The Aid System

20160312_083710I’ve been spending my spare time playing with the new sand in the arena.  More on that in another post.  For this post I wanted to bring back some of the words of wisdom shared in the ground work conference I attended last week.  The location was a sanctuary of my “past life”, where I spent many hours not only riding but sitting through lesson after lesson, observing, listening, and developing my “trainer’s brain”.  It was good to be back in an environment ripe for quiet contemplation and learning.

Our teachers for the weekend were Jeff Moore, from whom I’ve learned more than I could ever calculate, and Laurel von Bruun, a friend from long ago. The subject was “Ground Work – from pasture to piaffe”; but Jeff was quick to point out that this was “not a seminar about Ground Work!  It is about using Ground Work to create a THINKING RIDER on a RECEPTIVE HORSE.”

The weekend took us from basic handling in halter, through transitioning those skills into lungeing, then finally moving to the next level with long reining, where all things possible under saddle can be taught in hand.  The main focus, and recurring theme, was that each thing taught becomes the basis for the next thing – Jeff calls it the “Aid System”.

“The Aid System (whether Ground Work, Riding, Driving, Opening a gate) is just that – a ‘system’ that builds understanding and skill PROGRESSIVELY – like building a wall … Make a good foundation and build upwards.  It applies to ALL aspects of horsemanship and is much missing in typical dressage training.”

Although he called it a system, Jeff was quick to point out that it is not meant as a dogmatic approach.  Each horse is different, and each horse/handler combination creates a different set of responses and reactions.  That was clearly demonstrated throughout the weekend, as participants had opportunities to try some of the techniques on horses from the stable.

“Accept that much of our training is ‘guesswork’ on the trainer’s part.  That is unavoidable and essential (otherwise we operate with mindless dogma and ‘one size fits all’), so long as basic principles are kept in mind.”

So, if it is not ‘one size fits all’, and you have to do a certain amount of making it up as you go along, what makes it a system?  It is in how you plan and approach each new behavior/trick/skill.

  1. Decide what you want to accomplish.  Consider short term & long term expectation
  2. Decide on what is to be the AID (or cue or message) – strength and duration
  3. Decide on how long you allow after giving the chosen aid (2 strides, 3 seconds, etc.) before you go to the next part – the Correction or Consequence
  4. Decide on what is to be the Correction or Consequence – how light or firm, duration or repetition, etc.
  5. Decide in advance what you will do if the Correction or Consequence doesn’t work

The first point is particularly important in the long term training plan for your horse.  Each skill and aid you develop should be in preparation for something later on, so it’s important to know what that intended path is.  I’ll give an amusing example from Jeff’s past – he once had a horse that he thought it would be fun to teach it to bow when he touched the withers.  That was all fine, until he turned that horse into a Dressage horse, and once brushed the withers with his hat while saluting.  Slightly offbeat for this topic, but still illustrative of unintended consequences if you teach something that may get in your way at a later time.

The last thought I’ll share is critical to successful training (of any species), yet all too often missed or ignored, leading to frustration for both teacher and pupil: if it is a new trick or skill, reward the slightest glimmer of an attempt, until it is clearly understood.  Clearly understood does not mean that your horse has done it once or twice – depending upon the horse, it could be dozens of repetitions of a simple behavior before it is clearly understood.  Make sure you have tried it in different situations, locations, and times of day, all with success, before you judge it as “clearly understood”.  Too often I see people making assumptions about what their horse “knows”, and leaping to punishment when something doesn’t work.

Laurel and friend take a break and address the audience during a long reining demonstration.
Laurel and friend take a break and address the audience during a long reining demonstration.

I am a huge advocate for the value of groundwork in developing your horse and your partnership.  I will be spending much of this year doing groundwork, whether conditioning Nash, developing Tally, or beginning Noble’s education.  With that in mind, I will leave you with this last quote from the conference:

“It is GOOD to hear the handler cry “It is GOOD to be on the ground!” when the horse does (or threatens) something that the human would rather not deal with from up top (or flat on her back looking up).”

Something I can all to well identify with!

Be good to your horses!



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