More on Using Your Hands
You learned in lesson 1 the basic position for holding the reins, with your
elbows bent and your hands two inches directly above the withers and four
inches apart. A straight line should run from your elbows, through your
wrist, to the horse's mouth.
But there's much more to learn about hand position and controls. Your
hands determine about one-third of your control over a horse. You must be
able to keep them still and prevent them from bouncing. One way to do this
is to hold your shoulders back and down. Most people with bouncing hands
either have a violently bouncing seat or carry their shoulder pinched up. (If
the latter, your shoulder muscles will hurt).
Hold your hands so that your fingernails point toward your stomach, and
keep them more open than closed. Most people try to hold the reins in their
hands by forming a fist, but if you tighten up your fingers on the reins, you
tighten your forearms and then your back, causing your hands to bounce.
What holds the reins in your hands is the pressure between your thumbs
and forefingers. From your index finger down, each successive finger is
graded out just a tiny bit more.
Many instructors consider Arabians too "hot," or on the fast and frisky side,
for use as school horses. Watergate is unusual, however. He's especially
well behaved and calm, and he knows the class routine better than most
instructors. He's a star among school horses.
Although on the smallish side, in the field he's definitely a herd leader.
(He's one of the horses that terrorizes Tiki). Another horse had better not
try to eat his pile of hay.
Under saddle, Watergate moves forward easily, but he demands that riders
give him very clear instructions.
Progression of Hand Aids
The action of closing your hands on the reins is an aid.
Like all the other aids, hand aids can be used in a progression.
The following are listed in ascending order of severity:
1. Press your thumbs against your index fingers.
2. If no response: Align your fingers straight up and down.
(Pull your bottom fingers in line with your index finger).
3. If no response: Close your fingers around the reins. (make a fist).
4. If no response: Close your wrists. (Cock them in slightly).
5. If no response: Bring your hands in toward your body,
working from your elbows.
6. If no response: Pull your hands straight back, using your whole arm.
As with any other aids, if you resort to the harshest hand aid first, you've
lost any fine control you might otherwise have by using them progressively.
Generally, hand aids are used with a direct rein aid.
We can also use the hand aids to ask for a downward transition, and that's
how I'd like you to practice them. So ask Watergate to trot, and then ask
him to slow down to a walk.
The first time you try this, use thumb/forefinger pressure, the gentlest hand
aid. Watergate should slow down. Ask him to trot again, and this time try
pulling in your bottom fingers. Watergate probably stopped.
The point? If the first hand aid you try doesn't prompt your horse to
respond as you want, try the next most harsh aid, but if thumb/forefinger
pressure worked, you don't need to go further.
Even more important to the learning process is the ability to feel the
difference in Watergate's responses. In mastering this skill, you will
understand that there's a long way between the first and last hand aids.
Always use the mildest aid that achieves the desired result. In other words,
use the aids in progression.
Setting Your Hands
As you learned in lesson 1, you can also use your hands by setting them,
so that they don't move or give. In contrast, if you flex your fingers in
response to pressure from the horse's mouth, your hand is passive. When
you get to the canter in lesson 7, you'll understand why knowing the
difference is important.
Remember, there are infinite positions between a set hand and a passive
hand; it's all a matter of degree. If you're asking, "How fixed or passive
should my hands be?" I'd say no one can answer that question for you. As
always, use the mildest aid you can to get the desired result.
Height of Your Hands
The height of your hands also makes a difference. The lower your hands
go, or the closer they are to the withers, the longer the horse's stride will
be. Generally, the higher your hands, the shorter the horse's stride.
Try this. Ask Watergate to pick up a nice trot. You will post. Place your
hands closer to the withers. Make your hands passive, giving to his mouth.
Watergate's stride should feel a bit longer. This technique will prove useful
in future lessons when you ask a horse to yield to your leg, that is, move
forward more aggressively.
Now raise your hands higher above the withers and set them. Can you feel
a difference in Watergate's stride? Watergate's gait should feel shorter and
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