We communicate with a horse by using a corridor of pressures that suggest the shape, the pace, and the direction we want the horse to take. Removing a pressure is the horse's "reward." It is the way we communicate to the horse, "Yes! That's right."
If your timing is off when you either apply a pressure or remove it, your communication becomes garbled. The horse will not make a clear connection between a particular pressure or corridor of pressures and the response you expect from him.
This is true whether you are working with your horse on the ground or from the saddle. When you work a horse on the ground, you create a corridor that corresponds to your legs when you are riding by using the wall or fence as one side of the corridor and your body and a whip as the other side. When you tip your whip toward the horse, it is like squeezing with your leg when you are in the saddle. When you bring your whip away from the horse or point it at the ground, it is like taking your leg off.
To develop a good sense of timing, you first have to understand the exact sequence of the horse's footfalls within each gait. Then you have to learn to feel each of those footfalls from the saddle. Only then will you be able to time the application of your aids with the horse's footfalls.
For example, the outside hind foot steps into the first beat of the canter. So, as the horse is walking, when the rider feels her outside seat bone beginning to drop, she knows that her horse's outside hind foot is lifting off the ground and moving forward in the air. That is the precise moment when she applies the corridor of aids for a canter. If you want a left lead canter, apply your canter aids as your right seat bone begins to drop. If you want a right lead canter, apply the aids as the left seat bone drops.
Applying an aid with the correct timing is just the first step. You also need to remove the aid as soon as the horse responds correctly. A constant pressure goes away. The horse simply learns to ignore it as having no meaning. So, while the pressure of the girth around his chest may communicate to the horse that you intend to ride, it does not give him any information about shape, pace, or direction at any point during your ride.
Similarly, if a rider maintains her balance by hanging on the bit and reins, the horse starts to ignore the bit. If the rider stays on by gripping with her thighs or lower leg, the horse learns to ignore the leg.
As we train horses, we first show them what we want. Then we ask them. When they understand what we are asking, then we can tell them to do it using the correct timing of our aids. If a trained horse that we are sure understands what we are telling them to do choose to ignore us, we can reinforce our aids with whip or spur.
Timing is critical for correct reinforcement. Smacking a horse with a crop after he has refused a jump, for example, is totally useless. The reinforcement must come at the exact moment you feel the refusal starting as you are approaching the jump. When you reinforce your aids using correct timing, you do not interrupt the horse's rhythm or forward movement.
Here at Meredith Manor we preach about "riding every stride." As a student rides through a sequence of maneuvers, she must apply and release the correct aids stride by stride to either maintain or change the horse's shape, pace, and direction of travel.
As a horse's level of training and experience increases, applying every aid at every stride may become superfluous. However, thinking about riding every stride keeps riders riding. It helps them understand that they should not apply the aids for a particular gait or movement and then hold them there, creating a constant pressure, until they want a change.
It also curbs the tendency of some riders to think of aids as "switches" that just turn various gaits or patterns on and off. They think they can apply the aids for the canter, for example, then just sit in the saddle and lope along until they want to turn the canter "off" with another set of aids. In between those start and stop signals, the horse gets no direction from the rider. He is on his own. Depending on his personality, he may decide to take over and do what he pleases or he may become anxious and insecure because the application of the aids feels like a trick question. He gets no reassuring feedback from his rider that he has done the correct thing.
Feedback works in both directions. A well trained schoolmaster is your best teacher when you are learning to time your aids correctly. If you do not get the response you want when you apply your aids and you know that the horse knows the drill, you can assume that the communication glitch comes from your side of the saddle. Think about whether you applied the correct set of aids at the correct moment in the horse's sequence of footfalls and try again. If you reinforce your aids on a fully trained horse and get a dramatic response such as head tossing or tail switching, the horse is telling you that you applied the reinforcement at the wrong time or with too much force.
The importance of timing the application and release of aids correctly and of constantly receiving and interpreting feedback from your horse are two of the reasons that pairing a green horse with a green rider seldom works.
That said, most riders do not have the luxury of a schoolmaster in their barn to help them refine their timing. Both they and their horses are somewhere between green and seasoned. They often struggle to figure out if a lack of response to their aids is due to application of the wrong aids, poor timing of their aids, or a horse that has learned to take advantage of its rider's uncertainty. When this happens, seek help from a competent instructor to sort things out before safety issues spoil your riding fun.
Faith Meredith coaches riders in dressage, reining, and eventing and has successfully trained and competed horses through FEI levels of dressage. She is the Director of Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.