I remember as a child thinking that being told that you had good hands as a rider was the ultimate compliment. It was certainly something I dreamed of being told. Of course, as riders we all want good hands, I mean who wants to be told that their hands are bad or harsh? But what in fact is meant by the term “good hands,” and more importantly how can we know if we have them or if we haven’t got them, what can we do to achieve them?
Basically good hands are those that are totally independent of the seat. They are able to maintain a light contact with the horse’s mouth and coordinate with the primary aids (weight or leg) for transitions, turns and changes of pace. Conversely, bad hands are hands that are used to maintain balance, pull backwards, or are hard or uneven (when one hand is more dominant than the other. Many riders think that hardly holding the reins at all make good hands, but this isn’t true. Whilst light hands don’t disturb the horse or cause damage to the mouth or nose (if you’re riding bitless) they lack clarity and can’t support or help the horse find balance. Good hands should influence the horse’s balance, carriage and movement when minute changes of pressure on the reins are used in conjunction with other primary aids.
Obviously our hands are attached through the arms to our body and if our body isn’t right then our hands won’t be either. To obtain good hands there are 3 pre-requisites that are essential for the rider; a) a strong core, b) an independent seat and c) correct postural alignment.
Without a strong core you can’t have an independent seat, and without an independent seat you can’t have good hands. The core isn’t just a sixpack, it is the whole corset of muscles between your torso and your seat that support your spine. Doing Pilates on a regular basis is a great way to strengthen the core as all the movements initiate from the powerhouse (core).
The next prerequisite for good hands is an independent seat, a seat that is secure and supple enough so you don’t bounce as the horse moves, but are able to move with him. An independent seat allows you to maintain your balance throughout transitions (and spooks) without having to use your hands to stay on.
Finally, you need good alignment, so that you are able to sit in balance with your shoulders aligned over your hips and heels. Looking down, rounding or hollowing the back puts the shoulder blades in a stiff, forced and awkward position, which causes tension in the shoulders and consequently in the arms and hands (and not to mention in the horse). Our upper arms should fall from our “shoulder girdle” – which includes the shoulder blades, collarbones, and shoulder joints – with our lower arms forming a straight line between our elbows and our horse’s mouth. The shoulder and elbow joints are the major shock absorbers between the rider’s body and the horse’s mouth. Consequently, straight arms actually cause hard hands.
Modern lifestyles encourage the muscles in the front of our chest to become shorter and tighter than those in our upper back. When these muscles are too tight or overused, they cause us to round our shoulders and collapse our chest. Humans are also natural “grabbers” so it is common for riders to use their biceps and the muscles in their forearms when asking for a downward transition. However the muscles we should use are those that stabilize the shoulders and back.
Whilst obtaining good hands can be a lifetime journey we can speed up that journey by working on our bodies off the horse. Here are two exercises that will help strengthen the muscles we need to use in our upper back and shoulders and create a great awareness of the positioning of our shoulder blades.
Shoulder roll—Lift your shoulders up toward your ears, roll them back and release them down behind your ribs. Do this several times with your elbows bent as if you were holding reins. As your shoulders and elbows drop, your elbows become “heavy,” your back feels strong and solid, and your hands come into a good position with thumbs on top. This will help fix “elbows out” and “piano hands.”
Dumb waiter – Bend your arms so that you form a right angle at the elbow and bring your forearms in front of you, palm upwards – as though you were a waiter holding a tray on each hand. Now open your forearms to the side, keeping your upper arms by your side. You should feel your shoulder blades drop down and your chest open. Close your forearms to the starting position. Repeat 10 times. This will help fix rounded shoulders.
When you release your shoulders, your shoulder girdle finds its correct positioning and your arms can then move freely at the shoulder joints, making it easier to follow your horse’s head and neck. To halt, or if a horse pulls against you, engage your core and let your arm pits drop downwards, thinking “heavy elbows.” At the same time, exhale. This will help stabilize your seat and stop you pulling backwards.
The actual angle of your elbows depends on how high your horse’s head carriage is. Ideally, as already mentioned, there should be a straight line from the horse’s mouth along the rein, through your hand, wrist and forearm to your elbow. This means the bit acts “neutrally” with neither up nor down pressure. If your hands are higher, the line is broken upward which puts the pressure up into the corners of the horse’s lips. If your hands drop below the ideal line, the pressure is downward against the tongue and bars of the horse’s mouth, which makes a jointed mouthpiece “break” over the lower jaw with a sharp angle, causing severe pressure. You will of course need to adjust your hand position if your horse raises or lowers his head.
The wrist should be straight, never bent inward or backward, and not tipped up or down. Hold your wrist as if you were shaking hands—straight but relaxed, with the edge of the wrist up. Some riders ride with “piano hands”—with the knuckles up, as if playing the piano. This causes the two long bones of the forearm (ulna and radius) to cross, making the wrist and elbow stiff. Unfortunately bad habits can be hard to break, so if you have a tendency to ride with piano hands, or if your hands go up and down when you do a rising trot, here is a fun exercise to help fix the problems.
Sit on a Swiss (or gym) Ball with a riding crop in your hands. Rest the stick over the top of your index fingers and place your thumbs on top of the stick. Rest your hands (little finger downwards) on your thighs. Your hands should be about 5 or 6 inches apart and your feet should be a hip width apart. Your knees should be at right angles with your feet in line with your knees. Start gently bouncing on the ball, trying to keep the contact between your pinkie fingers and your thigh. Play around with increasing the tempo and practice sudden stops by engaging your core, sitting tall and thinking heavy elbows.
Riders are often told to squeeze the reins when asking a horse to halt, slow down, turn or flex at the poll, but a long, hard squeeze encourages a horse to brace. There is a method of squeezing softly that I find can work well. Hold your reins in a soft fist, with your fingertips lightly touching the palm and your thumb resting on the rein. Now imagine that you have a dab of saddle soap on the ball of your thumb; press the ball of your thumb down and forward on the rein, as if you were smearing the saddle soap toward the horse’s mouth. This produces a progressive squeeze of all four fingers without pulling backward. Ideally this should be done with just one hand.