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
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
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
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 choppier.
|Woodland Horse Center
16301 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20905
301-421-9156 fax: 301-421-9049