For this weeks lessons the focus is going to be on hands. Hands are one of the key components for communication with the horse. Improperly held/used can cause miscommunication, and at worst can cause unjust pain to the horse.
The idea of bit communication is not to cause pain, but rather a tool to communicate. I like to compare it to holding someone’s hand to stay together in a crowd, or to guide a blind person. You don’t want to yank the person’s hand to guide them (unless they are in danger!), but nor do you want such a weak contact they aren’t really sure what you want.
The two biggest issues I see are hands that are held to open, and hands that are allowed to get flat.
Open hands are an issue for a few reasons. The main one is that they create an inconsistent contact with the horse. A horse tends to learn to protect itself from this inconsistent contact by carrying a stiffer jaw and resisting this type of contact. There is also the risk that if the horse pulls the reins will slip, and the horse will then learn to pull to get a release/reward! Finally, a rider that rides consistently with open hands won’t learn proper feel as the reins will be held along the fingers and not along the palm as we want.
Flat hands are an issue as this twist the bones of the forearm and slows the feel and reaction time of the rider’s hand and arm. It also pulls the reins away from the neck, so you lose the added cue for the horse of the feeling of the rein against the neck.
Hands should ideally be held at a slight angle, similar to the angle of the horse’s shoulders. The thumbs should be folded over the top of the reins and make a roof holding the rein. The knuckle of the thumb should be pointed at the horse’s ears, and the hands should be about as far apart as the horse’s ears. The fingers should be bent in a loose fist, with the reins against the palm of the hands. The fist should not be tight like you are trying to strangle the reins, but should be tight enough that if magically turned into hamsters, you would not let them squirm free!
Holding your hands only as wide as the horse’s ears, means the reins will be against both sides of the horse’s neck when the horse is straight. This is important, as you want the horse to feel when the rein comes away so it learn to listen to this cue! The issue is that this pull of the reins tends to make riders want to allow their hands to get flat…you need to get used to this feeling and keep the reins against the neck unless you want to turn or flex their neck!
Now if you want to increase the pressure against the neck, it is important you don’t cross the hand over the neck as you will twist your body and be off balance. Instead turn your hand so your pinky twists closer to the neck. This will bring the rein against the neck without twisting the body.
If you wish to use the rein to encourage flexion/turning of the head and neck, it will have to come away from the neck, but you don’t have to exaggerate this movement) unless you are schooling flexions). Just move your hand enough that the rein is off the neck…if more is needed it needs to come from your LEG. Don’t exaggerate hands to make up for weak leg!
When jumping, it is additionally important the hands stay together as we want the horse to be quite straight through their neck and body so they approach the jump in balance. It can help to think of neck reining (using outside rein to steer) more than pulling to steer. At the jump the reins should follow either the crest of the neck (forward and slightly up) to release, or follow down towards the horse’s mouth. There is no reason to lift the reins UP and away from the neck on the approach or at the jump. The release MUST be along/beside the neck.
So to work on this we will have some turning exercises as well as a grid! I might have a “tool” to help remind people to hold their thumbs up and hands close as well…