You may have a great seat, terrific legs and soft hands but does the one who really matters think so … your horse?
Stop for a minute and think about what you are doing with your hands. The reins are an extension of your arms, the bit runs through the horse’s MOUTH! From the moment you pick up the reins you become responsible for being kind and consistent with your hands. Be aware of the power that your hands have over the horse’s mouth, and be conscious to avoid being harsh. Ensure your hands are closed in a soft but firm fist to avoid unnecessary communications.
The irony is that if you have to think too much about what to do with your hands they can be reactive and behind the motion. Developing non-thinking hands that instinctively do what they need to do will take a lot of effort, but it is really, really worth it. Almost everyone, will have difficulty with how to use their hands at some point.
Learning to give in a way that is valuable to your riding is a real skill. Done correctly an onlooker would never be able to see you give. However, they would clearly see the horse’s reaction to the give as he becomes rounder and softer and strides out.
All too often riders think that a give is a ‘throw away’ of the rein contact. It is not, it is a softening of the hand. Known as the ‘Descente de main’ in classical riding, the give is essentially to stop actively using the hand.
“Descente de main: the rider opens his fingers and the horse has to maintain the same gait, the same posture, and the same cadence.” N.Oliveira (1998, 30).
Consider also whether your hands are ‘tuned-in’ to the rest of your body. You are asking to extend, collect, turn – are your hands working in conjunction with the rest of your body and offering him a truly connected question and response?
Addressing the issues …
- It is not just about the hands, it is the action of the arms that allow the hands to be ‘good’.
- Thumbs should be on top to keep the wrists straight. Notice on the picture how straight wrists means hands that are angled towards each other and give the appearance of being slightly rounded, because the back of the hand is on the same straight line as the arm.
- As humans we depend greatly on our hands. Our arms and hands are our first line of defence for balancing ourselves in everyday life. Instinct can take over and force you to use your hands for balance.
- Often using your arms and hands to fix a problem or to accomplish your goal is so instinctive that you don’t even realise that this is the very thing that is the cause of the problem. Instinct is very powerful, as is habit – the combination of instinct and habit will result in the over-use of the hands. You need to make the habit a good one … INSTALL A NEW HABIT
- Sometimes it is the overly aggressive use of the reins that is the problem and once a rider understands that they cannot force a horse to do something with excessive rein aids the problem is halfway solved.
- Hanging onto the reins for balance is not entirely the fault of the hands. The hands only come into play as other balance mechanisms fail. The problem is elsewhere. You will not be able to develop good hands if you are still having problems elsewhere.
- If you are having issues with heels coming up and ankles being tense, you will also be having problems with your hands.
- If your lower back is stiff and unable to flex the movement has to come out somewhere, usually the hands.
- If your shoulders are rigid, guess what … problems with hands.
Unfortunately, I am unable give you any useful exercises to help you with your hands. What you need to do is look at the overall picture, find the ‘root cause’ of the problem and address it. You as a rider will never be able to develop good hands if you are unable to support them with a great seat and terrific legs and be in complete harmony with the horse, which in turns leaves the hands completely independent.
Try not to be frustrated if your hands have a mind of their own! Quite often it is a mental problem, you may not even realise that you have set your hands and arms, simply making a conscious effort to soften the arms and keep the joints supple and flexible can correct this.
The goal is to maintain a smooth, elastic and quiet communication regardless of what your horse is doing.
Patricia – The Dressage Tipster