I have just returned from a brilliant clinic given by Tom Nagel (author of Zen & Horseback Riding). During the clinic he asked us (his students) if we were pullers or pushers and went on to describe how in Zen philosophy one strives for balance in life, so that pullers and pushers both become a little of each.
One of the first questions he asked us when introducing this subject was whether we pushed or pulled the steering wheel when we drove. At that stage I realised I was both, when I am comfortable and confident in my driving, I push – but take me out of my comfort zone (poor driving conditions, in a busy town, or driving abroad) and I became a puller. The more I thought about this concept, the more I realised it applied to my riding too. I know that as riders we should have forward giving hands (not backwards) but the more I analysed what I do, I realised that in a moment of crisis my immediate reaction is still to close my fingers tighter and thus become a puller!
Hands are so important when we ride. We need them to be soft and giving with neither one firmer than the other. Most of us have one hand that is stronger than the other as sessions on PI prove and therefore it our responsibility to ensure that our hands are as equal as possible. We also need to ensure that we follow the movement of the horse’s head with our hands and not the movements of our body. Of course one can ride around with totally loose reins but if we haven’t got contact with our horse’s mouth we can miss out on subtle communication from our horse. Our reins can tell us with a slight pulse when a hind leg is touching the ground or whether our horse is carrying tension in his jaw or poll.
The FEI Dressage rules (Article 418) state “the hands should be carried steadily close together. With the thumb as the highest point and a straight line from a supple elbow through the hand to the horse’s mouth. The elbows should be close to the body. All of these criteria enable the athlete to follow the movements of the horse smoothly and freely”.
Certainly we want our thumbs to be the highest point and not point inwards but all too frequently when we hold our hands so that our thumbs are uppermost our elbows become rigid and as such we inadvertently restrict the movement of the horses head.
If one looks at photos of excellent riders you will see that although their thumbs are still on top, the actual thumb tilts forward in the direction of the horse’s mouth. When we do this our elbows soften and we can automatically push energy towards the horse’s head and follow the head movement.
I found the best way to obtain this position was to imagine that I was pouring tea from a teapot with each hand. When I did this I became far softer and subtler in my hands. I became a true pusher. And if I need to use the reins to brake, all I need to do is to stop pouring tea with one hand!