How do you create an arch in the neck at the poll, flex the lumbar vertebrae, move on the diagonal, back up or canter? By using your hands, legs and seat. This type of communication is referred to as using aids. Your hands are used to control direction, speed and the position of the head, neck and shoulders. Your legs are used to increase speed, position the body, flex the hocks, rotate the pelvis and lift the belly. Your seat is used to rotate the pelvis downward and stimulate spinal bend. The only time that there is an absence of all cues is when the horse is standing still. To teach a horse to enhance his movement and to improve his balance you must have a language and this language is the aids.
The only way to fail is to give up. This is the greatest statement that I have ever herd. It describes perfectly an understanding that every lesson between horse and rider is beneficial. We learn from both our success and our failure and neither is better than the other. Failing is important because it teaches us what not to do and success gives us the opportunity to reward the horse so as long as you don’t keep repeating your mistakes you will move toward success. In teaching the aids to your horse you will create relaxation and build confidence because the security of understanding each other will create a relationship and language that you both can count on. Go slowly and be very consistent and always look for opportunities to reward your partner.


The hands should be used with grace and flow instead of like paws. It is more than a matter of grabbing onto a piece of leather; the reins are a guiding and collection device. Hold the reins between your first finger and thumb with your thumbs pointing roughly at two and ten o’clock. The remaining three fingers should rest upon the reins and act as shock absorbers that flow with the movement of the horse. As the rein moves back and forth with the motion of the horse’s head shake, the last three fingers flex open and closed to keep constant pressure on the bit. Your hands should also remain quiet and to do this you must relax your last three fingers, wrists and forearms. This will “shock absorb” the rein, letting the horse feel your true command and not create needless jerking because of stiffness coming from your hands and forearm.  It is your job to guide your horse through a relaxed workout. Since you have neither the physical strength nor the weight to make a horse behave it is important to remain relaxed. If your hands are stiff, the horse will feel your tension and will adopt a similar attitude.

When riding, your arms should rest comfortably at your sides. Since the arm is an extension of the reins, the line of the rein coming back toward you from the bit should be a continuous line up to your elbow. Your elbows should bend at an angle that permits placement of your hands about three inches above the saddle.

Keeping hand placement in mind, stand with your back and elbows placed against a wall. Push your elbows against the wall hard while relaxing your forearms, wrists and fingers. Feel the muscle at the back of your arms tighten? This is the muscle that is used to stop your horse. Everything in front of the elbow should remain relaxed with the exception of your thumbs and forefingers.

There are two basic cues involving the hands, direct rein and indirect rein. A direct rein will draw the nose of the horse left or right. An indirect rein will push the shoulder or shape the neck of the horse. The response to an indirect rein is dependent upon where the rein touches the horse. Using it high on the neck will straighten a bend in the neck or turn the head, as in a western neck rein cue. Using it low on the neck will push the shoulder away from the rein. An indirect rein is using the outside rein or the rein on the outside curve of a turn, to press on the neck of the horse which will move the horse’s shoulder or neck into the turn. It is important to note that you should never take the hand that holds the indirect rein past the neck of the horse, it is only necessary to press the neck with the rein. You use direct rein to control the direction of the nose and an indirect rein to control the

shoulder and neck. When making a turn these aids should be applied simultaneously, especially with a young horse.

Pressure should always be applied fairly equally on each side of the horse’s mouth so that the bit is balanced and doesn’t pull through the mouth to one side. If you pull only on the left rein the bit will slide left in the horse’s mouth so use both your hands together and add some pressure to the right side of the neck to help balance the bit. This way you are directing the head to the left with the left rein and pushing the neck left using the right rein. Your left rein will still be slightly dominant so that the cue to go left is obvious but there is now additional support on the right side to help keep the shoulder and neck following the nose. It might be helpful to think of pressure applied to the reins on the following scale:

Pressure 1 (P1) Floppy Rein
Pressure 2/3 (P2) (P3) Normal riding pressure
Pressure 4/5 (P4) (P5) Cuing pressure
Pressure 6 (P6) Used to create a difficult movement such as collection
Pressure 7 /9 (P7) (P8) (P9) Annoying to the horse and/or painful
Pressure 10 (P10) Causing damage to the horse
All cues should remain between P2 and P6. If at any time you suspect that you have cued over P6, it is probably time to stop and reconsider your approach and/or equipment.
All hand cues must have balance. If you are turning your horse and you apply P4 to the left rein in a direct rein cue, you must then apply at least P3 to an indirect rein cue on the neck. If you pull on the left rein only in a direct rein cue, the bit will slide through the mouth. If you are using a full cheek snaffle or a curb bit, it will only stop as the opposite side of the bit comes crashing in to the cheek of the horse pushing the tissue of the mouth into his teeth and will only cause resentment from the horse’s point of view. But if you use P4 on a direct rein cue to the bit and at the same time use P3 on an indirect rein cue on the neck, you have close to equal pressure being applied to each side of the bit and it remains stationery in the mouth giving information to the horse instead of discomfort. Compliance to the cues is achieved by balance and kindness.
Hand Placement in Rein Cues. The direct rein cue will lift or drop the position of the head depending upon the height at which you hold your hands. Lifting your hands will raise the head and similarly, if you lower your hands, the head will lower. Placement of your hands close to the neck or wider apart will affect the strength of a rein cue. By introducing the principal of leverage, a cue is stronger the closer the rein lies to the neck. If you hold the reins close to the neck you create a 45 degree angle at the point where the rein joins the mouthpiece. If you widen your hands you lessen the angle which lessens the severity of a direct rein cue. It is common when training a young horse to use a wider hand cue during a turn to draw the nose gently toward the new direction. This lessens resistance and speeds up the learning process.

When and How to Use Rein Cues:

To Back - Use direct rein pressure P4 on both sides and lean slightly forward on you seat bones. Flutter your fingers on the reins while applying P4 pressure to move the horse in reverse. Be sure to use some leg pressure to keep the horse’s back round riding him into the bit before backing.

To Straighten the Neck – Use direct rein pressure P4 on the outside curve of the neck to push it straight.

To Straighten the Head – Use direct rein pressure P4 on the side that is bent away from the centerline. Flutter your fingers to coax the head back to dead center. Usually the head and neck need to be aligned together.

To Drop the Head – Use direct rein pressure p6 on both sides while applying leg pressure to both sides. The use of leg pressure keeps the horse from reversing his direction or backing up. Release the rein pressure as soon as the horse complies and drops his head to rein pressure P2.

Lifting the Head – Use direct rein pressure at P4 with your hands two inches higher than normal. Use medium leg pressure at the girth and a balanced neutral seat. When you raise your hands go slowly to allow the horse to maintain collection. Watch for a hollow neck. The neck of the horse should always maintain a proper arch.

Head Shake – Using direct rein pressure at P2 with hands six inches wider apart than normal, this will increase the likelihood of head shake.

Passing Another Horse – Use indirect rein to the neck at P4 and leg pressure on the passing side to cause the horse to move on the diagonal. Both indirect rein and leg cue are on the same side as the object being passed. While passing the direct rein should only be used to balance the bit.

Canter – Use the inside rein against the neck at P3 to create the proper bend in the neck with the nose of the horse slightly bent toward the inside while using outside leg pressure to push the haunches inward (this is not the correct use of the indirect rein but you are using neck pressure to create bend in the neck). This should push the horse into a “C” shaped position which puts his weight in the proper place to pick up the correct lead. While cantering, the outside rein should only be used to balance the bit and to help control the direction.

The Seat

I am sure you have heard someone refer to a rider as “having a good seat”. This means that the rider is balanced in the saddle and moves with the horse while maintaining good posture. The way the rider sits in the saddle impacts the ability of his horse to balance him as the horse is ridden through his movements. The seat has three points of pressure, the left and right seat bones and the fork (or pubic arch). The seat bones are the bottom of your pelvic bone and you can feel them by pressing into the crease found between the thigh and the buttock. You use the seat bones in riding to shift weight while turning or to rock back and forth while in the canter; and to press weight into the middle and back of the saddle causing impulsion or downward hip rotation. The fork is used to stabilize the seat and ground the rider in the saddle. You can feel the contact made by the fork if you push your bellybutton forward until you feel pressure at the front of your crotch. This triangle of pressure creates balance and proper alignment of the rider’s spine. You should always sit straight as you move your pelvis into position. Never sacrifice balance or proper seat to give a cue. Learn to apply pressure with the hips, not the body. Think of hula dancing, the dancer’s hips move while the body remains still. This is also true in giving cues with the seat.

The cues for the seat should be used in the following circumstances:

Impulsion – Pressure is applied to the middle and rear of the saddle using the seat bones while controlling the speed and enhancing collection with equal rein pressure P3. Add slight leg pressure to lift the belly and release the rein pressure to P2 when the horse complies.

Pelvic Rotation – Use seat bone pressure firmly toward the middle and rear of the saddle while using direct rein pressure P6 and firm leg pressure just behind the girth. Relax the seat bone, leg and direct rein pressure to P3 upon compliance. Feel for the horse to tip backward or crouch. Be cautious not to grind into the cantle (rear) of the saddle with your buttocks as it will cause back pain and saddle sores in the horse. The correct pressure should travel down into the saddle dispersing throughout the horse’s back.

Stride – Use firm seat bone pressure toward the middle and rear of the saddle and soft leg pressure at the girth while maintaining collection at P4. When the horse accepts the collection release the rein pressure slowly back to P2 and the horse will lengthen out creating more stride.

To Canter – Apply equal pressure on both seat bones and the fork with a rocking movement in the rider’s waist following the rolling movement of the horse’s back.

To Back – Pressure is on the fork and seat bones with appropriate hand cues described above.

To Halt – Pressure is quickly put on the seat bones with direct rein pressure P3. Relax seat bone pressure and all direct rein pressure upon compliance.

Run Walk – relaxed downward sinking pressure on seat bones with direct rein pressure P3 and soft leg pressure.

Flat Walk – Equal relaxed pressure on fork and seat bones with direct rein pressure P2.

Dog Walk – Neutral pressure to rider’s legs and seat using relaxed direct rein pressure P1.


The legs have two positions, at the girth and behind the girth. Leg pressure at the girth causes lift in the belly and forward movement. Leg pressure behind the girth controls hock flexion and the position of the hip in both left and right movement as well as pelvic tilt.

The legs can be used by pressing, brushing or bumping, depending upon the severity of the message you are trying to deliver. When using a leg cue you should always start with the lightest cue, a press and advance to a brush. Only after these have failed use a bump. A well cued horse will always move to light pressure.

The presence of leg cues will be found in these movements:

Moving forward from a stationary position – Pressure applied to both sides of the girth as well as seat bone pressure. Reins should be at normal pressure P2. Always give a cue to begin moving forward. This lets the horse know when it is time to work and he will stand better if he knows he will be told when to go.

Increasing Speed – Pressure applied to both sides at the girth as well as seat bone pressure. Reins should be at normal riding pressure P2.

Moving on the Diagonal – Firm pressure behind the girth with the outside leg as well as seat and indirect rein pressure at P3. Continue pressure until the diagonal movement is completed.

Turning on the Haunches – Firm pressure behind the girth with rider’s outside leg. Outside seat pressure and outside indirect rein pressure P5. The use of indirect rein pushes the horse’s shoulders around his hips. The rider’s outside leg holds the horse’s hip stationary and should increase or decrease pressure as needed to keep the horse’s hip in one place.

Turning on the Forehand – Firm leg pressure behind the girth with the outside leg as well as equal direct rein pressure sufficient to keep horse from moving forward.

Side Passing – soft pulsing leg pressure at the girth with outside leg as well as indirect rein pressure at P5 pushing sideways and direct rein pressure at P3 to keep horse from moving directly forward.

Arching or Lifting the Back – Brush legs at the girth with balanced direct rein pressure to the mouth between P3 and P5 used as needed to compress the horse.

Bending the Hocks and Rotating Pelvis – Apply pressure with legs behind the girth on both sides while simultaneously using direct rein pressure at P6 and seat bone pressure deep into the center and rear of the saddle. . When the horse makes any positive adjustment by bending the hock more and rotating his pelvis reward him quickly by softening the rein pressure slowly back to P3. Don’t lean back and over ride the cantle. This adjustment in hock bend and pelvis rotation will take many months and should be developed slowly. 

Reach – Use medium leg pressure behind the girth as well as firm seat bone pressure while collecting to P5 and then give the reins back by lessening the pressure to P3. The horse will follow the bit forward with his neck and draw the shoulder forward with it creating reach. This is subtle and should be a give and take exercise which will result in the horse excepting the new arched forward neck position while maintaining collection in the head.

At all times the communications between horse and rider should be a relaxed two way signal. When you stop listening to your horse, he no longer listens to you. Through relaxed, quiet hands, using precise contact pressures, equal on both sides, by relaxing the lower back, shoulders and lower legs, including the ankles, the horse and rider become a balanced team working together as a unit.

While you are learning to coordinate the cues you my feel like an octopus for awhile but you will soon adapt and feel more comfortable. Relax while maintaining good posture and remember that both you and your horse are learning something new. It is also important to remember that each horse will react differently to hand, seat and leg cues and it is necessary to adjust the cues to that individual. Go slowly; teaching the cues to your horse should take several months to teach them effectively. 


Barbara Blue Daicoff
Murfreesboro, TN
Cell. 931-993-9370

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Last Updated: November 22, 2012