There is a right time and a wrong time to cue your horse for a movement, and if you don’t have the timing right, you could be asking for the impossible. For instance, the only time you can influence your horse’s legs is when he’s not bearing weight on the leg you want him to move. Further, you can only ask him to move his barrel to the right when it’s swinging to the right. Pushing on a leg that is bearing weight or on his barrel when it’s swinging into your leg is a waste of your energy, and a cause of confusion for your horse.

You communicate instructions from your body to your horse’s using three natural aids – your seat, legs and hands. Through these aids, you send signals that are driving (pushing), restraining (blocking) or following (drawing). Each of these energies can be applied through your seat and legs but, only two – restraining (blocking) or following (drawing) – can be applied by your hands, through the reins. The reins cannot push and should never pull your horse.

Your legs and seat influence your horse’s forward and lateral movement by communicating with the hindquarters, barrel and forequarters. Using your legs, you can ask your horse to:

1. go forward at walk, trot or canter
2. back up
3. turn on the haunches
4. turn on the forehand
5. leg-yield
6. side pass
7. halt

Your legs, seat (seat bones and hips) and your hands all work independently of and in conjunction with each other. How you apply your individual leg and seat aids in conjunction with your rein aids tells your horse which of the seven movements to perform. Poor timing can cause your horse to become confused, however.

The following common struggles can be avoided by applying your aids at the right time.

Awkward Upward Transitions

You ask your horse to go forward from your seat and leg, but instead he resists by hollowing his back and flipping his head or backing up.

This problem occurs when the horse feels blocked from going forward, which can happen if you have inadvertently locked your hips and/or arms. If you are pushing hard from your seat or kicking with your legs, your body will become tense and stiff. As such, you be unable to follow your horse’s movement through your seat or reins while using your leg to ask him to go forward. As a result, your horse feels restrained in the front end and is unable to engage his hindquarters and lift his back, which prevents him from moving forward comfortably. So, he pushes against the rein (inverting his back and raising his head) or moves to where there is no pressure, which is backwards. For your horse to feel that he can go forward, the reins and your seat must follow (yield to) his forward movement at the same time you apply your leg aid.

Your horse should go forward from a light push from your seat or a slight squeeze from your leg. If you find yourself pushing aggressively with your seat or kicking your horse’s sides to get him go, he has become dull to your aids through miscommunication. You can re-educate him by training him to respond to voice cues in your ground work exercises (in-hand or lunging). In addition, having a competent trainer give you riding lessons on the lunge line will give you practice applying light aids while the trainer gives your horse cues from the ground.

Trouble Turning

You ask your horse to circle left, but he continues straight or pushes to the right.

Your horse can only turn left when he has a left bend in his body and his spine is aligned poll to tail. Asking a horse to turn left when he is bent right only creates stress in his body. He will be unbalanced if his neck is overflexed because his nose is pulled in to the left.

At the walk, as his barrel swings out (right), his weight is on his inside (left) hind and inside (left) fore legs. That is the correct beat to ask your horse to turn left. Your inside leg at the girth keeps the bend by pushing the barrel out only on the out beat. Your outside (right) upper leg (thigh) pushes the outside fore leg in as it is off the ground and coming forward. Once the horse has stepped onto the outside fore leg, he cannot respond to your pushing aid.

At the trot, the correct time to ask your horse to turn left would be on the up-beat of your post. Remember to make sure your horse has the left bend first. When his outside (right) shoulder is coming forward his weight is off his outside front leg. Both the inside hind and outside fore legs are coming forward and his barrel is swinging out (right). This is the correct time to ask him to turn in. Soften on the downbeat and ask again for the turn on the next up-beat.

Difficult Downward Transitions

You ask your horse to come down from trot to walk and he pulls down on the reins or flips his head and hollows his back.

Leaning back with your upper body or pulling on the reins throws your horse off balance, causing mental and physical resistance. Your horse hollows his back and flips his head up against the pressure to his spine from your driving seat or pulls against your pull from the reins.

All transitions – including downward ones – are initiated from the hindquarters, when your horse’s back is lifted. As your horse steps onto his inside hind leg, you stop your seat from following his movement and create a block through your upper body by inflating your chest. These actions restrict your horse’s forward movement without pulling.

With correct timing of your aids and working with the natural movement (bio-mechanics) of your horse, while maintaining balance, suppleness and calmness in your own body, your riding will become fluid and smooth rather than mechanical and rough. As a result, you and your horse will have a more enjoyable and cooperative time together.