Whether you ride English or western, good riding puts the emphasis on seat and legs first and hands and reins last. Hands that are light, quiet and soft enhance the horse’s balance, suppleness and way of carrying himself by supporting the direction given from the rider’s seat and leg aids. Good hands eliminate tension and build trust.
Hands that are heavy, busy or hard simply get in the way of that communication. A rider who is tense, stiff or unbalanced relies on her hands to find some sense of balance and control. Hands that bounce up and down, pull or jerk on the reins, are stiff or set in place not only impair the horse’s natural movement, but also cause pain to the mouth and tension through the poll, neck and back. Whether you ride in an English snaffle bit with contact, or a western curb bit on loose reins, any movement or tension in your hands and arms will travel into your horse’s mouth.
Think of your hands and seat as containers that are receiving energy from the horse’s hindquarters and then sending it back. The energy and power created from the horse’s hind legs flows over his back, through his withers, poll and mouth and into your hands and seat. You return that energy back to your horse’s hind legs along the reversed route.If either container is sealed up tight with tension, or too soft and open, it can neither receive, nor return the energy.
To get an idea of what this feels like, hold hands with a partner (or each hold opposite ends of a lead rope) and have your partner move his or her arm around randomly – up, down, sideways, in circles, etc. Follow his or her movements while you play with tensing your arm, making it floppy like a rag doll, locking your elbow, and having a supple (elastic) elbow. The person creating the movement is the “horse” and the person following the movement is the “rider.” Have the “horse” give you feedback about what they are feeling and how it feels to them. Change roles so you get both sides of the experience. Try the same exercise with your eyes closed and see how well you can feel and follow the movement when you can’t see and anticipate it.
Quiet, light hands are essential for creating trust for the bitand willingness to go forward into contact. Horses that mistrust the rider’s hand exhibit behaviours such as stiffness in the poll and neck, going behind the bit, going above the bit, being heavy on the forehand, pulling down and rooting, unwillingness to go forward, open mouth, busy mouth, tilting the head. Whether you ride with a snaffle bit, a curb bit or a bitless bridle, your horse will go best with light, steady hands that only provide clear boundaries to back up the aids from your seat and legs.
The only way to develop light, quiet, soft hands is by developing an independent seat. You are connected to the bit not from your hands or even your elbow, but all the way through your arms to your upper back. Your hands, elbows and shoulders are simply junctions along that route. When you have an independent seat, you actually hold your horse in your seat and your back. The result is relaxed movement and response to quiet, invisible rein aids of yielding, following or blocking (holding).
- Yielding – Releasing tension on the reins allows the horse to move in the direction the rider is asking for from her seat and leg aids. If riding with contact, you do not ‘throw away’ the reins, but simply relax your shoulders and upper back.
- Following – Your hands and arms move with the motion of the horse’s head, absorbing any bounce. Rather than making your arms move, you allow the horse to move your arm.
- Blocking (holding) – Your hands are still and unyielding for a moment along with more drive from your seat, lower back and legs. This action sends your horse forward into your hand. Release the block as soon as your horse gives in the poll and jaw. If your hand or elbow moves backwards, even slightly,you are pulling rather than holding.
Five Tips for Developing Light Hands
- Develop an independent seat. An independent seat is the foundation of all good riding in all disciplines. You will be in balanced position with the alignment of ear over shoulder over hip over heel. Without this position, you will feel unbalanced and tend to rely on your hands for support. It is simply human nature to use our arms for balance. Taking lessons while being lunged (by a qualified and experienced instructor on a steady, well-schooled) is the best way to develop an independent seat.
- Develop awareness for where you hold tension in your body. Be able to release tension so that you have soft, relaxed, supple muscles and joints to absorb the horse’s movement. Any tension in your body from your toes to your neck gets in the way of your ability to follow your horse’s movement. Practice releasing tension by tightening an area of your body and then relaxing it. For example, raise your shoulders up towards your ears, tighten your seat muscles, or scrunch up your toes. Work only on one area at a time. Hold the tension for a few seconds before completely letting go of the posture. Repeat several times for each area.
- Develop proper hand and arm position. Your arm should fall out of the shoulder socket so the upper arm hangs close to your ribcage and just in front of your midline. Keep a bend in your elbow and your wrist straight and relaxed at all times (no breaking or twisting at the wrist). Your elbow must be supple so that it can act as a shock absorber as well as absorb the natural movement of your horse’s head.
- Develop good posture – on and off your horse. Rounded shoulders, a common posture flaw particularly for people who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, cause the upper body to collapse forward. Open your shoulders, engage your core muscles and lift your chest so that your ribcage floats over your hips. Imagining you are carrying a heavy backpack can help get you into the right position. Keep the small of your back soft. It is the hinge that allows your hips to follow the movement of the horse while your upper body remains quiet and supple.
- Develop the ability to use your hands independently of each other. Do this exercise first when you are not riding. Stand with your hands holding the back of a chair. Keeping a bend in your elbow, roll one shoulder at a time forwards and then backwards several times. As you roll each shoulder, keep your elbows soft so that they absorb the motion without your hand following the movement. When you are comfortable with this exercise, practice it as part of your warm-up at the walk on your horse making sure your hands do not follow the movement or you will pull on the reins.
Quiet hands create a quiet horse and build trust and confidence. By improving your position, balance, posture and coordination, you will develop light hands. Both you and your horse will enjoy your time together much more as and you are both able to relax and become more in tune with each other.