Karl Mikolka: The Dressage Whip’s Place in the Circle of Aids

A German master explains why dressage riders need whips, plus tips to select the best whip for you and your horse.

Everyone honestly concerned about the “classical” way of riding will be richly rewarded by exploring the proper use of the dressage whip and finding the considerable advantages it provides. The rider who truly searches for harmony, confidence, trust, balance and lightness, tact, relaxation, regularity, cadence, contact, impulsion and straightness will need to master the finer points of handling the “wand” and from this will discover one of the most effective training precepts: the circle of aids.

To hold the whip, lay it across the palm of your dominant hand. While keeping your wrist relaxed and still, close your hand softly around the whip with your thumb placed alongside your fingers. (Credit: Micki Dobson)

What is the circle of aids? It is a technical term envisioning the rider’s communication with his partner, the horse, as a circular flow of signals. Simply explained: The whip brings the horse into the rider’s legs. Continuing the circuit, the legs bring the horse into the bit and from the bit through the reins into the rider’s hands. From the hands, the circle continues through the seat into the horse’s back, finally to return to the hind legs, where the circle closes and the whole process begins anew.

The circle of aids coincides with the horse’s ring of muscles, which was discovered roughly 100 years ago by two German veterinarians, doctors Simon and Haase. They found that a horse’s fine balance between the ability to bend and the ability to stretch can be attributed to the undisturbed flow of energy through the muscle ring. As the muscles of a horse work in a ring pattern from the poll over the hindquarters and the belly; back to the chest into the jaw, so do the aids of the rider.

The whip’s job is to awaken the horse’s sensitivity to the forward movement. The horse must learn to understand that a light vibration of the riding whip means, “Go forward without delay or hesitation.” Without establishing a certain degree of sensitivity from the very beginning, there will be little respect for the rider’s legs later on. Therefore, we can also say the whip brings the horse into the rider’s legs.

Why Riders Need Whips

I frequently encounter riders who refuse to carry a whip for two main reasons. The first is always that their horses are afraid of the whip. I tell these riders that their horses’ fear stems from lack of trust, confidence and obedience: the three pillars that a rider must erect to ensure success in training. 

The second excuse is that the horses do not need the whip. This might be correct: The horses might not need a whip, but the riders do. Riding with a whip in the proper length of three to four feet requires a very relaxed wrist and a good feel in the hand. Feeling exactly when the whip makes contact with the horse’s side and maintaining this contact while in motion is possible only when a rider has acquired a proper arm-elbow-shoulder alignment and is relaxed in the wrist. All of that, of course, will improve sensitivity in the hands and, in the long run, will benefit the horse tremendously.

In the opinion of the old masters, the primary task of the rider’s legs is to act as guiding rails: They determine the correctness of the arena figures and the track on which the horse is to be worked—circles, turns, straight lines and so forth. 
Gustav Steinbrecht, one of the most famous riding masters of the past, had but one piece of advice for the young and serious rider: “Ride your horse forward, and teach him to go straight.” In this short sentence lies the secret to all successful training as well as of all good riding.

However, this advice to ride forward is often misinterpreted. Sometimes the horse is made too fast by a rider who overemphasizes the importance of cadence and rhythm before the horse has met the first criteria for this task: complete relaxation—or receptiveness—to the rider’s aids.

In the classical sense, going forward correctly is achieved only when the horse fully accepts the influence of the rider’s seat, leg, spur, whip and reins. There should not even be the suggestion of resistance—such as a swishing tail—in the horse’s acceptance. 

However, before the horse can get to this advanced stage of training, it is necessary for the rider to accept less than the ideal circumstances. For example, a horse who is dead on the leg and was never taught the meaning of the whip might plug along in a certain quiet tempo in some self-determined cadence, often misleading even the experts. Such a horse will most likely respond to the rider’s attempt to put him on the aids by rushing and becoming anxious. This is normal. It should never be used as an excuse to stop all actions so as to abandon the educational process of putting the horse on the aids. A horse, like every other living creature, needs time to digest things, time to “change [his] way of thinking” as Xenophon, the Greek philosopher, statesman and rider, put into his book about horsemanship in 400 BC.

Closing the Circle

In putting the horse on the bit, the main job of the rider’s legs is to align the horse exactly with the track upon which he is working and, thus, to create the fine and steady contact that then brings the horse into the rider’s hands. The hands, in conjunction with the delicate weight distribution through the seat and stirrups, create the relaxed, swinging back. Only with the horse in this state of receptiveness can the rider, through his weight and correctly applied half halts, cause the joints of the hind legs to flex. Thus, the circle of aids is closed.

The best results are achieved if this circle of aids remains undisturbed throughout the entire training process. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for both or for either partner to break this circle. The rider can break the circle with stiff hands that don’t feel a horse’s sensitivity; with hard, gripping legs that kill a horse’s self-locomotion; with a heavy, ungiving seat that blocks the back or with poorly timed half halts that ruin the gaits. The horse can break this circle with rigidity in the neck, poll or jaw; with tight belly muscles; with a rigid or weak back or with hind legs that through crookedness and stiffness escape the half halt. 

When you carry the whip, keep your hands in a normal position: thumbs up, with a straight line from elbow to wrist to your horse’s bit. (Credit: Micki Dobson)

The gateway to the circle of aids is a horse well tuned to the whip. This is a horse who…

• is in front of the whip. He moves forward without fear or hesitation to a soft touch of the whip.
• is responsive to invisible aids. He pays attention to the softest movement form the rider.
• is guided by the rider’s legs. He withholds nothing that is possible and exerts himself as directed by his rider’s legs.

The ultimate goal of this type of training is to create a horse who “drives himself,” a horse who goes forward merely because he respects the presence of the rider in the saddle. Of course, this response shall not even remotely resemble one in which a horse races in fear of his rider. Forward always indicates a dignified, positive reaction on the part of the horse.
Each horse reacts differently to the touches of the whip. Some twitch their skin, others swish their tails, a few kick out and some react not at all. None of these is correct. The only correct response is one in which the hind legs become more lively, stepping more forward and under and flex more visibly. This is a true forward response. It is never correct for a horse to react to the whip by trying to run from it or by throwing himself into the rider’s hands. 

The old masters used to advise: “Do as little as possible but as much as necessary to reach your goals.” It will take constant alertness on the rider’s part to never allow the horse to forget his level of sensitivity. If the touch of the whip creates liveliness in the horse’s hind legs, resulting in free forward motion, then the first stage of the circle of the aids has been established. Only then can the rider proceed to the second stage: the use of the legs in order to bring the horse on the bit, to make the horse relaxed and to prepare the horse to accept the half halts, in other words, to close the circle of the aids.

If the use of the whip is often misunderstood, so too—among a broad majority of riders—is the application of the legs. Nothing is more detrimental to the training of a horse than legs that constantly kick, push, squeeze or noodle. Not only do such legs kill all sensitivity in a horse’s sides but they also teach a horse to stiffen his belly muscles in order to block against these pushes or kicks. Such tightening in the torso renders all influence by the rider ineffectual.

As you hold your hand slightly away from your normal rein position, twist your wrist to the left (in this case) to lift it up, then flex your wrist to bring the whip down, onto your thigh (Credit: Micki Dobson )

When we say that the legs should mainly act as guiding rails, we must not forget that guiding a horse on something like a circle involves a certain degree of bend if the horse is to conform to the circle. 

The bending around the rider’s inner leg is the foundation for all two-track movements, which are best achieved when the inner leg of the rider guides the inner hind leg of the horse slightly in the direction of the rider’s outside heel when working on a circle, riding a turn or passing through a corner. This action, known as “enlarging,” will bring the inner hind leg of the horse better underneath the rider and closer to the center of gravity. 
Only the horse with a relaxed neck and belly muscles will be able to use his inner hind leg in the above-mentioned way, and a rider who understands the importance of lateral—as well as diagonal—aids will have no difficulty in making the inner side of the horse hollow, thus gaining control over the inner hind leg. 

In the moment the inner hind leg of the horse tracks properly, the inner side of the horse’s body is hollow and the inside rein is soft. Almost simultaneously, the horse steps into the outside rein, which gives the rider a steady contact. The horse also steps into—not through—the rider’s outside leg to maintain a steady contact with the rider’s body. Without acceptance of the rider’s outside leg, no horse can be truly on the outside rein. It is indeed a wonderful experience to be able to control the entire horse with just a single rein and the seat, of which the outside leg is an extension. 

Every dressage horse must eventually reach this stage, and the best way to achieve it is through work on the circle. We see here again the interrelationship between the circle as a ring figure and the circle of aids. Forward on the whip, enlarging away from the inner-leg pressure into the outside rein and from there to and through the rider’s seat over the horse’s back and—with half halts—into the horse’s hind legs to complete the circle of aids. 
This circle, the conditio sine quo non (indispensible requisite) of proper basic work, must never be voluntarily interrupted, either by the horse or by the rider.

The flexibility of your whip combined with the torque from your wrist will cause the whip to make contact with your horse. Immediately return your hand to a normal position. (Credit: Micki Dobson)

Which One? How Long?

Whips come in all shapes and sizes. When choosing a whip, find one that fits your hand. Also, look for a length that is appropriate to your build and your horse’s size. If you are a tiny person on a big horse or a person with rather large thighs, you probably need a longer whip. If you are small and riding a small horse you should choose a smaller whip. A “good” whip also stings a bit and bounces well when you flex your wrist and use it against your thigh. So be sure to try several whips before buying. Another aspect to pay attention to is the button or knob at the end of the whip. The button should be large enough that you don’t have to grip it to keep from losing it. When allowed in [USEF] or USDF competitions, the whip cannot be longer than four feet. Editor’s note: Today your whip can be no longer than 47.2 inches (120 cm) including lash.

This story was first published in the November 1996 issue of Dressage Today. Austrian-born Karl Mikolka was a chief rider with the Spanish Riding School and later coach to the Brazilian Olympic dressage team. He later moved to the United States and worked with the Tempel Lipizzan Stallions in Wadsworth, Illinois.






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