Series: Equine Biomechanics and the Timing of the Rider’s Aids, Part 1

My mentor, the late Walter Zettl, often said, “The right aid given in the wrong moment is the wrong aid.” And he should know! I had the privilege of riding with him (and translating some of his work) over a period of almost 15 years, learning how true this saying is and how vastly it affects the performance of the horse.

The whole business of timing the aids is much easier to understand when you examine the biomechanics of the horse’s movement in all three gaits, particularly for lengthening and shortening the horse’s strides and for asking for lateral movements. In this article, I’m going to share with you the very basics of that knowledge and understanding by focusing on the most basic gait, the walk.

At this basic level, it’s important to ask our horses for any transition or movement at the precise moment in time when they are biomechanically able to respond immediately. When we err in the timing of our aids, and the horse is unable to “answer” right away, because of his willing nature he is apt to become tense or upset, especially if we, in our ignorance, keep on asking as though the horse did not hear us the first time.

Particularly sensitive horses may become so anxious as to be unruly in such circumstances – which then causes many of the riders of such horses to become tense themselves, and to escalate their aids to the point of harshness. Such an approach is certainly not likely to yield the result we truly seek: a harmonious unity of motion with our equine partners.

The horse has a lateral walk with the footfall pattern: left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. At any moment, three legs are grounded and one is either about to leave the ground, or is fully airborne. Each leg has four phases of motion:

  1. Touching down on the ground
  2. Grounded with the horse’s own weight moving over it from back to front for forward movement
  3. Lifting off from the ground
  4. Moving through the air, not carrying any weight itself but supported by the other three legs

The rider thus has the opportunity to administer an aid or “ask a question” of any of the horse’s legs during any of these four phases. I like the phrase “ask a question” (example: “Horse, can you make your strides longer [or shorter]?”) because it helps emphasize the partnership aspect of riding, where the horse’s abilities and willingness as a sentient creature are respected by the rider.

In this weekly series, I’ll be discussing some of the finer points of aligning the timing of your “questions” with the movement of your horse.