needs to determine what degree of pressure is enough to get the correct response the first time the whip is applied without startling the horse.

Using the whip correctly so that you do not affect the rein in your whip hand is an art in itself. It is easier to keep hand movement to a minimum if the whip is long enough to reach the horse’s barrel easily. A stiff whip is easier to apply crisply and quickly than a more flexible one. Look for a whip that has a rubbery grip or a good cap. Either feature makes the whip easier to hold and harder to drop.

Holding the rein and the whip in your hand, allow the whip to slide through your hand and wrap your thumb around the grip. The whip should lie across the thigh in a position to use when you need it. Move your hand away from the horse about an inch, flick your wrist or tip your pinkie finger, and touch the horse’s barrel.

It is not uncommon to see people try to “correct” a horse with a whip after it has run out on a jump approach. This is incorrect because the horse is past the moment when he can perceive the whip as a reinforcement of the rider’s aids. If the horse starts to ignore the rider’s leg on the jump approach, the rider must apply the whip the moment she feels the horse begin to ignore her leg aids. On a jump approach, this will require taking the reins in one hand so that the rider can reach back to apply the shorter jumping bat or crop. The rider’s goal is to have the horse respond immediately to her increased leg pressure just before the jump. Therefore, reinforcement with the whip must occur immediately when the horse ignores the leg.

Any level rider can learn to carry a whip and use it with the right timing and right degree of pressure. Spurs, however, should be reserved for riders that have developed an independent seat and have complete control over the use of their legs. Again, the spur should be used as a sensitive extension or reinforcement of the rider’s leg, never as a punishment. It should refine the rider’s leg aids by conveying more subtle degrees of pressure to the horse. Riders should never fall into the ugly habit of driving the horse with a touch of the spur at every stride. Again, the goal is to use the artificial aid to reinforce the natural aids so that the rider can use the lightest possible aids to communicate with the horse.

Some people regard artificial aids as a second-class or even abusive way of communicating with the horse. Certainly artificial aids have the potential for misuse by inexperienced horse handlers. However, the same might be said for the natural aids when applied by inexperienced riders who have not yet achieved an independent seat. While artificial aids should never be used as shortcuts in the training process, they can be extremely useful communication tools when used correctly.


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The progress we have seen in Erin's riding and other horse skills has been tremendous. She came to Meredith Manor without a significant amount of riding experience. Today she is a proficient rider, and the confidence she has developed in the care and training of horses is very satisfying for both of us.
Parents of Erin McElmury: 1996 Riding Master Graduate