As humans we depend greatly on our hands. Our arms and hands are our first line of defense for balancing ourselves in everyday life. Instinct can take over and force you to use your hands for balance. Hanging onto the reins for balance is not entirely the fault of your hands because the hands only come into play as other balance mechanisms fail. The problem is inevitably elsewhere. You will not be able to develop good hands if you are experiencing balance problems elsewhere because as a human you will use your hands for balance.
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 your horse’s mouth. Next time you are on board make a conscious decision to be aware of your arms.
Give Yourself a Cuddle
Feel your arms down by your sides and relax them from the shoulder. Notice when they are by your sides how much more ‘at one’ with your horse you feel. As soon as you start flapping those elbows you will feel the difference in your horse. Somehow, gently feeling your arms by your sides gives you a reassuring feeling of control, like giving yourself a cuddle!
This very small element of posture correction has been a hugely positive force in my riding. Feeling my arms by my sides gives me a sense of what is happening with my upper body. If I am leaning forwards or backwards I feel it with my arms. Countless riders have said me to say how this simple tip has revolutionised their riding and more importantly, their horse’s way of going.
You may not even realise it, but if your elbows are not lying softly by your side they are what I call “Flying Elbows”, they will not make you fly but you will look like you are trying to! So many riders hold tension in their arms and elbows, the trick is to feel your arms down by your sides and relax them from the shoulder. The sensation of feeling your arms gently against your side will automatically bend your elbows, give you soft shoulders and soft giving hands.
Communicating effectively with your horse is not just about the hands, it is the action of the arms that allow the hands to be ‘good.’ The irony is that if you have to think too much about what to do with your arms and hands they can be reactive and behind the motion. Combine tight shoulders, looking down, a collapsed tummy and tight hips with the aforementioned and you will realise why you are having problems schooling your horse.
Give An Inch Not A Mile
Nonsensically, developing non-thinking communication that instinctively does what is needed will take a lot of thought. Almost everyone, at some time, will have difficulty with how to use their hands. 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 your 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.
When we say ‘give’ we mean relax only, we do not mean throw the reins forward and ‘give’ them, the give is from the elbow, no more than an inch.
Many riders think they are riding with a really soft contact because they feel their hands are still and fingers are mobile. However, if from the neck down to the elbow is tight, as it is with most riders, then your horse will quickly learn to lean or pull against you. So, from the shoulder girdle, the upper arm should hang straight down by your side, to a well bent elbow. It is important to release all of the tension from the base of the neck, across the back of the shoulders, down the upper arm and out of the elbow.
- Climb aboard and before you begin work as yourself “Are my arms relaxed?”
- Feel your arms by your sides
- Relax them from the shoulder (shrug and release)
- Notice them by your sides
- Notice them when they move away from your sides.
Very, very simple self analysis that could have a really big impact on your riding. Go give it a go.
Have fun as always