George Williams' Kindergarten Exercises to Learn the Aids

Dressage World Cup finalist George Williams gives you nine exercises to become more effective with the application and timing of your aids.
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Dressage World Cup finalist George Williams gives you nine exercises to become more effective with the application and timing of your aids.
Williams on Devon, a Westfalen gelding (age 4 in the photo) by Donnerbube owned by Chuck and Joann Smith | Photo by Rhett Savoie

Williams on Devon, a Westfalen gelding (age 4 in the photo) by Donnerbube owned by Chuck and Joann Smith | Photo by Rhett Savoie

A routine I call "kindergarten exercises" is for horses and riders needing to learn more about rhythmic application and timing of the aids. These exercises translate human thought into a common language both horse and rider can understand: the aids. Although these exercises sound very intellectual, they are really simple. They are kindergarten basics--the beginning of concepts I learned from Karl Mikolka, a former Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School and a master of dressage exercises.

By doing these exercises, you'll teach your horse to respond to your leg and rein aids in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Developmentally, the horse learns how to respond to the aids in three phases: The horse relaxes from the rhythmic application of his rider's aids. Once he is relaxed, he can become more obedient to properly timed aids and yield to them. As he gains understanding, he becomes quick and light enough to the aids so he engages his hindquarters and responds to the half halt by carrying increased weight behind, giving his rider the "desired effect" by responding to every nuance of his rider's seat and aids. In this article, we'll do nine exercises to help you achieve the benefits of the final phase.

Phase One: Relaxation to the Aids
The first six basic exercises can be done on the longe line or on a 20-meter circle. The goal of these exercises is to relax your horse so he accepts the rein and leg aids. Do them in the rising trot, posting on the correct diagonal--that is, you sit as the horse's outside front and inside hind leg are landing.

Exercise 1: Apply the inside rein aid rhythmically by closing the fingers of your inside hand every other sitting moment of the rising trot. You will do this six times, so the exercise takes place over 12 strides. Over these strides, say a simple phrase that describes what you are doing so that every other time you sit and apply the aid you say one word. For example, an appropriate phrase would be: "Horse ... here ... is ... my ... inside ... hand." In six words, you are rhythmically telling the horse about your inside rein aids. You want your horse to acknowledge your rein aid by softening his jaw and beginning to flex and bend his neck slightly to the inside. You don't want him to resist or pull the rein out of your hand. I've found horses relax and don't resist. Wait a few strides before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Squeeze the fingers of your outside hand on every other sitting moment. On those six beats say, "Horse ... here ... is ... my ... outside ... hand." The horse will acknowledge your rein aid by softening and relaxing in the poll and yielding longitudinally (from back-to-front)--not by bending to the outside. Wait a few strides again before going on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Softly close the fingers of your inside hand and close the inside calf (not the entire leg) at the same sitting moment. Be sure to keep your leg long as you use it. When you use the leg on the sitting moment, it is easy to make the common mistake of squeezing the leg upward. Now verbalize your wishes by saying, "Horse ... here ... is ... my ... inside ... leg." Or you can say, "Horse ... re- ... lax ... your ... rib- ... cage," or "sto-mach" or "bel-ly." Again, you'll be applying the aids at every other sitting moment. Your horse should be starting to relax into this exercise.

Exercise 4: After a short break, you will close the fingers of your outside hand and close your outside knee against the saddle--again, on every other sitting moment. Say, "Horse ... here ... is ... my ... outside ... knee." Or you can tell him the response that you want him to have: "Horse ... re- ... lax ... your ... shoul- ...ders."

Exercise 5: Next, do the same on the inside by closing the inside fingers and closing the inside knee against the saddle. Say something like this: "Horse ... here ... is ... my ... inside ... knee." You and your horse will more clearly understand the basic concept that your hand and knee should be able to relax the horse's shoulders and eventually control those shoulders.

Exercise 6: Finally, close your outside hand and your outside calf on every other sitting moment. Say, "Horse ... re- ... lax ... your ... sto- ... mach." Now you're referring to his outside ribcage. From these outside aids, your horse might become a little rounder or slow down.

Notice how the exercises have influenced you and your horse. The rider usually gains a feeling for how to coordinate the aids and an understanding of how the aids develop in communicating with the horse. The horse usually allows his rider to put the pressure of a soft aid on him without becoming tense. In fact, these six basic exercises alternate your inside and outside aids to create a "web of aids" around your horse that help him to balance and stay relaxed and on the aids.

Now give your horse the "stretch test" to stretch the topline and confirm his willingness to seek the bridle. Every other time you sit, give your inside rein and encourage the horse to stretch into the outside rein. So if you were tracking to the left you would say, "Horse ... stretch ... into ... the ... outside ... rein." Then do the same on the outside: Give with the outside rein to encourage the horse to stretch into the inside rein. You can say, "Horse ... stretch ... into ... the ... inside ... rein."

Throughout these exercises, you and your horse have established a clear rhythm of rising trot, and you have used that beat to help you apply the aids rhythmically. Since the horse responds to a rhythmical application of the aids, the rider's understanding of the language of the horse is usually enhanced, and the horse, by now, is relaxed and on the aids.

Phase Two: Asking for Obedience
Once your horse is relaxed and on the aids, ask him for obedience to the aids.

Exercise 7: Return to the exercise using your inside hand and inside leg aids in the rhythm of every other sitting moment on a 20-meter circle, but this time post on the wrong diagonal. You want to influence the horse's motion in this exercise, so the timing of your leg aid needs to be at the moment when your horse can best respond to you. If your horse's weight is on his inside hind leg, he's not able to respond to your inside leg. By posting on the wrong diagonal, you are closing your leg at the moment when the inside hind leg is off the ground--when you're best able to influence your horse's inside hind leg. Increase the intensity of your leg aid, and your horse will show obedience to the leg by stepping away from it and enlarging the 20-meter circle in leg yield.

You also can do this exercise in sitting trot. You will recognize when the horse's inside hind leg is in the air by feeling the moment when your inside knee goes down. The rider's knee drops when the corresponding front leg of the horse is on the ground and hind leg is in the air.

In this exercise, use the aid only three times so your horse won't start to drift through the outside aids. You want a predetermined size and number of leg yielding strides. You can ask your horse to move out a horse's width or a hoof width, but it should be predetermined by you. As you use your calf three times over three strides, you can say: "Enlarge ... two ... three" every sitting moment. If you need a breather, use the calf three times over six strides, asking every other stride. The rhythm will be slower, and you would say "Enlarge ... relax ... two ... relax ... three."

Exercise 8: Your horse also needs to be obedient to your rein aids. Start by going back to the first exercise we did: Apply the inside rein aid rhythmically by closing the fingers of your inside hand every other sitting moment of the rising trot. Sit on the wrong diagonal again because it is easiest for the horse to flex and bend when the inside shoulder is back. Ask for three different degrees of inside flexion. In the first step (if the horse is tracking left), ask him to look a little bit left by increasing the closing of your inside fingers. In the second step, ask him to look a little more left and in the third step, the most left. Say, "Left ... more ... most." Remember that these are subtle exercises. You won't be cranking or pulling.

Exercise 9: Next ask your horse to follow your leading rein on the outside. This teaches him to yield by moving the shoulders out slightly. So if you're going around a corner, your inside leg and outside rein can help you move farther into the corner. If tracking right, you should be able to lead the horse to the left with a left opening rein. Don't exaggerate. Your left hand can move out as far as--but not beyond--your left knee. Remember that these obedience exercises are subtle. You can use any three words that describe what you're trying to do and the way in which you are trying to do it. You might say, "Lead ... more ... most."

After your horse is relaxed with a soft jaw, neck, ribcage and back, he can feel your aids and is better able to be obedient. Then you can look forward to the third phase of your horse's understanding when his response has the quickness and lightness necessary to increase his engagement and self-carriage and deliver the desired effect of the aids. The development of this understanding and physical strength is gradual. We wouldn't expect a young horse to step under and engage like a Grand Prix horse because he needs time to become supple and strong, but his understanding and willingness to engage and carry weight is growing.

Phase Three: The Aid has the Desired Effect
These kindergarten exercises have hopefully promoted relaxation and, in turn, helped to develop a supple, elastic contact. Used alternately on the right and then the left, the exercises have created a web of aids around your horse that you apply in the rhythm of your horse's movement. When the horse is surrounded by aids and is relaxed within them, it is synonymous with being on the bit. You have taken your human thought and communicated it to your horse in his language. Finally, you have reached the third phase of your horse's development in terms of his understanding of the aids. Here's what you can expect to feel so far:

Your inside leg should be able to bring the horse's inside hind leg under and increase his engagement.

When you want to enlarge the circle, he should respond within two strides. ("Enlarge ... enlarge.")

When you increase the intensity of the closing of your fingers on the outside, he should slow the tempo to a count of two: "Slow ... down." (see top photo).

When you want to make a transition from trot to walk, sit and apply the aids in rhythm when your inside knee goes down. The first half halt slows him down; the second half halt slows him down a little more--without losing activity. By the third half halt, the horse knows to make a smooth transition to the walk. In this transition you might say, "Slow ... down ... walk."

Over time, the desired effect of a half halt is to be able to shift some of the horse's weight back to the hindquarters (see bottom photo). This brings the concept of the kindergarten exercises to another level involving collection. In collection, there is greater expectation in terms of the horse's response because of his understanding of what's expected of him. A crucial idea to remember: Before a rider can demand, the horse has to understand. In a way, this understanding allows the rider to become more demanding in terms of getting a quicker response, producing elevation and lightness of the forehand. The horse in self-carriage is a pleasure to watch. He moves like a dancer and feels like a sports car.

I hope these exercises have promoted attention to the rhythm and timing of your aids. If you're a dancer, you know where your partner's feet are. Riding is a dance form, and you need to know where your horse's feet are and how to move with them.

Read more in part 2, George Williams' Graduate School Theory: How Horses' Hind Legs Work.

George Williams is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist, successful international competitor and sought-after clinician. He began studying dressage in 1973 and earned his German bronze rider medal at the Reitinstitute von Neindorff. He was resident trainer for the Tempel Lipizzans in Illinois for 20 years and has trained with former U.S. dressage team coach Klaus Balkenhol. He is currently the vice president of the USDF, chair of the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) High Performance Dressage Committee and a member of the USEF Dressage Committee, USEF High Performance Eligible Athlete Committee and USEF Board of Directors.This article first appeared in Dressage Today's May 2004 issue. To order articles, email DressageToday@EquiNetwork.com or call 301-977-3900.