Nov. 18, 2014

On the Use of Artificial Aids – The Method Behind the Madness

Should you use artificial aids? The quick answer: yes AND no!

Long two-inch spurs.

Super-extended flexible dressage whip.

Double bridle

Double bridle. Gag bridles. Twisted wire snaffles.

Hackamore or bitless bridle.

Draw reins/martingales/tie-downs/neck stretchers.

Drop or flash or figure-eight nosebands.

The list of artificial aids can be endless. Just when you think you know it all, you discover that there are new and improved “must-buy” pieces of equipment that will change the way you ride. Or will they really?

You are left wondering – which should I be using? And when do I know what I need?

The trick to using any equipment is to know why and how you should use them. 

Buyer beware…

… no equipment can change your riding skills. The first two or three rides might be different as your horse adjusts to the new equipment, but in the end, your skills (or lack thereof) will shine through no matter what you do.

Don’t be surprised if your horse goes back to the same ol’ habits a few rides in – because if your own equitation has not changed, you will produce exactly the same results with or without the help of artificial aids.

On the other hand, do not be afraid of artificial aids.

Many people shun the whole concept of using certain types of equipment. You can find camps of people based on the equipment they feel is acceptable or not.

Know that everything has a purpose. Often, equipment that is perceived as being harsher can in fact act in a much kinder and gentler way than initially understood.

For example, most people agree that a thicker bit is essentially “softer” than a thinner bit. The thin bit has a smaller surface area and therefore puts more pressure on the bars or tongue than a thick bit.

This may be true for many horses, until you meet a horse with a tiny, delicate mouth and small muzzle. Then the thick bit is entirely too large for the small mouth, and in fact causes discomfort by its sheer size. Put in the thinner bit and watch as the horse almost sighs with relief to have the seemingly harsher bit, simply because it fits his conformation better.

Another example: a bitless bridle sounds like it is kinder on the horse than one with a bit until you consider the nose, jaw, cheek and poll pressure action activated by use of the reins. Some horses might respond willingly to that type of squeezing while others would find it intolerable when compared to a bit in the mouth.

There are similar examples for any equipment you can think of. What seems harsh for one horse is what another horse really needs and does well in.

Why should equipment be used?

If your answer is to make the riding process easier on the horse, then you are on the right track.

If the equipment makes the ride safer for you, it can be used. Safety is always number one.

If the horse is young or being retrained by an experienced rider, the use of equipment can be very handy in teaching the horse what is expected quickly and efficiently. In the right hands, equipment can bring clarity to a situation. It can reduce fuss and confusion and point the horse in the right direction. 

If you can be lighter and clearer with your aids, then that is the true purpose of equipment.

When not to use equipment

Simply put, equipment should not be intended to hurt/punish/intimidate/force a horse into obedience.

It should not be used to cover up rider inadequacies. Sometimes, it is much more beneficial to struggle through the learning process without specialized equipment in order to achieve better riding skills.

In the end, how the equipment is used is more important that what is used.

As always, the hands and other aids at the end of the equipment are what really differentiate it from being kind and purposeful or harsh and intimidating. Experienced riders can make a delicate instrument out of the seemingly harshest equipment.

Where do you begin?

In general, if you have complete control over your own natural aids (leg aids, seat, hands, weight), you are adequately prepared to introduce new equipment into your program. In contrast, if you still have trouble with your aids, any equipment will multiply the severity of your messages.

The horse’s needs will be another factor in determining the use of equipment. Depending on your point of development as a rider, some equipment may help the horse develop muscling quicker and easier than you can with your natural aids. Specialized equipment may make your messages softer and clearer so there is less guess work required by the horse. In all cases, if your horse goes better in the equipment and seems happier, you know you are on the right track.

When you begin using unfamiliar equipment, be sure to have educated, watchful eyesmentoring you through the process so you can learn correctly from the beginning. Your instructor will be able to help you decide if it is time for you to learn how to use new equipment.

Be prepared to have to learn to use the new equipment in the same way that you have learned to use your own natural aids. There may be discomfort and confusion at the beginning while you learn to manipulate the equipment and use it to communicate to the horse. It may take the horse some time to adjust. Through it all, work patiently and with clear regard for the horse. Listen closely to the feedback you receive and make your decisions accordingly.  

The bottom line(s)…

… watch and learn from more experienced riders – how and why do they use their equipment and what does it do for the horse?

… how does the horse react?

… get help when trying new equipment.

… listen to your horse!

Have you used “artificial aids” in your riding and what has been your experience with them?