Your hands are an aid in your riding. So understanding why the way you hold your reins and how to judge the height of your hands when riding is important. And realizing how much your hand aids are impacting and affecting your riding can change everything.
As riders, one of the first things we learn is how to ‘hold’ the reins. However, often the ‘why’ behind all of this is never really explained to us.
Your Hands Connect
So, it’s obvious that your hands are the connection between you and your horse’s mouth through the reins. And it would be an awful pity if that connection ended there! As riders, one of our greatest responsibilities is to refine communication.
When you refine your hands and how you use them with your horse, you can truly help to enhance the whole conversation between you and your horse.
So just like with all of your aids, a great place to begin when refining your hands is their position. Being in the ‘right place’ will allow you to give more precise aids to your horse. And when we can create more clarity in our communication, it shows in our riding.
What to Aim for with Your Hands
Before we go any further it is worth mentioning that each horse and rider combination is a unique and individual blend. However, there are a number of basic guidelines you can follow to really begin refining your hand aids. And of course, develop better contact and connection with your horse.
Thumbs on Top
This is one of those really small details that makes a MASSIVE difference to your riding. Holding the reins while in the saddle should feel like carrying two cups of tea (or coffee, hot chocolate, etc.). If you were to carry the cups or mugs with your knuckles on top, there wouldn’t be anything left to drink when you finally go to take a sip.
A great experiment is to literally pretend you’re riding and both carry your hands with your thumbs on top. Your hands will be around your belly button height in front of you. Now, from this place, turn your wrists so that your knuckles are on top. And feel the difference down and through your arms.
Turning your hands so that your knuckles or the back of your hand is on top will create instant tension down through your arms. When riding, this tension is passed through the reins to your horse’s mouth. Not good!
Side View – Elbow, Wrist, Thumb, Rein, Mouth
The first thing to look for is a relatively straight line from your elbow to your horse’s mouth when viewed from the side. Now, I get that this can be difficult to really ‘see’ when you’re the one riding the horse! However, if you don’t have mirrors, there are other options available. Review some photos or videos of yourself while riding.
The important thing to note here is that this ‘line’ should be there regardless of what gait you’re working in, or what moment of that gait your horse is currently in when the photo was captured.
This will indicate if your hands are truly fluid, elastic, and supple. Your ability to ‘follow’ your horse or ‘stay with’ your horse through your hand aids is vital to really developing true and lasting contact.
Overhead View – Wrist, Thumb, Rein, Mouth
This second ‘view’ is one you can do all the time when riding. The key is to ‘glance’. Not LOOK! Looking will create a whole host of other habits that you don’t want to fall into habits with! Okay, so to check this you will, as you ride your horse, glance down at your hands.
Notice how straight the line is from your wrist through to your thumb and then on down the reins to your horse’s mouth. If you notice any ‘curling’ or ‘twisting’ simply straighten things out.
This particular ‘line’ is very much dependent on your thumbs being ‘on top’ as you ride. If your hands have turned so that your knuckles are on top (like riding a motorbike) or your fingernails are on top, revert back to thumbs on top. It will look and feel like you’re carrying two cups of tea :)
If Your Hands Are Too Low
This is the most common challenge I see with riders when it comes to their hands. Riders are trying to work their horses and improve the overall way of going, but literally ‘blocking’ their success! Riding with your hands too low can be caused by a few different things. Often it is a habit that was created due to holding onto the pommel or a neck strap.
Another reason riders tend to carry their hands too low comes down to a lack of understanding regarding contact and ‘on the bit’.
Many riders feel that when they lower their hands and then apply pressure quickly from each alternative rein, their horse will magically go ‘on the bit’. And yes, the horse might tuck their head in to try and get away from the discomfort of the rider’s hands. But this is definitely not being ‘on the bit!’.
Hands that are too low can be corrected by simply bending the elbows and ‘carrying’ the hands more. Doing this will allow for greater elasticity and suppleness. Both are essential for correct contact.
If Your Hands Are Too High
This is, thankfully, not as common as the low hands. And I say thankfully because this particular habit can often lead to a lot of needless discomfort for the horse. High hands really change how the bit interacts with your horse’s mouth – and usually not in a great way. Especially if not intentionally done.
I think the big reason riders can develop this habit is due to a lack of balance. Very often, when the rider carries their hands too high to be effective as an aid, they are doing so to try to either remain balanced – or stay on!
Excess tension in the rider’s body due to nerves or fear can cause them to raise their hands higher than what would be normal when riding. The irony of doing this is that the horse usually becomes hollow through the back, which causes the rider to experience more bumps, wobbles, and bangs as the horse moves.
If Your Wrists Are ‘Twisted’
This is when you ‘glance down’ (important to emphasize – we are not LOOKING; just glancing) and you see that the line from your lower arm to the rein is not straight. This lack of straightness can vary from anything like a slight ‘kink’ to a complete ‘lightning bolt’ shape! True story! The key to changing this is to first identify it.
If you glance down and things are less than straight, focus on thinking about your lower arm (hand to elbow) as being an extension of the rein. Then just ‘straighten’ that rein out.
By creating that ‘straightness’ from the elbow, through the wrist and thumb, and then onto the rein, you create clarity with your questions. Clarity with your aids. This issue often comes up when a rider doesn’t want to necessarily ‘pull’, but they still feel the need to apply a lot of pressure with their hands. It can be a difficult habit to break, but one that is worth persevering with.
If Your Knuckles Are On Top
Ohhhh, this is something I personally resonate with. I spent a couple of years doing ‘work riding’ for a racing yard. This was coupled with teaching and actively eventing. It did not all blend well. I’m pretty sure that there are so many riders who can make this work – and let’s be honest, I did at the time. But if I knew then what I know now… A completely different approach would have been taken!
For me, this particular habit developed in my left hand. I’m right dominant, so perhaps this was the reason? Either way, it became a MASSIVE issue for me later in my riding.
My left hand would just, on its own, revert to ‘knuckles on top’ when riding. This, obviously, affected the contact between me and, well, any horse! And yet, it took me quite a few ‘seasons’ in my riding for this to be noticed. And a far few longer for it to be corrected!
Trust me; knuckles on top changes EVERYTHING between you and your horse when riding. From how you move your arm, to how it feels in his mouth… EVERYTHING
If you find yourself with this habit, one or both hands (mind was just the left hand), focus on this first. Think of carrying cups of tea and not allowing an ounce to fall… There is a certain way we move our bodies when we’re carrying cups of tea (or whatever). If we put that same fluidness into our riding… #Winning!
Your Hands as Your Aids
We connect with our horses on so many levels. Our legs, our seats, our hands, our mood, our attitude, our intentions, our focus… And on and on it goes. Yet, if we don’t develop our hand aids past what we learn in that very first lesson, we are doing both ourselves and our horse a disservice
Your hands are your connection to something your horse NEEDS; his mouth
His mouth is an absolutely essential part of his health, life, and experience every single day. So it makes sense to spend time refining this aid… Maybe to the point where it becomes ‘feather light’ and ‘feather soft’.
And in between, do all you can to remove any excess tension will definitely help :)
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