The rider holds tight to the reins, pulling backward, providing little give and take through the arms, elbows and shoulders. The tension radiates through the rider's body to create a tight back, an unmoving seat, and clinging legs.
The horse may or may not have a tightness to the neck, but because of the pull on the reins, there is little opportunity for him to balance using his head and neck. His strides are short, his back may be hollow and he is likely on the forehand.
The rider lets the reins out to the point of creating a "loop". There is no contact with the mouth, other than at points of time when the rider needs to communicate something: stop, turn or downward transition.
The horse's neck and body is l-o-n-g and strung out. Hind legs are stepping out behind the horse's croup. This horse is also probably on the forehand and hollow in the back but for completely the opposite reasons.
So whether it is a perpetually pulling hand or an occasionally rough, abrupt hand, you must know that every time you use your hands improperly, you are assuring your horse shortened usefulness and an unhappy life. - Charles de Kunffy, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage, p. 60
There is no doubt that there is more to riding than just what the hands are doing. We already know that the seat, legs and hands together are actors in the same performance and must work in combination. But for the purposes of explanation, let's do an in-depth analysis of the role of the hands.
The scenes above demonstrate the extremes of what can be done with the reins: too much contact versus not enough contact. You've probably watched both types of riders at different times, or maybe you've explored or experienced both ends of the pendulum yourself.
Eventually, with enough experience, we learn that neither technique represents an exclusive path to effective riding. As with so many other things in life, we need to find the happy medium.
1. Find the correct placement of your hands and arms. Your elbows should have a nice soft almost "L" bend in them and hang in line with your body. Your hands should be in front of the pommel, no more than four inches higher, forward, sideways or backward (we call this the four-inch box).
2. Your hands cannot move backward from the box. In other words, you won't pull back and your elbows won't go back past your body line.
3. Your hands cannot move past the front of the box. In other words, you won't push the reins ahead or open your elbows so that your arms straighten.
4. Your hands can give and take within the four-inch parameters of the box - but the catch is that the give and take comes from your elbows, not your fingers! The rein length should not change during the give or take (although you may need to readjust your rein length from time to time if the reins slip through your fingers or you intentionally want to lengthen or shorten them).
Keep your reins short enough to allow you to provide support instantly, but also long enough to allow for the horse's level of training and muscle development.
And that's it! From here, you can ride as usual from the seat and legs, and reinforce your aids with the hands.
If the horse pulls, you resist with a bracing from your elbows and seat. But you don't pull back.
If you want to give a release, only slightly open your elbows to create a little space forward in the horse's mouth so he feels a supported freedom (i.e. not thrown away) to move into that space. Do not lengthen the reins out or straighten your elbows.
The give and take should be so invisible that only you and the horse know it happened. Anything bigger and the horse's balance will be affected. Ideally, you should alternate between a give and take as needed depending on the horse's balance and the movement being performed.
Do you have any other tips for finding the space between the give and take? Comment below.
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If you enjoyed the above article, you might also like to read:
From a Whisper to a Scream: How Loud Should Our Aids Really Be? Should we be “loud” in our aids, or should we be working as softly as we can in hopes that our horse can respond to lighter and more refined aids?
Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.
How to Halt Without Pulling on the Reins: There is a way to get your horse to stop without pulling on the reins.
Stepping “Forward” in Horse Riding: The term ‘forward’ is used liberally in horse riding but is often misunderstood.