How to Use the Hands
Our seat and legs create the energy, our hands fine tune that energy. The hands carry out a polite conversation with the horse through the reins, and should never force or pressure the horse into obedience. The reins should therefore be considered a tuning aid rather than a steering wheel.
Many riders practically ride with their hands. The weaker the seat, the stronger the hands. A deep, confident seat banishes the need of strong hands. We often hear instructors speaking of maintaining contact. But little do they speak of how to maintain contact. Contact may simply be defined as avoiding slack in the reins. With an advanced schoolmaster, the mere weight of the reins would be sufficient to maintain contact.
'Hard' hands transfers a heavy horse on the forehand into a very heavy horse on the forehand. Hard hands are hands that do not yield. Locking your wrists and elbows into one position disturbs the natural balance of the horse. You can force the horse into a nice outline with hard hands, but the horse will never be going forward with impulsion and elasticity. Only a few horses can be harassed onto the bit; most horses will rebel. The rebellion can be in the form of neck flexion, hollowing the back, and tossing the head high in the air, or it can be in the form of leaning and pulling on the rider's hands. This transforms a harmonious ride into a battle, with the horse most likely to win.
We often see horses
with the habit of leaning and pulling on the rider's hands, no matter
who the rider is. This habit was developed when the horse has learnt
from one rider that the hands cannot be trusted. But there is hope.
. . even this habit can be cured through sensitive and empathetic re-schooling.
So how is it possible
to achieve a good outline without abusing the horse's mouth? Just as
you allowed flexibility in your pelvis and seat, now allow flexibility
in the elbows, wrists, and fingers. Keep the contact light, not necessarily
through the weight of the reins alone, but keep the weight in your hands
to a minimum. 'Talk' to your horse through the reins, let your fingers
allow the horse to mouth the bit. Think of the bit as a lollipop in
the horse's mouth--he needs to move his jaw and his tongue in order
to taste it. If the bit is pulling against his tongue and lower jaw,
the lollipop will turn into an instrument of torture.
"Never pull on the reins and you will always have pleasant, manageable, horses that are easy to ride."
François Baucher, French horseman.
Mouthing the bit will allow the horse to salivate, making him lighter and softer in the hand. By 'talking' to your horse through the bit, finger the reins lightly. A simple, almost invisible, give and take with the fingers acts as though you were conducting a conversation of whispers with your horse. Be careful not to overdo it, otherwise the conversation may distract the horse from the main task. This sponging action on the reins can be done while hacking, walking, or taking a breather. It helps the horse to relax his jaw without anticipating the next movement.
When a horse pulls or leans on the rider's hands, the best action would be to ride more positively with the seat and legs. Bring your back a couple of degrees behind the perpendicular to strengthen to seat, and drive the horse forwards with your legs. Keep the hands light, even allow the horse to take the reins, but never pull back. Soon the horse will learn that he has nothing to fear of the bit in his mouth, and that he cannot let the rider carry his weight, rather he should carry his own weight.
The Right Position
Ideally, the upper arms and elbows should remain in the vertical line of gravity, comfortably resting by your sides. Carrying your upper arms and elbows in front of the vertical upsets the flow of gravity through the checkpoints. Imagine walking with your upper arms and elbows in front of you, as if you were pushing a supermarket trolley. Would you feel balanced? How about holding this position while jogging? The weight of your arms will drive you forwards. It is almost impossible to carry your arms in this manner on the horse without exerting a certain amount of pressure on the horse's mouth. While you're sitting down now, hold your arms in front of you as though you were pushing a supermarket trolley. How long can you maintain this position? Not too long without some kind of support, right? In the saddle, the reins act as a support for the arms.
It is more natural to carry your upper arms by your sides, after all, the classical riding is all about natural balance. Do not grip with your elbows because this will not allow freedom of the horse's jaw. Be sensitive in your fingers, and give with your elbows.
Many books stress the importance of maintaining a straight line from the elbows to the horse's mouth. This is very much true. Lowering the forearms too much makes it difficult to ease on the reins. A straight line from the elbows to the horse's mouth increases sensitivity both in your fingers and in the horse's mouth. Do not drop your wrists, or rotate your fists to face the ground. Keep your wrists aligned with your forearm and your thumbs at the top. The reason for this is that this position gives the greatest amount of 'feel' to both the horse and yourself. The slightest movement from your fingers will be felt by the horse, and vice versa. Aids will become more refined, and the ride will feel and look truly harmonious.
Do not clench your fingers into a fist. Instead, relax your fingers and keep them open. This way, a simple closing of the hand (combined with seat and leg aids) will be enough to perform a downward transition. The next section will deal with combining the back, seat, legs, and hands, to achieve different results with your horse.