Whatever discipline you favor, an early lesson we all get in good horsemanship is the importance of “good hands.”
This is about more than the dramatic (egregious sawing, yanking, or pulling on the horse’s mouth) and actually is far more focused on the subtleties of how the rider’s hands can directly affect the carriage of the horse’s head and the placement of the horse’s feet.
In their book Dressage the Cowboy Way, Cowboy Dressage founder Eitan Beth-Halachmy and veterinarian Dr. Jenni Grimmett team up to discuss conscientious steps to training the horse using what they term “Soft Feel” and kindness. Here’s their insight when it comes to your hands.
The hands are like the vowels of our alphabet in this language we are creating with our horse. In the beginning, when starting a young horse, instruction can hardly exist without them. The hands provide a direct communication to one of the most sensitive parts of the horse. Because the hands are the first aid used on most occasions, they are almost always the most overused. Speaking only with your hands to your horse is the equivalent of addressing an audience using caveman-like grunts and rough gestures. The consonants that create the intricacies of language are missing and we can only drag our horses around in basic maneuvers. But, though they are very basic, they are also very important.
The hands function to initiate direction in the horse as well as head placement. The hands can directly affect lateral flexion and vertical flexion through contact with the middle of the bit. In raising and lowering the hand, the rider can raise and lower the head by changing the rein weight on the bit, to the top or bottom of the snaffle. It is the change in rein weight rather than bit pressure that eventually creates the desired head placement and carriage within the frame. Each hand should act independently of the other until refinement of cues has taken place.
The rider encourages the horse to look to the hand by creating contact outward toward the inside of the bend. While an open hand initiates lateral flexion, the hand must not stay open into the circle once the bend is initiated or the rider’s weight will fall to the inside of the circle. The rider initiates the lateral bend, then the hand is brought into closer proximity to the shoulder, as it is the shoulder you ultimately wish to communicate with.
As the horse and rider advance in the understanding of their communication, your hands will speak directly to the front feet through the horse’s shoulders. You can influence the direction and flight of the forehand through proper application of the rein aids with the timing of the front feet.
Independent use of the hands can prove to be quite as challenging for new riders as rubbing your stomach and patting your head. The hands need to communicate with the horse one side at a time to help the horse learn balance and bend. When you create contact on the middle of the bit asking the horse to bend, the outside hand must release rein, allowing the horse the freedom to bend without running into the bit.
Effective use of the hands on the reins is essential for the development of Soft Feel. Light and soft hands are the goal of each rider. When riding two-handed in a snaffle bit, your hands provide a direct connection to the bit. Tension in your hands, arms, neck, or torso can be transferred inadvertently to the horse. Keeping your arms and shoulders free of tension is imperative for effective communication. The hands and fingers should have a firm but soft hold on the reins. Giving the horse release from a command or directive may be conveyed by simply relaxing the fingers on the rein. The fingers need to remain alive and in constant minute conversation with the horse. Therefore, soft contact with the horse is essential for the development of Soft Feel through the bit. If we ride on a too long and loose rein, we give up the subtle communication between horse and rider, making all the adjustments through the bit conveyed unclearly, kind of like the child’s game of “String Telephone”—the horse with a “cup” on one end and you with a “cup” on the other. Much of the conversation is lost in the transfer. While we want to develop softness through our contact, we do not want to give all that important contact away.
The position of the rider’s hands is entirely dependent on the horse. The rider’s hands will raise and lower with the horse’s head, frame, and gait. There is no “box” or proper hand position in Cowboy Dressage. Instead, keep your hands soft and light on the reins in a position that allows you the best communication with your horse. The most important thing to remember about your hands in your riding is to use them lightly. Remember, the hands are your vowels in this language you are building. Very important and part of every word we use, but too much of a good thing muddles the words and creates white noise. Keep the noise in your hands quiet!
This excerpt from Dressage the Cowboy Way by Eitan Beth-Halachmy and Jenni L. Grimmett, DVM was used by permission from Trafalgar Square Books.