I just got a new horse and I’m a bit nervous. My coach says I’m gripping the reins and my arms are stiff. How can I relax and have lighter hands?

Unsteady hands can be like background noise drowning out signals you’re trying to send to your horse. At best, the horse can ignore the noise, becoming desensitized to it. Equine behaviourists call this habituation. At worst, erratic hands will scare or hurt your horse. He’ll learn to preserve himself by avoiding the bit in some way. Gaping mouths, elevated heads, hollow backs and choppy gaits are common evasions. Before opting to solve those problems with band aid solutions such as nosebands and draw reins, let’s go to the root of the problem – developing elastic, independent hands.

Riding effectively can be boiled down to a signal/response or pressure/release system. Your hands telegraph signals such as slow, turn and flex. As the horse responds to your specific request, you respond with a reward, releasing the pressure, providing freedom. If he doesn’t respond you keep the pressure steady or even increase it. It’s like a conversation with your horse. By trial and error he learns that a certain response yields consistent release. Unsteady hands interfere with this distinct message, like static interfering with a radio station. The important information is hard to discern.

Still hands come from relaxed, elastic arms. I have my students imagine holding a cup of coffee and driving over a speed bump. Shock absorbing elasticity keeps you from spilling coffee on your lap.

Sally Swift used the analogy of holding baby birds in your hands to illustrate the difference between holding the reins and gripping the reins. Grip too tightly and you’ll crush those birds. Hold them too loosely and they’ll fly away.

If your seat is bouncing in the saddle, you won’t be able to keep your hands from bouncing either. Learning to follow, not overpower the horse’s motion builds the secure foundation for soft hands. If you’re unbalanced in your position, you’ll resort to your reins for stability. Clinging on with your thighs will only push you up out of the saddle. Gripping locks your lower back, with the jarring effect of a hay wagon vs a Cadillac ride. Effective riders have the ability to use their aids independently. Cues delivered with their legs and seat bones aren’t mirrored in their arms.

I use this drill with my students: post trot with your fingers touching the mane, saddle pad or swells of a western saddle (whatever you can reach comfortably). With your hands in one place, you’ll have to open and close your elbow as you rise up and down. Your upper arm and shoulder will feel fluid. Now try to recreate that closing and unfolding feeling without touching. Arm flexibility helps you follow the motion of the horse’s neck at the canter or over a jump.

A happy mouth isn’t dependent on loose, “skipping rope” reins. “Soft contact” is the standard set in most association rule books. As a judge, I’m required to note lack of contact as a major penalty on my scoresheet in equitation and some western classes.

In a snaffle or non-leverage type bit, aim to maintain only enough tension to keep a soft, straight rein line, providing release through your elbow, wrist and finger joints. With a curb or leverage bit, the release is more pronounced. For each correct response to a turn, flex or slow signal, the shanks return to neutral and the curb chain is applying no pressure under the chin. You will see a visible limpness in the rein.

Unstable riders using the reins to balance, abrupt riders who spike the tension as their own adrenaline spikes, and those riders who are simply unaware of the signals they send – all styles take a toll on horses’ welfare. By developing a balanced, independent seat and keeping your arms relaxed and responsive, your confidence will increase and so will your horse’s comfort and responsiveness.

Judge, coach, trainer and speaker, Lindsay Grice loves to help riders solve their horse puzzles based on the science of how horses think and learn. She is an AQHA specialized judge, Equestrian Canada judge and a Provincial Hunter/Jumper judge. Learn more at lgrice.com.