How to Fine-Tune Your Dressage Aids with Steffen Peters

This Olympian urges riders to refine their aids and have high expectations to increase the horse’s mental understanding.
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This Olympian urges riders to refine their aids and have high expectations to increase the horse’s mental understanding.
This article first appeared in the February 2002 issue of Dressage Today magazine. Please note that in all current issues of the magazine, Dressage Today requires that all riders featured in training articles wear helmets.

This article first appeared in the February 2002 issue of Dressage Today magazine. Please note that in all current issues of the magazine, Dressage Today requires that all riders featured in training articles wear helmets.

The experienced rider makes dressage look very easy. The reason for that effortless appearance is simpler than many people think: The experienced rider has high expectations. He expects a certain reaction from the horse when he uses light aids. And because of the rider’s mental clarity and high standards, his horse understands what he wants.

At dressage shows, this quality is judged in the collective marks under the category of “position and effect of aids.” I personally would like the effect of the aids to have a completely separate mark on the test because the quality of that effect says so much about the quality of the horse’s training. Dressage is all about using the minimal aids to gain the highest result. If the rider sets his standards high enough and gives the horse a light aid that the horse understands, that is the sport ideal.

steffen peters the riders aids

To Reach an Understanding

Dressage experts spend much time talking about the physical issues of correct riding: which of the rider’s legs goes where, how the horse’s back moves, what the horse’s hind leg does and so on. It’s true we need to know these details about the physical aspects of riding, but we must not forget that dressage is all about the horse understanding what the rider wants him to do. I think the quality of any performance is determined 50 percent by the horse’s fitness and 50 percent by the rider’s degree of success in helping his horse mentally understand what to do from a light physical aid.

When the rider uses confusing aids without a high standard of expectation, the horse can’t clearly know what the rider wants. The nature of horses is wonderful, but we can maximize our results not only by helping them reach the best physical fitness but also by attending to their mental condition. This consideration of all-around horse health is a result of good horsemanship and attention to the details of fine-tuning our aids. I’d like to discuss each aid and how I work toward the ideal.

The Leg Aid

When you push with your leg aids, your horse needs to go gently into the hand, arch up his back, yield his poll and gently give. You then need to soften your hands forward. You then need to soften your hands forward. When a horse is not educated to react this way to a leg aid, the rider often makes the mistake of pushing him harder, and then the horse inevitably reacts insufficiently. We simply say that this horse is going “behind the rider’s leg.”

We even see this problem at the highest level of the sport. When the horse is behind the leg at piaffe in the Grand Prix test, the rider needs to spur the horse in the rhythm of each piaffe step to such an extent that even a novice rider or spectator can see that the horse isn’t listening to the rider’s calf aid. The calf should be the driving aid. The spur is to remind the horse to be sensitive to the calf aid, but many times the spur becomes the driving aid instead. However, I want to be realistic. There have been many effective riders, including myself, who have used the spur during piaffe in a Grand Prix test. At a dressage show when riding a test, the rider must do everything possible to avoid mistakes, but in the training, we need to be very careful that the horse is never behind the leg. When riders are too strong with their leg aids, they are unsuccessful in fine-tuning the aids and communication in the lightest possible way. A horse who feels he spur every step of the ride becomes duller and duller. He thinks, “No matter what I do—even if I try extremely hard—I’m still going to feel that nagging spur,” so he is not motivated by his rider to do anything.

If we follow that train of thought, we are back to the importance of mental training and raising the standard of the horse’s reaction to the rider’s aids. If you put your calf on, your horse needs to go more forward immediately. If you bring your leg back, he needs to go more sideways. If you half halt, he needs to immediately become more engaged and on the bit. Anytime you give an aid, you must feel the effect of that aid without hesitation. Before that can physically happen well, your horse needs to clearly understand mentally that you expect him to give you a prompt reaction to the leg aids. I achieve this mental understanding in my horses by using what I call reminding aids.

Reminding Aids

reminding aids

When I teach clinics around the country, I find that many riders fail to get results as they train because they try to support their horses every step of the ride, never letting up on their aids. To correct this, I teach my students to use reminding aids instead of supporting aids. A horse who constantly is supported by his rider is never going to learn to do a given task by himself. The rider’s aids never go away, and the horse hasn’t had the opportunity to do the job on his own. This rider who constantly clamps with the leg impairs the horse’s gaits by preventing freedom and sometimes disturbing the horse’s rhythm. If I were to hang a wet towel over my horse’s back, the pressure of my leg needs to be similar to the pressure of the towel on the sides of the horse, and he should go on his own with this passive leg. Of course my horse won’t go indefinitely with these light aids, so I give him many reminding aids and then test him by making my aids passive again.

For example, when I go on the diagonal line in a medium trot, I certainly don’t want to push my horse every step. Rather, I ask him to maintain his forward energy by giving two or three reminding aids throughout the length of the diagonal. I am passive in between these reminding aids.

Here’s how to use reminding aids as you ride:

•Test your horse’s natural desire to go forward often by being momentarily passive. Give your horse the opportunity to make a mistake by easing up with your leg aids. If your horse becomes lazy and loses his impulsion, he has proven to you that he is not naturally forward. If you keep pushing him with your leg every step or keep the spur in his sides, he will stay lazy.

• To correct this problem, ride with strength for a moment to make sure your horse understands that he made a clear mistake in stopping or slowing his forward motion. Don’t be afraid to allow your horse to make mistakes as long as you correct them immediately.

• The next time you ease up with your aids, see if your horse maintains the forward motion on his own. If he does not, repeat the correction until he understands that he must maintain his forwardness. With this higher standard of expectation, your horse will carry himself forward on his own.

The same principle applies when you are first teaching a young horse about collected canter. When you ask him to collect the canter, he will, without exception, break to trot. In his experience, that’s what he thinks you want—a downward transition to trot. If you simply push him back into canter, he thinks he was doing a normal transition from canter to trot and back to canter so he hasn’t learned anything. But if you are momentarily firmer, and you push the horse within the next two seconds into a canter lengthening, you are making your point clear. I’ve learned from experience that this horse learns from your correction, and he will think twice about breaking into the trot again.

The Seat Aid

Many riders use the upper body and seat excessively to make the horse go forward. In the same way that I advise driving excessively with the leg, I prefer that my students stay away from a driving seat. I know that many trainers teach the driving seat, but that approach doesn’t work for me. In my opinion, it confuses the horse and makes him think that the seat is the gas pedal. I weigh 150 pounds and my horse weighs nearly 1,800 pounds, so I don’t think that I gain much by pushing with my seat. My horse must understand that the leg is the gas pedal, and that he goes on his own from a light leg aid. If this leg aid works well, the seat is then a collecting aid. When I half halt by tightening my stomach, lower back and thigh muscles, I clearly want to feel my horse come back.

We can even think of the half halt as the reminding seat aid. If you feel that your horse is getting a little bit too strung out, you can use a half halt to remind him to stay engaged. I develop the half halt by doing trot–halt transitions. If the full halt is not working, I seriously doubt that the half halt is going to work. So I test the horse to see if the trot–halt transition I working, then the half halt develops naturally out of this. When the horse is responding to the aid for the halt, he will respond to the half halt, which is the same aid in a finer form.

The half halt is a little bit different for each horse. If the horse has a strong desire to go forward, the half halt simply brings him back by shortening the strides, and we gain a little bit of expression in the horse’s movement at that time. With the horse who is lazy, you’ll need a milder half halt so he doesn’t come backward too much and get behind the leg. Later, the most sophisticated half halt will ask for the transition from collected trot to passage. I give a gentle driving leg aid and a tightening of the seat to create the more elevated trot that is passage. It’s really not too complicated.

The Rein Aids

The rein aids need to be analyzed the most because the bit goes to a very sensitive area of the horse. I think about the horse’s mouth the way I think of a person’s shin. The shin is a very sensitive area because there is very little soft tissue between the skin and the bone. We know how painful it is when we get hit in the shin, and that’s exactly the way I think about the horse’s mouth. The horse should yield softly when the rider uses a rein aid. He shouldn’t push his nose forward or pull. He shouldn’t stop or slow down from the rider’s increased rein contact. When the rider gives an inch with the hand, his horse should take an inch, but many horses take much more than an inch. These are examples of horses with the wrong understanding of going into the rider’s hand and they need to be correctly educated to the half halt. The rider needs to go back and ride many of horse trot-halt transitions previously discussed so the horse learns to go forward to the rein with a certain amount of self-carriage and gain an understanding of the coordination between the rider’s leg and hand.

Keeping this in mind, the rider shouldn’t be afraid to increase the contact in order to communicate with his horse and then become passive when his horse yields. Increased contact is only counterproductive if the rider maintains it too long.

I test my horse by becoming passive with my rein aids to check on the self-carriage. For example, I half half to help him carry himself and then soften my aids or give them entirely in überstreichen. In so doing, I give my horse another opportunity to make a mistake. Does he continue to carry himself without losing his positioning, bend and frame? If not, I reapply the reminding leg and rein aids and try again.

The Circle Exercise

steffen peters circle exercise

With the correct reminding aids, riding the circle is very uncomplicated. To bend the horse in the circle means that the horse clearly yields in his jaw, bends slightly though the neck and, to a certain extent, in his rib cage. The horse’s hind leg follows his front legs on the line of the circle. I establish the bend by using a light inner leg and inner rein, and I expect to give these bending aids for five or six strides when I begin to ask for a 20-meter circle. If I feel the bend is well-established, I always make the effort to release my inner rein. I find it highly incorrect for the horse to then stiffen and come out of the bend by straightening on his own. He also may make the mistake of slowing down, losing his balance or swinging the shoulder or haunches in or out. All of these mistakes are then perfect opportunities to correct the horse with reminding aids and teach him to maintain the bend and balance on his own. I set my standards high, give the bending aids a little more firmly. When I release again, I expect he will stay positioned and bent to the inside. Realistically, he’s not going to maintain that bend for a very long time, but I expect that he will maintain it with a lighter contact for at least the next quarter of a circle.

The Figure-Eight Exercise

figure eight exercise

Next, I put my horse on a 20-meter figure-eight pattern, which is the perfect exercise for putting the horse on the aids. If your horse is perfectly in front of the leg from the reminding leg aids and he’s perfectly supple from changing the bend in the figure eight, those two things combined give us proper training.

The figure-eight pattern is better than simply circling left sometimes and circling right sometimes because when I switch the flexion during the change of bend, my horse’s suppleness increases. Remember to change the flexion slowly and carefully so as not to disturb the horse’s balance and rhythm. The figure-eight pattern also confirms your horse’s understanding that as soon as he yields or releases on the inside rein, you intend to yield also.

Because the figure-eight pattern requires the rider to change flexion frequently, it is naturally useful for straightening. When the horse flexes easily and equally to both sides and is even in both reins, there’s a much better chance he will be straight through his body and stepping equally from each hind leg.

Personally, I stay away from thinking of the inner leg and outer rein connection. In my opinion, thinking that way too much can inadvertently make the horse more crooked. When the energy you create with both legs goes equally into both reins, the musculature on both sides of the body develops equally.

There are very few horses with evenly developed musculature that are, by nature, perfectly even in the hand on both reins, and the rider needs to be sensitive to that. Sometimes at horse shows, I see riders make the mistake of trying to work through the horse’s stiff side by exercising him to that side for half an hour. They don’t see any results because the horse’s suppleness increases only during the change of flexion.

If your horse is stiffer on the left rein, you can use the circle to the left more often than one to the right, but you need to do frequent changes of direction. When you are going to the left, enlarge the open side of the circle in leg yield in order to help the horse yield to the left leg and rein. Once he moves clearly from the left leg and searches for more contact on the right rein, he will learn to yield on the left rein: Ask for the bend with the left rein and leg a little bit longer than normal. As soon as your horse gives, reach forward with your inner hand to reward him and let him go on his own.

If, in the process, you horse’s shoulder drifts out momentarily, I wouldn’t worry because if he learns to release on the inside, it is very simple to correct the outside shoulder with your outside rein and leg.

You’ll find that this figure-eight exercise will help get your horse rounder over his back. When you are riding, be sensitive to how your horse’s back feels. If he has very consistent relaxation in his back, then perhaps he can carry himself in a collected frame with his nose on the vertical and the poll at the highest point. But if you feel he is not strong enough to carry himself in this frame yet, you can allow for a longer, lower position. My standard for determining the frame is wherever my horse is in perfect self-carriage.

rounder thanthe ideal

In summation, remember to train your horse mentally. Increase his understanding by clarifying your use of the light leg aid as the gas pedal and your half-halting seat and rein aids for collection. Test your horse often by becoming passive with your aids. It’s very easy to forget the high standard of expectation when you don’t get an immediate result, so remind your horse as often as necessary that he needs to carry himself willingly forward and equally to the right and to the left. The result will bring you closer to the sport ideal.

Steffen Peters won an Olympic team bronze medal with Udon in 1996. He and Udon also won the Miller’s/ U.S. Equestrian Team Championship in 1995, and a year earlier, Peters won the individual and team gold medals at the Olympic Festival with Akeena. Since then, he’s been campaigning Grandeur. Colic surgery sidelined them from competing in the 2000 Olympic selection trials, but with a 100 percent comeback, they are working toward qualifying for the 2002 World Equestrian Games next September.