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When Two Spines Align Dressage Dynamics

Hey Riders: Are You “Shapers” or “Shapees”?
How to Correctly Use the Aids to Prepare Your Horse for Action

Admit it: We’ve all fumbled with a half-halt from time to time or created a misshapen mount with our confusing aids for shoulder-fore. The aids for riding, as simple as they can seem at their most basic, are a complex language that requires an acquired fluency as our riding goals graduate from simple transitions to lateral movements and beyond.

In her best selling book When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics, trainer and long-time technical editor for Dressage Today magazine Beth Baumert demystifies the use of aids to help ensure clear communication between horse and rider. Here’s a glimpse of the insight her years of experience interviewing and writing about the very best riders and trainers in the world provides.

Top riders use their aids for three purposes:
First, they prepare the horse for action by shaping him and putting him in front of the leg. These are preparatory aids.

Second, they listen to the horse to see if he is ready to respond. This listening aid also is necessary for the rider to analyze the work based on the Training Scale (Rhythm, Suppleness, Contact, Impulsion, Straightness, and Collection).

Finally, when they know the horse is ready, then the aids ask for action. The action aids are usually successful when the horse is prepared and the rider is listening.

When Two Spines Align Dressage Dynamics

Let's talk about Preparatory Aids. Riders fall roughly into two categories:
Effective trainers are leaders ("shapers") and their riding position and balance control the shape and balance of the horse—not the other way around. This requires an educated seat and core strength that maintains positive tension and correct Powerlines. [You can read more about Beth Baumert’s four physical Powerlines in When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics.]

Some riders are followers ("shapees"). When a horse is out of balance the rider who is a follower falls into the horse's poor balance and stays there. All riders start out as followers because it takes time to develop the strong but supple riding position needed to be a leader. Shapers make their horses comfortable because they balance them by making them longitudinally supple (round through the topline) and laterally supple (able to adopt degrees of bend). When you're able to bend equally left and right, your horse is straight. Bend-ability improves relaxation.

The second way in which our aids prepare the horse is by putting him in front of the leg. That is, he becomes prompt to the rider's aids. The word "prompt" means "punctual" or "on time" and doesn't imply "hurried" or "hectic." You don't increase the difficulty of your horse's task by asking him to be "on time."

Try this simple exercise to practice “shaping” your horse and to help put him in front of the leg:

Start in walk and follow, very specifically, the arc of a circle. “Shape” your horse on 20-, 15-, and 10-meter circles. Be patient but also persistent with your inside-leg-to-outside rein aids. Make your circles into figure eights. Change direction gradually over a few steps with half-halts in the rhythm of your horse’s gait. Each time you start a new circle, give an extra clear aid with the new inside leg to tell your horse, "Now, step in front of this leg!"

This excerpt from When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics by Beth Baumert is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (

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