Aide — to Help

Where did our word ‘aid’ come from, in reference to the cues we apply to our horses to provoke a response? Its history is pretty interesting, as well as the effect the literal translation can have on our actions. Do our aids today do what they were invented  thousands of years ago to do?

Yes, I speak a little French. Oui, je parle un petit peu de français. Forgive any spelling errors. Writing French is not my strong point! But that little French is enough to help understand some of the words we use every day when talking about riding horses, because some of the grandmasters of dressage (another French word, meaning ‘training’) were French. When their books were translated and their ideas used in other languages, the French words were anglicized. Aid used to be aide, which is translated ‘help,’ or ‘assist’.

What’s in a Word?

Some have suggested that ‘aid’ is the wrong word, because what we call aids and classify into natural and unnatural aids don’t serve the purpose of helping that they are purported to. If that is the case, the nice word meaning ‘help’ is simply covering over an unpleasant aspect of the actual facts in horse riding. Knowing that we can and have used words to twist or wrap truth into a more presentable package, this assertion may not be off the mark. Let’s examine this idea and see where it gets us.

Think of some of the cues we use. For the purpose of this exercise, I am going to ignore the versions of these cues that beginners may use, because to be proper aids, as I discuss below, they must be significantly refined.

  • squeeze with the legs for go, faster, and lengthen
  • squeeze the reins for halt, slow, and shorten
  • open inside rein/close outside rein for turn forelegs
  • squeeze with one leg placed back for turn hindlegs

Those are the basics that every horse should know, all from iterations of four different cues. Let’s begin the analysis.

We know that horses avoid pressure. That is why negative reinforcement* has been used with such success ever since man began training horses. All of the above signals employ negative reinforcement when applied correctly by the experienced rider: The legs are released when the horse moves forward. The rein is returned to its normal position once the horse begins to turn. Unfortunately, every use of negative reinforcement contains a small portion of punishment, as well. When the horse is halted and is being squeezed to go, halting is being punished. When the rein opens for turn, continuing straight is being punished. However, when a cue is released at the appropriate time and its intensity and duration is consciously diminished through training so that the slightest aid provokes the action, I believe that ‘help’ is the correct word.

What Does it Mean?

Remember, ‘help’ makes the task easier for the one being helped. Using cues that produce discomfort every time, such as strong pressures or pressures that don’t go away, are seen by some to help the horse, because the rider is ‘helping the horse hold its frame’ or ‘helping the horse keep its rhythm or tempo.’ At first glance, this may seem like help. But let me make an analogy.

If, when you were younger, your mom never let you help in the kitchen, when you moved out, would you have been a very good cook? Would her ‘help’ of making every meal for you have helped you in the end? No.

The same is the case if she had let you help her, but then never let you try things on your own to make mistakes while she was still there if things really went sideways. You may have been better off in the end than with the previous example, but not by much.

The same idea works in horse training. If we are offering our horses ‘controlling help’, or forcing them into frame or tempo by misusing the cues meant to help, the horse is not allowed to make a mistake or learn the basics first. Then, if we neglect to ‘help’ them for even a split second, they are going to fall apart. So, I would put to you that our aids are only truly helpful when they are trained solidly, reduced to light versions of the original cue, and put under stimulus control so that one cue reliably produces one response every time.

You aren’t going to end up with a robot horse by doing this. You are going to get a horse that is truly free and that is truly helped by your cues. Because you can clearly communicate exactly what you want, he can precisely carry it out with no confusion.

Now that is helpful.


So, in real life, what does this look like? I have given several examples already: reducing cues to very light versions, releasing pressure immediately when the response is achieved, and placing cues under stimulus control, all of which I have talked about before in other posts. But the application of pressure is important too.

How is it helpful to ask a horse to turn when the leg he needs to turn with is bearing his weight? He physically cannot obey you promptly, leading to longer periods of pressure that he does not have control over. Remember, when his rider has proper timing, the horse can release the pressure by turning, therefore having control over what he feels.

A correct turn involves first abducting the inner leg (moving the inner leg further to the inside of the turn), and then adducting the outside leg (bringing the outside leg towards the middle, maybe crossing it over if the turn is really tight). So, the turn cue should be applied when the inside leg is in the swing phase, or has lifted off the ground.


Think this week as you ride about how your aids or cues are helping your horse. Are you doing the heavy lifting for him by figuring out the easiest way for him to accomplish what you want? It takes practice, and it may take a friend or instructor standing on the ground with you telling you when the leg you want is off the ground so you can start to feel it, but I promise you that if you can master this, your riding will become more effortless, your horse more relaxed, and you begin to build a mutually helpful relationship.

The Horsegentler


*negative reinforcement, here and everywhere else on this site, always refers to the mathematical use of the term ‘negative.’ It describes a removal of an aversive as a reward for correct behaviour.


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