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An even, elastic contact is the best (or probably the only!) way to get your horse working softly into your hands and always searching for the bit.
Unfortunately, learning to develop hands that are independent from your seat is a real challenge and takes decades of practice – even the very top riders are always still working on improving the quietness of their hands both in dressage or flatwork and over fences.
It’s easy to mistake soft hands for hands that don’t hold or follow a contact, but they are not the same thing. Here we look at some common problems and how you can overcome them…
This is usually, but not always, by a lack of softness in the elbows. Go into a sitting trot for a few strides – are your hands more still? What about rising trot versus canter?
If you find that rising trot is when your hands bob about the most, the culprit is most likely in your elbow, not your actual hand. This doesn’t mean that your hands will be perfectly still in the other gaits, mind you, just that the problem is most noticeable in rising trot!
TRY THIS: To get a feel for how much your elbow needs to open and close, thread an old flash noseband through the D-rings on your saddle to make a loop, then hold on to it and ride in all gaits. Focus on the ‘hinge’ feeling your elbow gives you at each pace, and how the elbow absorbs the movement of the horse.
It can help to do this on a lunge line too, where you can close your eyes as you make the transition from hold the neckstrap to letting go, and focus on the feeling in your elbows without worrying about controlling the horse’s direction.
You will find that in canter, there is a much more noticeable forward and back movement in the elbows, following the natural movement of the horse’s head. In rising trot, there will be an opening and closing upwards and downwards, whereas sitting trot might feel more like the motion is from side to side.
When you go back to riding normally, it can be helpful to think of the elbow joint being heavy and weighted. This encourages you to keep them soft, supple and against your sides.
This is a sure sign that your fingers aren’t properly closed on the reins. It’s particularly common in riders who are aboard a lazier horse and who inadvertently release the contact on the mouth in order to get the horse to go more forward.
It’s also common in riders who are afraid of pulling too much, so they err on the side of caution and leave the reins too long and don’t hold a contact.
The problem with constantly changing rein length is that you don’t give your horse anything consistent to work into, so while you may feel like you’re being kind, it’s more likely that you’re causing confusion!
TRY THIS: Try putting coloured electrical tape around the part of your rein that you’re meant to hold. This will give you a visual reminder to stop letting your reins slip through your hands. If this doesn’t work, you can also wrap a rubber band or two around the rein in the right place, because you will instantly feel it when it slips through your fingers, which should be enough to make you quickly close your fingers before your reins have become washing lines!
Remember that you don’t have to have tense, clamped fingers to have a secure grip on the reins either. Just think of tucking your fingernails into your palm and keeping your thumbs on top, which should be enough to keep your reins the same length.
Pulling back on your reins can be as obvious as someone hauling on the bit to stop a strong horse or as subtle as a rider riding ‘with the handbrake on’ slightly, not fully allowing the horse to seek the contact but rather keeping hold of the horse slightly.
Though you might think this habit would be limited to novices or riders on very strong, hot or naughty horses, that isn’t the case.
While it is often seen in those who are riding a very strong or downhill horse, or in those who are anticipating a horse being naughty, even very competent riders on relaxed and well-established horses can be guilty of ‘thinking backwards’ with the hand.
Your contact should be a guiding one. Think of the way you would hold a toddler’s hand as you lead them across a road. This is the combination of softness and firmness you want. Now, think of pushing a shopping trolley. Your hands remain in front of you as you pick up speed (by walking forwards).
If you were to be subconsciously pulling backward as you tried to walk around the shops, it would be very difficult for you! If you want to stop, you don’t abruptly pull back on the cart, because it would crash into your feet and/or upper body and likely, not stop the motion effectively anyway.
THINK ABOUT IT: You can guess where we’re going with this, but imagine your horse’s head and neck as the trolley and think about how you are always just going with the forward motion. Your hands should always be in the forward position encouraging the horse to work into the bridle from behind – remember the saying that your hand and lower arm belong to the horse, not you.
Aaah, the last major bugbear on our list is one of those position flaws which many riders overlook, but keeping straight wrists is paramount to establishing a good connection with your horse’s mouth. Good wrist alignment is what allows you to transmit those tiny little signals to your horse through your fingers.
Keeping your thumbs up and wrists straight allows you to maintain a straight line from the elbow to the bit.
PIANO HANDS: If you find yourself getting ‘piano hands’ then you can hold a riding crop or long whip under your thumbs, which will prevent you from turning your hands. It’s also harder to turn your hands downwards if your elbows are against your sides, so keep them relaxed and hanging by your waist.
HANDS IN: If you turn your hands in towards you (i.e. flexing your wrists outward) then a makeshift wrist splint could help. If it’s a habit that has formed because your horse is strong or unyielding, remember that breaking the line only breaks the contact and will not help you. Instead, teach the horse to yield his ribcage and his jaw to light pressure.
WRISTS UP: If you cock your wrists upwards (closing the angle between thumb and forearm), make sure your reins aren’t too long. This can be a natural reaction to not quite feeling the mouth because the reins aren’t short enough, so the wrist becomes cocked in order to try and take up some extra length.
Of course, all of the above tricks are just to help you get the correct feeling. It is then up to you to try and carry this over into your everyday riding and make it a habit.
Normally, you can only focus on one thing at a time, so don’t try to work on your elbows and your wrists simultaneously. Focus on one until it’s become second nature, and then focus on the next thing.
You will find that if your control over the different parts of your arm improves, you become more and more able to influence things precisely and your horse’s way of going will improve dramatically as a result.
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Text by Sophie Baker