This article discusses the nature of aids and how an understanding of this can help you when riding.
There are a couple dearly held myths about the reactions of horses that need to be dispelled. The “Fight and Flight” mechanism is the first great misunderstanding of the nature of horses. Horses (and most animals) do NOT just fight or flee, they fight, freeze, or flee when afraid. Just think about it - how many horses have you seen afraid to load into a trailer, just rooted to the spot? They are not running away, nor are they being aggressive. Ethnologists started using this triple mechanism to describe reactions years ago, but because it is not snappy, it has not entered general consciousness.
Secondly, when we are riding horses - we are not, or should not be, engaging the “Fight, Freeze, Flight” mechanism at all. Horses are not afraid of us and they are not afraid of being touched. If they are, you should not be practicing basic riding techniques on them. Aids are not veiled threats issued to horses to force them to do something, they are reasonable requests asked in a reasonable tone of voice, just like “Could you pass the butter, please, sweetheart?” not “Hand me that butter NOW or it will be the worse for you”.
In traditional (English) riding texts, aids are described as either being “natural” or “artificial”. Natural aids are seat, legs, hands and voice. Artificial aids are whips, spurs, martingales, gadgets.
However, there are two types of natural aids, one I will term automatic aids (although these are the only truly “natural” aids) and the other I will term cue aids.
Automatic aids are independent of riding style. They depend on the horse reacting instinctively to what we do. When these are invoked correctly, even with unschooled horses, the results are dramatic and consistent. The seat aids are an example. Horses move under weight - we shift our weight to left, the horse moves to the left. The horse is maintaining balance. The reason that these are generally the last aids taught is that in order to invoke these aids, the horse must be able to distinguish between the unwitting weight shifts of a novice rider and the skilled and timed intentional shifts of an advanced rider. Balance takes time to develop into consistency for the rider.
Cue aids are completely different. In many cases, the horse is doing the opposite of what it would do instinctively. Cue aids must be taught to the horse before they can be used by the rider, and may vary depending on riding style.
An example of this is yielding to the leg. The natural reaction of a horse to a push is to push back. Try leaning with your back against your horse. (Pushing with a hand is no good - you will already have taught your horse to move over in the stable!) Do you end up flat on your back because your horse has stepped smartly away from the pressure? Well, I hope not. Normally a horse will keep you supported.
So we train our horses on the ground to move away from certain, distinct types of pressure and these become a cue or request.
This is why all good horse trainers from any discipline put so much emphasis on the ground training of young horses - this is where the cues are taught until the reaction IS automatic in the horse, but it is a learned automation in reaction to a cue, not an instinctive automatic reaction.
This is very important when attempting effective and accurate riding - because if the horse has never been properly taught the cues, you will not be able to use them effectively when you are riding. You need to stop riding and work out what the horse doesn't know and what instinctive reaction you are getting. Then you need to train the horse, from the ground, to understand the cue.
This is exactly same as us bouncing around in the trot because we instinctively brace against the movement of the horse. We have to teach ourselves to go with the movement until that becomes an automatic, but learned, reaction.
Note: I originally wrote this article in 2008 and it has been published in the UK.