The Language of the Aids:
Communicating with the Dressage Horse
Cynthia F. Hodges. JD, LLM, MA
Dressage training is based upon a complex communication system that develops between horse and rider. The foundation of this system consists of “aids” that represent certain actions and are used to tell the horse what to do. Some masters have likened dressage to a language: Alois Podhajsky called it "the language of the aids," and Henry Wynmalen said the aids are the ABCs of riding. A horse that knows the language can perform an astonishing array of movements.
The rider can use his legs, seat, or hands to give the horse an aid. These commands generally consist of a momentary increase in pressure on the horse's mouth, back, or sides. The aids lack intrinsic meaning; they acquire meaning through training. In learning the communication system, the green horse must first realize that these aids are meant to convey a message. For example, when teaching a green horse to move off of the leg, he may not even realize at first that the rider is trying to tell him to do something by closing his legs on his sides. The horse guesses at what he is supposed to do. If the horse responds correctly, the rider stops "talking" for a few moments. If he doesn't respond correctly, the rider repeats the command at a slightly increased pressure level. It is important to gently correct the horse as soon as he makes a mistake because, if not, he will assume he has done the right thing. Every allowance should be made for horses that are being taught something new.
The horse learns to recognize a change in pressure as an aid, and then associates each aid with a particular action. For example, leg generally means “go forward.” The horse assesses the varying degrees of pressure, the order of the aids, and the situational context in which the aids are given to figure out what is being asked of him. The horse also has to decide which of the rider’s actions are not supposed to be conveying a message. All the while, the horse is building a repertoire of expectations.
It is necessary for the horse to travel on the bit with contact, if the rider is to communicate effectively with the horse's mouth. The first step in establishing this contact is to teach the horse to go straight forward at a set pace (the steady state) until given an order to change. The rider combines leg pressure to drive the horse forward, while using the hands to guide the horse and regulate the pace. Once the horse has learned to keep contact on the bit, then the rider can begin giving him more advanced commands. Combining aids allows the rider to string instructions together to perform various actions. Making a turn, for example, requires combining hand and leg aids.
The execution of a movement will often proceed as follows: First, a preparatory half-halt balances the horse on his hindquarters, then the aid for the desired action is given, finally, the command to return to the steady state is given. The rider must be consistent in his use of the aids, if the horse is to learn the language system.
The horse's skill in using context to anticipate commands increases with his experience. A well-schooled horse has a larger repertoire of expectations than does a green horse. For example, a trained horse will expect from a change of direction in canter to continue in counter canter or to execute a flying change. The horse also figures out that there are some situations in which he will not be asked to do certain things (for example, he will not expect to extend into a corner).
Once the horse learns the aids, he does not have to think about what they mean anymore and will respond to them automatically. As the horse's education progresses, the more sensitive he becomes and the more quickly and consistently he will respond to even the lightest of aids.
Teaching the horse the dressage “language” system can take several years, but it eventually allows for a rewarding dialogue between horse and rider.
Translations on classical dressage (German to English):
Monsieur Baucher and His Arts: A Serious Word with Germany's Riders by Louis Seeger
System of Horsemanship by Louis Seeger