An Aid From Long Ago

Over forty years ago I was bored, bored, bored riding my beloved first horse Hat Tricks. He had gotten really responsive to my rather rough aids and I was looking for a new challenge. It occurred to me that my aids could be MUCH lighter, both hand and leg, so I started working on that.

First I lightened my contact. My horse did not run away, in fact he became so much more responsive that I rarely return to my previous weight of contact basically because I did not have to have heavy contact at all to control my wonderful horse. He became lighter in hand, he obeyed my hand aids better, and both of us were much happier with life.

Then it came to my leg aids. I had progressed far beyond the “pony club kick” that I was taught the first time I rode a horse, but my leg aids were visible to a person on the ground and my horse's obedience was sort of chancy (I don't blame my horse, he did his best.) Except for a kick with my outside foot to get the canter I had evolved to pressing my lower leg against his barrel with varying degrees of force, but someone on the ground could probably see my lower leg move to give the aid.

And, darn it, I kept on reading about “invisible aids” in the dressage books, and no matter what I tried Hat Tricks' main comment was “Huh, you said something?” instead of prompt, willing obedience. We did not progress much at all in the invisible leg aid field of riding..

Then I came up with the idea that if I hardened my calf muscles by flexing them it would make my invisible leg aid more noticeable to my horse. So I started flexing my calf muscles hard instead of pressing my calf against his barrel and I got the usual “Is that REALLY an aid?” I started backing up my leg with my crop and after a few days Hat Tricks was content, flexing my calf muscles WAS a real aid. I was not wearing spurs back then because I really did not need them with Hat Tricks, after all I had started to learn how to time my basic leg aids at the walk, trot and canter. In around two weeks I was able to substitute flexing my calf muscles for all of my leg aids, with prompt, calm and willing responses from my horse.

When Debbie started talking about me starting to canter again I was not totally happy. Not so much about the canter itself, but the necessity of giving a lesson horse the leg aid for the canter. Beginning riders often have to give the pony club kick for a lesson horse to respond, but right now with my MS giving a pony club kick totally ruins my position and greatly weakens my security in the saddle. Since following the horse's back at the canter requires that I also change my actual seat in the saddle I definitely needed to come up with a recognizable valid leg aid that would not destroy my security in the saddle. At first I had had great hopes for just using my medial soleus muscle to give the aid, but I was finding that to get a response from MJ I ended up taking my lower thigh, knee, and upper calf off the saddle, which of course can destroy my security in the saddle.

Then I remembered that summer with Hat Tricks, with him getting so incredibly sensitive to me just flexing my calf muscles. Since the medial soleus is a calf muscle I must have flexed and tightened it too, and Hat Tricks became very responsive to this aid. Could this be my answer to my problem? Could I train MJ to this new type of leg aid?

Due to the rains the first time I got to use this flexing of my calf muscles versus my usual pressing of my lower leg against the horse's barrel, was on Cider. I explained to Shannon exactly what I was doing, why I was doing this (Cider responded well to just the medial soleus muscle as a leg aid), what I wanted to accomplish, and what I wanted Shannon to look out for. After the initial attempt with the backup of hitting my half-chap with my crop, Cider quickly understood and started to accept the new leg aid. She also started moving better, relaxed more into the movement, reached out more for contact, and was generally cheerful. One horse down, one to go.

When I mounted up for my lesson on Wednesday I told Debbie what I was doing, the history I have with this particular way of giving a leg aid, and the dire necessity of being sure to release my leg aid both to reward the horse and to get my heel back down to its proper place. I started the lesson with flexing my calf muscles for my driving aid (properly timed of course), backing it up with hitting my half-chap with my crop. MJ got the idea rather quickly, and just like when I used my medial soleus muscle by itself, he did not get on his forehand. He stretched himself out, he reached further for contact, and throughout the lesson he started listening to my flexed calf muscle as I walked, trotted, did big gradual turns and turns in place. I only had to resort to pressing my lower leg against his barrel a few time, and he learned that this IS a valid and rather comfortable leg aid.

Debbie praised MJ and me, and she particularly liked how I made sure to sink my heel back down after I gave my leg aid.

When I decided, rather early in my lesson, that it was time to trot MJ was slightly easier to get moving with the new leg aid. Pressing my leg against his barrel is a good aid and easy to do at the proper time in MJ's stride, but in comparison to flexing my calf muscle it is sort of an indeterminate aid since the length of time needed to get a response from pressing my leg against the barrel sort of precludes giving the leg aid at EXACTLY the right time for a prompt, generous response. MJ's trot was different too, after the first few strides he started to “lift” his forehand and after a minute he started to look for reasons to speed up a little (with increased impulse) rather than always trying to shuffle back to the walk. Again I was not wearing spurs, and I got a more generous response to my driving aids than I had when I wore my spurs.

I was going to work more on this during my “homework” ride, but the night before we had a big rain storm and it was SOGGY at the stable. Debbie called me Friday morning to discuss this, and she was rather glad that I was willing to forgo my ride so the riding rain would have a chance to drain without a horse ruining the footing. If I had NEEDED to ride because of a sudden worsening of my MS there would not have been a big problem, but all I needed to do was work MJ some on the new aid. It will all work out, by my next lesson MJ will have had a week to think it all through. A week off can do all sorts of good for a horse in the process of figuring something new out, and I never think that the week off is a waste of valuable training time. Often horses NEED some time off to figure something new out, both the aid itself and the proper responses to the aid. After that progress is quicker than if I had schooled the horse every single day.

I sure hope I can ride MJ next Wednesday!

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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