Last week I had a discussion with one of our students about how we use our aids to communicate with our horses while we’re on their backs. It seemed to be a rather poignant moment in this teenager’s education, so I thought I’d share it with a larger audience.
We have five basic aids to communicate with our horses while riding—voice, hands (reins), legs, seat and weight. And we have to teach them the commands and directions that each of those aids give, commands to do a diverse variety of things and for which the intensity can range from extremely subtle to extremely strong. I told her to think of the range as being from me whispering to her to me shouting at her.
But our challenge is that the horse doesn’t automatically understand the directions or concepts we’re trying to express to him. I told her it’s as if I spoke Greek and she spoke English. I told her that, since we’re both talking about horses and riding, she’d probably eventually understand some of what I said, probably largely through gestures and imitation. And then I remembered what legendary horseman Bertalan de Nemethy wrote about aids and their application in his 1988 book The de Nemethy Method:
“When I think of the rider’s aids, I am reminded of an anecdote that is told about one of the world’s great pianists, who was asked how difficult it was to learn to play the piano as he did. ‘It is really not difficult at all,’ he replied. ‘You only have to figure out which fingers go on what keys, and for how long. Then you practice for the rest of your life so that you can do it up to tempo.’
“Communicating with the horse is about the same. It is not really all that difficult to execute the correct instrumental acts once or twice, but it is a lifetime’s work to master them. Any horse will be confused by a rider’s clumsy attempts to communicate through an imperfect vocabulary, and this confusion is often mistaken for stupidity or resistance. Luckily, the horse’s memory is excellent, and this provides an excellent basis on which to build our communication.
“Of course, the rider’s physical communication and contact with the horse are still paramount. He gives the orders, and the horse must learn to understand the equestrian language that he employs. This language is often referred to as ‘aids,’ though perhaps ‘signals’ would be a more appropriate term for the actions we want to describe.”
As the coach of the U.S. show jumping team during its greatest era, from 1952 through 1980, Bert revolutionized the training of horses and riding over fences in this country. He then became a tremendously influential course designer, with his signature creation being the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Those courses were renowned because, for the first time in the Olympics, they weren’t simply a test of scope; they were a test of training and of communication between horses and riders.
I consider it a blessing of my life that I knew Bert, who died in early 2002. I’ll always remember the day he devoted to describing and explaining his three Olympic courses to me for an article I wrote about them. He told me on that day in August 1984, “The animal has to be trained to follow certain signals, and there is only one classical way—there are no shortcuts. The horse should jump the fences clean, but not because of fear. He has to be relaxed and able to use his good jumping ability without being disturbed.”
Bert was the consummate horseman, and so I keep the passage from his book that I’ve repeated above on the wall of our tack room. I think his words perfectly describe our challenge as horsemen and riders, and I concluded my conversation with our student about aids by reading them aloud to her. I hope she remembers them.