Horseblog 101–tack, guidance, and basics of the aids

One of my friends made a comment the other day about English vs Western riding that rocked me back on my haunches, so to speak–an observation that based on her experience, she felt that English riding was gentler on a horse than Western. A few questions, and I realized that this perception was based solely on how horses were guided at the beginner level, especially with the use of words such as yanking and tugging to describe rein effect. Now I know that many of my friends already know this stuff, or they’ve been reading horse information spread throughout the speculative fiction world–but the knowledge isn’t as wide as I thought it is. So I decided that perhaps I’d do a little refresher on reins, tack, guidance, and basics.

The first thing to consider is that while someone who is a beginning horseperson or has no experience at all looks at the reins as acting as a major means of controlling a horse, in reality, reins are merely a steering mechanism–and ideally, more of a backup method than the primary means of controlling a horse. A determined horse can and will run through the severest bit and tightest hold you can have on its mouth, if given sufficient motivation–whether anger, frustration, or fear. One of the goals in creating a fully-trained horse–what we call a “finished” horse–is to end up with a horse that will respond to almost telepathic levels of communication through seat, leg, and then hand. The ideal is that by shifting weight, you can change a horse’s direction, slow the horse, collect the horse into moving in balance, or stop it. Leg cues add more options, such as sharper turns, bends, body angle in relation to direction of movement, or gait changes. Hand cues aid with collection, provide guidance, and maintain a line of communication with a horse.

These goals work no matter what the tack is or isn’t on a horse. English or Western, the mark of a good rider is the degree to which you can’t see the cueing going on. That said, if you are working at speed, or things go weird, the ideal might not happen. But ideally, what you want to be able to do is shift weight, touch leg, squeeze a rein to communicate with a horse underneath you. Or even less. Turning your head can turn the horse, even with dropped reins and no leg or seat cues. It’s a shift of weight, and a sensitive, well-trained horse will respond to it.

The problem comes when dealing with either green (minimal or no training) horses, green riders, or horses who have been desensitized to subtle cues by inexperienced or heavy-handed riders who yank, kick, and tug. Green horses need repeated, gentle, soft communication to teach them appropriate responses to cueing. Green riders need to learn how to stabilize their bodies and control them to provide the more subtle methods of cueing. Desensitized horses need repeated, soft, consistent work to bring them back to lighter response.

Ideally, happy horses and happy riders communicate with minimal force–and that all comes back to communicating in whispers, not shouts. Which means a light touch on the rein, balanced seat, and reading what the horse tells you through hand and seat. Yes, you can feel what the horse is doing through the tack–English or Western.

This isn’t the ideal post for this, but it’s what I’ve got for tonight.

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