“A good hand is the one that can resist and yield when necessary and receive with precision the action created by the legs.” - Salomon de la Broue

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photo

Have you ever watched someone riding in complete sync with their horse, and marveled at the way their hands somehow just floated in tandem with their equine partner, seemingly doing absolutely nothing?

Then, when you looked at the horse (which is the proof of the pudding) you saw the epitome of pleasure? You could almost see the smile on his face! While the rest of him floated along gracefully - ears flopping, body swinging, stride reaching - you knew there was no mistake: those hands were singing poetry in his horsey mind and he was relishing the moment!

Before you protest - I know! Riding ISN'T all about the hands! 🙂

We've discussed the critical dependency of all the aids on each other as well as the foundation of riding, the all-powerful seat. There is no such thing as just one aid that surpasses all others. The hands are just one aspect in all the puzzle pieces that must go together to make their own subtle contributions to the scene described above. There simply is no other way.

Having said that, as we are a hand-dependent species, and most of us pay entirely too much attention to what our hands are doing with the reins (and therefore to the horse's mouth), I thought we should peruse over the aspects of the hands of riders we admire.

What goes into developing the type of hands that all horses dream of?

1. Good hands wear gloves.

Let's face it - there is a reason for those riding gloves. Don't wear them only for their beauty! Good riding gloves allow for a subtler, finer grip on the reins. There is no slip and conversely, no stick. You can hold the reins with a firm grip when necessary and soften the grip in a moment's notice. Compare good gloves to good tires, and how much nicer your ride feels with better tires.

2. Good hands give.

I believe that learning to give in a way that is useful for the horse is one of the most difficult skills to learn. There is something indescribable about a good give - it's all about how it feels. Certainly, an onlooker will never be able to see a good give.

However, what will be clearly evident is the horse's reaction to the give - he rounds more, he flows more fluidly, his neck reaches forward (not the same thing as sticking up/down and out) and his strides become bolder.

3. Good hands don't give too much.

Aye, there's the rub. Hands that "throw away" the reins are doing a disservice to the horse, even if the rider thinks that letting the horse go is a good thing. An effective contact, whether on a long or short rein (and in a long or short body outline), is a support system to help the horse maintain his balance.

The very act of riding (weight of the rider and expected movements) changes the horse's natural equilibrium. Beyond that, our horse's natural balance is often something we want to purposely improve because he was born with less-than-perfect conformation. Therefore, if we let the horse "do his thing", he may be in fact off balance and resentful for it.

4. Good hands stay closed.

There is a reason why the hands should always stay closed in a soft but firm fist: the horse's mouth. From the moment they pick up the reins, the hands hold a responsibility for being kind and consistent to the horse's mouth. Any change in the hands translates to a change in the horse's mouth. Consistency is key in keeping the horse's attention and confidence.

5. Good hands are connected to upright forearms.

You've probably heard this one before: "Thumbs uuuppp!"

However, it's not really about the thumbs. It is about the forearms and the strength they project into the horse's mouth.

Take a look at this excellent diagram to see the thumbs up versus thumbs down position of the arms.

If your hands are thumbs up, the forearm bones are "supinated." That means the bones are parallel to each other. In this position, the arm has more strength and better fine motor ability.

If your hands are flat on the reins, the radius and ulna are "pronated." When the bones are twisted in this fashion, the muscles of the arm arm much less coordinated. Every action is harsher in the horse's mouth.

Good hands are constantly aware of the power they put into the horse's mouth, and work hard to avoid being abrupt.

6. Good hands support the body aids.

There are times that the hands need to support the aids coming from other parts of our body. Therefore, they need to be "clicked in" with the rest of the body so as to follow through what our body said - allow to move bigger, resist to hold together, close the outside and open the inside to reinforce a turn aid, etc. Basically, good hands know how to morph into the body and "become one" with the aids to present a unified feel to the horse.

7. Good hands are independent of the body aids.

As with everything horsey, the opposite must also be true! That is, good hands must also know how to be entirely independent of all the other aids. In this case, the hands choose to NOT follow the body aids - in fact, they may stay completely neutral, or even signal something else.



Consider the half-halt. The body says, "Go!"

But the hands say, "Put your energy over the back and into a rounder body outline."

8. Good hands play the piano.

If you've ever played the piano, you know what it feels like to lightly and delicately press on a key in order to influence a sound. You can press harder, softer, longer, shorter - you can even dance the fingers along the keyboard! So yes, good riding hands have fingers that do exactly that on the reins. They know what the horse needs when. The horse can count on those fingers for support when he needs it and for a freedom or sense of humor at other times.

9. Good hands don't think.

Thinking hands are slow, awkward, reactive. When the horse is in motion, thinking through what the hands need to be doing simply takes too long. You will always be behind the motion and reacting to what the horse has finished doing. Developing non-thinking hands that do what they need to do in the moment takes a lifetime and much concentrated work. But it is possible. And every horse you ride will be thankful for your efforts.

10. Good hands change little and often.

And this is why you cannot truly see good hands doing their thing. They are as much in a flow of movement as the rest of the body and the horse.

Good hands are working even when they appear to be still. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)

But they make small changes, stay consistent, and continuously keep up a conversation with the horse.

What do you think good hands do?

Please add to the list in the comments below.

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30 Comments

  1. Here’s a great video of Reiner Klimke schooling Biotop in Aachen. Pay special attention to the reinbacks somewhere around 2 1/2 minutes in to see some extremely subtle hand and leg aids! This video has commentary too, which is right on the money.

  2. I love this!! Well written and a great perspective as always!

    The only thing I wanted to say was about the “supinated” vs “pronated”. Functionally speaking the forearm is stronger is a supinated position (you stated the muscles being weaker in this position), however I agree that there is finer mobility possible in this position! In order to have that finer mobility you would need stronger biomechanical functioning- which would be possible by the stronger muscle function in the arm.

    Don’t mean to be picky but it’s been drilled into my head through my schooling so many times I had to mention it. 🙂 Again though, awesome post!!

    1. Thanks so much for the correction. I’ll go edit. I wonder then if the “flat handed” position (i.e. pronation) is maybe less coordinated or tends to bounce around more in the horse’s mouth… will do more research on that.

      1. I would say that is correct, yeah, because the muscles are placed in a less functional position making those fine movements less accurate. Anybody who tries riding flat handed and then in correct position would be able to notice the difference! You could also say the pronated position disrupts the fluidity of the arm through the reins to the mouth. The elbow isn’t able to flex as much when the forearm is pronated, which would theoretically cause more of a jarring motion through the horses mouth. If that makes sense!

      2. I doubt it. All you need to do is look at a pianist, incredible fine motor control and co-ordination with the hands pronated. Good hands FEEL, whatever position they may be in. Riding is dynamic. That’s my oppinion 🙂

      3. (I just realized I’m commenting on something that’s almost three years old, but I’m going to do it anyways as I feel very strongly about this!)

        Disclaimer: I do hope I haven’t mixed up my muscle names here, but I think the overall message still comes through 🙂

        I feel that the “thumbs up” forearm position allows for better use of your body through your arm to the reins.
        When you need to be strong and still you are able to use your triceps/ shoulder/ back muscles to keep your arm strong relative to your body, so your horse is not able to pull you out of your position or pull out of how you are positioning them, but you can maintain the softness through your bicep to still bend, supple, etc.

        I find riders who ride with flat hands tend to hold more with their bicep which makes you ride with a stiffer arm, more of a disconnect between various body parts, and promotes stiffness and resistance in your horse.

        The best example I can think of is a horse that gets strong and “locks their jaw” on the bit. You need to be so strong in your position so that you don’t get pulled forward, and to have any effect. BUT if you lock your arms (flat hands, locked bicep) they will just lean, pull, or lock down that much more. You need to be able to keep your position strong, your arm strong and “stuck” to your body (through tricep/ shoulder/ back) so that you can deliver a strong Whoa aid, but still be able to move at the elbow so you can get your horse soft and supple in your hand again.

  3. Good hands come from being able to ‘keep your elbows’. You can hug your hips at the walk, if you have a following seat, and your hands will follow every movement the horse makes. Ride/post through them at the trot; don’t hug with them. Hug again at the canter.
    Try hugging your hips, now, with your elbows and just stride around the room with elbows at ninety degrees, as if riding. Your hands follow your hips left and right and slightly up and down as your hips follow your knees which, if on a horse, follow the horse’s barrel.
    If you can’t ‘keep your elbows’ while riding, it means you are out of balance. Balance is attained with correct use of stomach muscles. Your head, shoulders and legs should just hang. Incorrect Tension in any of these areas is because your are trying to balance incorrectly.
    IMHO

  4. I would like to add a correction to your use of terminology in this article. I suspect you have mis-interpreted the meaning of the use of the word supine (as suggested in the diagram in # 5 ‘Good Hands are conected to upright forearms’).
    You are correct that pronation defines hands with the palm facing downward. Therefore, hands which are pronated would be flat (ie thumbs facing inward or medially). In pronation, the radius crosses over the ulna as the hand rotates so that the palm faces downward; it is possible that the biomechanical result of this position as you suggest is a less than optimal muscle cooridination.
    Yet, the anatomical definition of supine denotes, palms up. It is true the ulna and radius lay parallel to one another if we hold our reins with our thumbs up..but this is not a ‘supine’ position. Although the radius and ulna are parallel in the supine position, our palms would face upwards resulting in our thumbs facing outward (or laterally)..resulting in a less than optimal position to cue our horses through our hands via the reins.

  5. I love your blog even though I am a western rider and instructor I have also ridden english in the past. Dressage facinates me especially western dressage and I can see many tips here that I could use training riders in general to be better at what they do. Some things won’t fit in western, for example what you say with hands, thumbs and upright forearms. In western I find hands need to be consistantly forgiving so something we will do is have our riders squeeze a nerf ball in each hand for a while for strengthening but also to help them get a feel for softness. Then we will try actually milking a cow or goat because if you do not use correct pressure you won’t get milk and you may get kicked. Also, helping people to understand forgiving hands by imagining they are holding a butterfly in their hands while riding. We want to ride our horses with finger tips, elbows relaxed at our sides with very little pull or movement. All the talking comes from the hands, wrists and fingers, till eventually it isn’t needed anymore and you are bridleless.

  6. Thumbs and Little Fingers are in the Details… As a trainer, I focus a great deal on the rider’s hands/upper arms/softening of the shoulders… And in a soft thumb lightly tented at the tip of the thumb onto the bight of the rein. And the need to keep the little finger closed to stabilize the horse and not drop the contact. Softness coming through giving minutely or to the degree you would like through HAS (Hands/Arms/Shoulders) but by not opening the fingers… Would so love an article on this to share with my peeps!

  7. At last ! Plain English – no mystery – the facts plain and simple ! You have ” unknotted ” forty years plus of being told this and that and being expected to put into practice sometimes to the detriment of the horse unfortunately !

  8. I think that the function of the elbows in the description of a following “hand” should be mentioned as well. Many people think of the “hand” in riding as the part of the limb holding the reins. The only joints that can give there are the ones that open the fingers or break at the wrist, neither of which is appropriate.

  9. Excellent article! Wish I could find an easier way to convey this to my lesson students! Good hands hold a conversation with the horse, not an argument. I also believe the a good seat first is a requirement to learning good hands.

  10. Your article on hands is excellent. Very clear and understandable and should be read by beginners and professionals alike. Well done!

  11. I absolutely agree with your explanation of the importance of thumbs up. However, many good instructors explain thumbs turned in as “piano hands” which would be a source of confusion to the student. Perhaps another way of expressing the importance of fine tuning the fingers while the arms are in a correct position would be more appropriate? How would you describe the use of the wrist? Is it ever appropriate?BTW I think you are doing the equestrian community a great service by trying to clarify the explanations of the use of the aids!

  12. Great Article! In order for the upper body to be connected to the seat (core), the upper arm needs to be flat against the body. For example (and not to be judgmental) you’ll see most hunter riders with short reins and straight, almost locked arms which takes away from the seat being effective and actually makes for a rather unsecure position. (I demonstrate this to my students by being able to easily pull them forward out of the saddle with the reins. Then the student hugs their side and points the tailbone down and then I can’t pull them forward–they are stronger in their seat w/o the use of bicep muscles) By having the thumbs on top, it rolls the upper arm naturally into the body–try it-piano hands, then switch to thumbs on top. In this position, the hands/arms can follow the horses movements better and make more subtle adjustments. And you are right…it’s all about feel, which is very difficult to teach. One must practice practice practice to “get it”.

  13. Good article.
    I do not comepletely agree with #3 however. I believe the horse should not “balance” on the rein. Überstreichen and decent de mane are two examples of teaching the horse to “self carry”. Too many horses these days are allowed or taught to LEAN on the bit and the rider SUPPORTS them. The poll should be loose and the jaw chewing, hard to do if they are leaning on it for support, or being “held” in a frame.
    I love the cliche’ “the horse should SEEK the bit but never FIND it”.

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