How to get … and keep … your horse sensitive to your aids

You will all, by now be more than aware that I am an advocate of keeping things simple. My favourite Bruce Lee quote is “Simplicity is the Key to Brilliance”, but when I say simple I realise that this can be misunderstood.  I don’t necessarily mean ‘less’ when I say keep it simple I mean ‘reduce to its heart’.Sensitive to your aids

I had a note from Angie who asked me a question relating to the mechanics of getting her horse sensitive to the aids.

I am a big believer in putting the leg on and then always immediately off – a squeeze and release.  This assumes that your legs are hanging gently at your horse’s side and only being used when needed and not clamped on for dear life.

The mechanics, when your horse is not responding are as follows:

  • The leg is on and immediately off
  • No response? Try again – same pressure – click with the tongue.
  • No response? Leg again – more pressure
  • No response? Leg again – with same pressure as second time and a tap of the whip behind the leg at the same time as you are applying the leg pressure, in order to reinforce what you are asking.
  • No response? small, gentle, slightly irritating taps behind the leg until you get the response.
  • As soon as you get a response release all pressure, stop tapping and clicking and GO!sensitive

In order to get your horse sensitive however, from this starting point you have to work towards the point where your horse actually will go from just a click of the tongue or the slightest pressure with the calf.


When you reduce what you do to its very essence you could not take away anything more without it becoming ineffective. Likewise, anything you would add is unnecessary and would only really create clutter and confusion. Usually everything we aspire to do goes through an evolution; a cycle of development until the process comes to rest at the ‘essential state’. This is where it nears perfection for its purpose.  When you try and learn something new there is usually some seemingly chaotic input. It’s hard to separate the relevant or even essential elements from the irrelevant but as you learn more you start to set the pieces of the puzzle together for yourself.

In time, you arrive at the mastery stage, where it is just right.  If you apply this principle to something as straightforward as applying your leg aid, it can be beautifully demonstrated.

As with all things, it does not come naturally to your horse to make an amazing transition without being trained to do so.  The way you introduce the training will not be the way you do it forever, you will refine it over time and you should consider thinking about refining everything you do.

Some time ago I wrote a blog entitled Less is More where I described my experience with being told to ‘use more leg’.

I have had a succession of instructors that have screamed “MORE LEG”, “PUT YOUR LEG ON” to the point where I had convinced myself that I did not have strong enough legs for the job.  Imagine then what a relief it was to me discover that the better way is “Leg On, then immediately off – if you do not get the response – on again and immediately OFF.  When you get the response you want – keep the leg OFF”.  If you don’t, back it up with the whip, but be persistent in the on/off approach.  Not more leg, less leg but more often and just to re-iterate, when you get the response you want – KEEP THE LEG OFF.In the Stirrups

In this example, the use of the leg aid is stripped back to its heart.  My horse is sharp to the aids and I am less tired.


My advice to you is, once your horse is established in his way of going and /or a particular movement when you give the aids, half the applied pressure, quite simply to test if you can get the required result.

If the answer is yes, next time half the pressure again, until you strip the aid back to its ‘essential state’ where in time you will ‘think’ trot, your body will automatically react by doing the absolute minimum required and you will lift effortlessly into the transition.

In dressage the aim is to seem to do as little as possible.  Clearly this is the ultimate goal but whilst you are en route you should continually work towards this goal in ‘baby steps’ by reducing pressure gradually.  By doing so you are teaching your horse sensitivity to the aids.

Similarly, when I was training my horse to halt I began by including a low ‘whoa’ to which she happily responded. This became a very subtle sort of ‘huh’ noise in a very low voice. Before I knew it I have a horse that will halt from trot simply off my seat and a resisting (i.e. not following) hand. Each element of the aids is reduced to its heart; reduced to its essential state. No more. No less.

It all comes down to your ability to be clear about what the outcome should be and how you are going to get there.  Question, evaluate, re-evaluate and apply.  Easier said than done.  Often, we over analyse and complicate things to the point where we can’t even recognise the original goal – it’s exhausting to over-think everything isn’t it?  So, to get yourself back to being able to figure out what it is you need to do, ask simple questions to get to the heart of the matter.

This may sound overly simplistic, but it works. Sometimes, just doing what you have always done or what someone else expects of you muddy’s the waters and overly complicates things.  Do what you do and see if you get the same results when you halve the pressure.

Crystal System DressageSee what kind of magic you can create.  Have a go, it will surprise you.

Have fun, as always

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster

4 Responses

    1. Hi – Ideally you would do some work towards desensitising your horse to the whip. It can be done, and is very rewarding, with work from the ground. I have seen a number of extremely whip shy horses come good with understanding and gentle, slow work to help them overcome their fears. If you undertake this work you will built your relationship with your horse and develop the trust you need to become a really good partnership. I’m afraid I have no strategies for not being able to back up your leg with a whip. Sorry. Patricia x

      1. He was badly beaten with a whip before I got him.So not sure that is going to work, but thank you for you help.

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