Training & Riding Aids for Horses

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How to Use Training & Riding Aids

Training aids are tack used to encourage and teach the horse to work more effectively. These training aids should be used carefully. They should never be used to force a horse into a fixed position or to establish contact.

Watch this video about the concept of “contact” in horse training by equitation science practitioner, Jody Hartstone:

Riding aids are pieces of equipment used to cue the horse. They should be used carefully, not overused and never used for punishment.

Training aids should be helpful to the horse and make it clear what it is being asked to do – not cause confusion or discomfort.

Riding or training aids are traditionally grouped into two categories: natural and artificial aids.

Natural aids are aids that are applied by the rider, including rein aids, leg aids, seat aids, and voice aids.

Artificial aids are equipment, tack, or devices used to communicate with the horse during riding, ground handling or training, such as the whip, spurs, and noseband.

Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Jody Hartstone, about the use of natural and artificial aids when riding horses:

The following guidelines can help ensure you choose the most appropriate aid for the horse’s work and training level:

  • Make sure the horse is physically capable of doing what you are asking it to do before you use any type of training aid. If the horse has an underlying problem, an inappropriate training aid can only make it worse.
  • Consult a credentialed trainer. Make sure you understand how the training aid works and whether it is right for your horse. Consider how the training aid affects the head carriage, the movement of the horse’s body or the whole frame.
  • Ensure you know how to correctly fit the training aid. Get advice from a credentialed trainer. Search for information about the specific training aids using evidence-based sources. 
  • Introduce training aids carefully in a safe setting like an enclosed arena. Have another person help you fit the training aid for the first time. Use the loosest setting at first so the horse gets used to wearing the aid. Make adjustments gradually.
  • Consider how the bit you use on your horse works with the training aid. 
  • Understand how to release and reward. Is the training aid controlled only by the horse’s actions? Or does it depend on how you recognize and react to the horse’s actions?
  • Have realistic expectations and do not expect an immediate or consistent change. Keep sessions with the training aid short to avoid the risk of injury. Gradually increase the time of sessions and the level at which you expect the horse to work.


Artificial aids should be used only to reinforce natural aids. For example, consider the scenario of training a horse to move forward when leg pressure is applied.

First, apply pressure to the sides of the horse with your legs. If the horse does not move forward, increase leg pressure. If the horse does not move forward with increased leg pressure, gently tap the horse with the whip on the hindquarters. Increase the frequency of tapping until the horse responds. Remove leg and whip pressure as soon as the horse moves forward.

This process teaches the desired response (moving forward) using incrementally increasing pressure until the horse performs the correct behaviour. This is also known as negative reinforcement.

Watch this video by equitation science practitioner, Jody Hartstone, to learn how the “go” response can be retrained or improved in horses:

What does the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines say about training and learning theory?

“Training is an important investment in a horse, and the level of training (from basic skills to specialized work) will depend on the intended purpose of the horse. Horses well trained in ground skills, under saddle skills and/or in harness skills are safer to work with and more likely to have good welfare their entire life. Poor training methods can cause behavioural problems. Horses with behavioural problems are more vulnerable to neglect and rough handling and are more likely to face the prospect of multiple temporary owners attempting to manage an untrained or poorly trained horse. 

In training, the ideal is to make the “right thing easy and the wrong thing hard” for the horse. It is essential that horses be given a way to comply (i.e., respond in the way the trainer desires). Otherwise, the horse is essentially in a “no-win situation” and may show increased apathy or become dangerous and unemployable over time. 

Tack and equipment must be maintained in good repair and must fit the horse correctly. Ill-fitting equipment may cause sores and irritation. It may also cause the horse to respond to the irritation rather than the handler.

Learning theory can be used to explain how horses learn, think and react during training. The following principles of learning theory can be applied to any training context: 

  • Use cues or aids that are easy for the horse to understand. Multiple cues or aids used together can confuse the horse, so it is essential that signals are applied clearly and consistently.
  • Train and shape responses one at a time. Each response should be broken down into its smallest possible components and then put together in a process called “shaping.”
  • Train only one response per cue.
  • Strive to minimize fear during training. When horses experience fear, they can come to associate everything about that environment with fear, which can inhibit learning. 
  • Benchmark relaxation – observe the horse for aggressive or defensive behaviours and modify training methods to minimize them. Horses that stay relaxed during training are better able to learn.
  • Include a system of rewards in training as it can make the task safer and easier for the horse and trainer. (A reward does not have to be a food treat; scratching or the release of pressure are also good options.)
  • Minimize the time between the performance of the horse’s trained response and its reward. Horses do not learn well when there is a delay in reward.

The following requirements are identified in the Code of Practice:

Horses must not be trained in a manner that subjects them to avoidable pain or that causes them injury as a direct result of the training method used. They must never be subjected to training methods which are abusive or intentionally injure the horse. This includes, but is not limited to, soring, excessive use of whips or forcing the horse’s head position by tying the horse to a fixed object.

Horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and level of maturity.

Equipment in use must be maintained in good repair and must fit the horse correctly

These recommended practices are also provided in the Code of Practice:

  1. Consult an experienced trainer/coach and attend training clinics (exercise due diligence researching the qualifications of trainers/coaches and ask for references).
  2. Establish a positive, trusting relationship with the horse before training begins.
  3. Employ training methods that use the minimal force necessary to achieve the desired outcome.
  4. Train in short sessions and space training sessions over time.
  5. Ensure that, at a minimum, the horse is trained to lead, load into a trailer and stand for farriery, veterinary care and grooming. 
  6. Ensure you are familiar with the correct use of all tack and training equipment and that you have an understanding of how to be certain that it fits the horse correctly.
  7. Have a veterinarian examine the horse’s mouth for any dental problems that may interfere with comfortable biting and bridling.
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines (2013) have been used with permission, Equine Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council. The process for the development of Codes can be accessed through the National Farm Animal Care Council.

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