The Circle of the Aids

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The circle of aids is an important concept in the rider’s training. It refers to the flow of energy within the horse and to the way the rider’s aids stimulate and channel this flow. 

The circle of aids typically begins with a driving calf aid that brings the horse’s hind legs closer to the center of gravity and into the sphere of influence of the seat. If the hind legs are too far out behind, they are out of reach for the seat and the horse’s back drops. Trying to apply any seat aid at that moment will make the situation worse. It will cause the back to drop - and hurt - even more, and the hind legs will then actually be prevented from stepping under by the weight aid. 

The calf can only do its job effectively if it is resting lightly on the horse’s side. If it is out of touch, it cannot feel the movements of the rib cage and the hind leg, because it is too far away from the horse. This makes it difficult to apply the right aid at the right time, and in the right intensity. Any active aid will come too late, because it takes too long to close the gap between the leg and the horse’s side. Since it comes out of nowhere, it will surprise and possibly startle the horse, especially if he is hot and nervous by nature. 

On the other hand, a leg that is gripping the horse’s side cannot feel anything, either, because stiff muscles cannot sense the smaller and bigger changes in the horse’s muscles tone.

When the hind legs are stepping under the body and the rider is able to feel each hind leg clearly in her seat bones, the seat can channel and direct the energy impulses coming from the hind legs. It regulates the rhythm, tempo, stride length, and direction of the horse’s movement. That is why the seat is sometimes referred to as the conductor in the orchestra of the aids.

The seat also connects the horse from back to front and helps to establish the contact with the reins by connecting the rider’s elbows and upper arms with her pelvis and spine. In other words, the  energy flows from the hind legs through the rider’s midsection and through the withers, the top line of the neck, the poll, to the horse’s mouth, from where they return via the reins, hands, elbows and pelvic floor to the hind legs, where the energy cycle begins again.

However, if the seat loses the connection to the elbows and upper arms, the rein aids are limited to the horse’s mouth instead of reaching the hind legs, and the circle of aids cannot be completed. 

When horse and rider are connected as described above, the rider’s hands communicate with the horse’s hind legs, rather than with his mouth. The rider can feel the left hind leg touching down in her left hand, and the touch down of the right hind in her right hand. 

Rein aids can then serve a variety of purposes. One of them is to “borrow weight” from the horse’s head and neck and add it to the rider’s own body weight in order to flex the hind legs more. The seat translates the rein aid into a weight aid in this case. You can picture the rein aid acting in a vertical rather than horizontal direction by pressing the hind leg into the footing. 

Through the elbow/upper arm connection the rider’s hands can become extensions of her pelvis. If the horse loses balance and pushes through the seat aids, he will encounter the rider’s hand, which refers him back to the seat. Conversely, if the hind legs start to lag behind, the rider’s legs bring him forward to the seat again. As the horse’s training advances, the reins and legs take on the function of guards more and more making sure that the horse stays on the seat. As long as the hind legs step underneath the rider’s seat and he does not try to run out from underneath the rider, the reins and legs can remain relatively passive, but ready to take an active role, as soon as the horse comes off the seat.

As a rule of thumb, we can say that the leg aids bring the horse to the seat, the seat brings the horse to the rein contact and the hands close the energy circuit by recycling the impulses of the hind legs back to the hindquarters to help flex the springs of the hind legs.

- Thomas Ritter

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