Arms and Hands

The Arms and the Hands

There are three types of hands that a rider can have: bad hands, good hands, and educated hands.

In this article, I will not be going in depth into what constitutes the correct hand and arm use for each discipline. There is, however, certain concepts and certain basics that are the same for every type of riding, and it is those things that I will be discussing, so that one may develop a good foundation to build on to develop the correct hands for their discipline. In addition, green, or inexperienced, horses are all started basically the same regardless of the discipline, an it is only later as the horse becomes more advanced that a truly specialized way of using the arms, hands and reins are needed.

This is an area that gives nearly everyone some trouble as some point. The main reason most people experience problems with their hands and arms while riding is that there are many ways to have “bad” hands. Plus, what constitutes “good” hands for one horse may not be “good” hands for another horse, depending on it’s temperament. This concept also varies between disciplines; what is correct hand and rein position for Hunter/Jumpers is not going to be correct for Dressage, and neither will be correct for Western. It’s small wonder that “good” and “sensitive” hands is one of the most difficult things for some people to understand, let alone develop and even less surprising that many riders never develop “educated” hands..

Specialized areas such as neck reining in Western or the upper levels of Dressage, and the arm, hand and rein usage for the advanced levels of such specific disciplines, would require an entire article for each one. By the time a rider reaches these levels, they should already have good hands (and should be well on the way to developing educated hands), and be beyond the basic problem areas.

What I am going to look at in this article is the problems with getting to those levels.

The Everyday Hands and Arms

First, lets look at what often causes so much of the problems that people have when trying to develop good hands.

Humans are very hand oriented. We depend nearly completely on our hands to get us through life. Our entire civilization is built on things that depend on our fingers and opposable thumb. Nearly anything in our human world can be fixed by using our hands, nearly anything can be accomplished using our hands. Recently I had shoulder surgery and had my arm immobilized. Using my hand to grasp something, even wiggling my fingers was painful for a while. It was absolutely astounding how inconvenient it was to do anything at all when only having the use of one hand when I had been used to two! Having experienced the awkwardness and inability to perform as I had been used to with the temporary loss of one arm and hand, I found it nearly inconceivable to to imagine having to accomplish something without using any hands at all.

In fact, as humans, using our arms and hands is so instinctive that it’s not till we lose the use of them that we even realize how dependant we are on them. Remember my first article of this series on heels? One of the exercises for developing a stretched heel was to stand on the edge of a step to allow the heel to sink down below it. In order to allow the leg and ankle to totally relax and give up the job of balancing, one needed to grasp a handrail. This is indicative of how we instinctively use our arms and hands. Our ankles and feet are the primary balancers of our bodies, but the arms and hands are the next in line. When we cannot use our ankles and feet, we instinctively grab something with our hands. When our ankles and feet are not sufficient to balance us, we add our arms and hands to supplement. When we balance on a narrow walkway, think of how much easier it is to do when there is a rail to hold onto. If there is nothing to hold onto, we instinctively throw our arms and hands out perpendicular to our bodies for extra balance. Our arms and hands are our second line of defense for balancing ourselves. In some situations, they become the primary means of balance. Our bodies know that our hands can have a much more secure grip on something than our feet. In a precarious situation, such as someone on a tree limb high above the ground, this powerful instinct can completely take over. One often hears of someone in this situation who has simply frozen; they literally CANNOT make their hands let go of what they are holding onto. Instinct has locked the hands’ grip. How often have we seen riders hanging onto the mane or the saddle, completely unable to let go, as instinct takes over and forces them to use their hands to stay on? Many of us have experienced this “lock up” ourselves.

The Rider’s Hands and Arms

Good hand position in nearly all disciplines is usually described as the hands being below the rider’s waist and just a few inches above the horse’s withers. The hands should be in front of the saddle, more or less over top of the horse’s shoulders. Holding the hands in this general area gives the rider the greatest degree of balance. Moving the hands too far forward will unbalance the rider by making him fall forward, and bringing the hands too close to the rider’s body will unbalance the rider by making him fall backwards. Holding the hands too high can encourage using the arms and hands as balancing poles.

In English disciplines, and with inexperienced horses of any discipline, having the hands in this general area allows the bit to work most effectively and gives a straight line from the bit to the rider’s elbow. The straight line from bit to elbow allows the rider to easily feel the horse’s mouth with just a squeeze of the fingers and allows the rider to maintain a light, steady, gentle contact without being pushed or pulled off balance. The thumbs should be on top to keep the wrists straight. Allowing the thumbs to drop towards each other or away from each other will move the reins enough so that many sensitive horses will feel this as a signal and become confused. This also allows the rider’s wrists to bend which will reduce the rider’s sensitivity to how the horse’s mouth feels.

Because of the conformation and way of going of the horses used for Hunt Seat, Dressage, and Western, this straight line is created with the hands hovering just a few inches above the horse’s shoulders. The exception to this is Saddle Seat riding, and in this discipline, the hands are carried a bit higher than is acceptable in Hunt Seat, Dressage, or Western due to the conformation and way of going of the breeds used in Saddle Seat. Gaited horses and breeds typically found in Saddle Seat riding have a naturally higher head carriage and longer neck than other breeds. The gaited horse’s way of traveling requires some modification in the rider’s hand position.

The rider’s arms must be supple and relaxed which is not at all to mean floppy or weak, however. The arms must be under control and ready to work, and yet, at the same time, be soft and elastic enough to be sympathetic to the horse’s natural motion so as to not jar the mouth. The rider’s hands need to be independent of the rest of the rider’s body and under the complete control of rider’s mind. The hands must learn to be more in tune with the rider’s desires as pertains to the horse than to the rider’s instinctive, everyday habits of usage. Not only do the hands need to be in tune with the rider’s concentration of the horse, but they must also be in tune to the horse itself. Here is an image that I have found to be useful……think of the reins as a telephone line. On the each end is a transmitter/receiver, one being the horse’s mouth and one being the rider’s hands. Each of these transmitters/receivers have a base of support; the horse’s being his head and neck and the rider’s being his arms. Problems in these “support bases” can disrupt the transmitters/receivers and cause static and interference in the lines. When either the horse’s jaw, head or neck is stiff and resistant, or the rider’s fingers and arms are stiff and tense and/or bouncy and jerky, then the other receiver encounters interference and the message is lost in static. When this happens, it is the rider’s responsibility, not the horse’s, to clear the lines and restore communication.

The Problem

What this all means is that when we are sitting on the back of a horse, holding the reins in our hands, our instincts tell us to USE those hands to accomplish our objective, whether that is it turn the horse or stop the horse, or balance the horse, etc. On top of that, we are simultaneously trying to not balance ourselves by using our feet and ankles, having been told that this is a cause of stiffness and tension.  All this instinctively causes us to want to use our hands to balance ourselves and use our hands to control the horse. Instinct is a powerful thing, habit is a powerful thing, and we have two areas here of instinct and habit working. What often results is a combination of the rider wanting to over-use his hands to control the horse while also wanting to “hang on” to the reins for balance.

Unfortunately, a horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of it’s body. A bit in that mouth can cause pain very easily. Forceful use of the reins most often results in a horse becoming uncomfortable and confused and resistant. Nobody wants to be yanked around by a piece of metal in their mouth! Often, the more the horse resists, the more we try to use our hands and arms to fix things and to force the horse to do what we want. Using our arms and hands to fix a problem or to accomplish our goals is so natural for the rider that they often don’t even realize this very thing is the cause of the argument in the first place. They become more and more aggressive with the use of the arms and hands, thus compounding and continuing the problem! Many riders simply have never been taught that true communication with a horse when they are in the saddle comes from a complex integration and coordination of aids involving the rider’s entire body, of which the hands are only one element. Try communicating your desires to another person using only one word. You won’t get far, I’ll warrant. It takes many words, all working together, to allow true communication!

Using the arms and hands for balance results in hands and arms floating up in the air, constantly banging the horse in the mouth as the rider loses and catches his balance. The rider will also lose control of the horse when hanging onto the reins like this because of that “locking” instinct I mentioned above. When the rider feels precarious enough, the hands will lock in place on the reins. As the horse becomes tense or excited or when the horse moves into a faster gait, it will raise it’s head, which brings it closer to the rider. This creates slack in the reins, and when the rider’s hands are locked in place, the rider will not be able to gather up the reins to maintain contact with the bit. The reins will flap loose, or the rider will draw back the arms to the limit of their motion. Once this limit is reached and if there is still no contact with the bit, the horse may not stop: it may, in fact, pick up speed, making matters worse. Unfortunately, at this point, the instinct to lock the hands has taken over and the rider is no longer capable of adjusting the length of the reins.

In all fairness, though, hanging onto the reins for balance is not entirely the fault of the hands. Remember that the hands really only come into play as balance mechanisms when we are struggling for balance. Therefore, it is often the case that floating hands and grabbing and hanging onto the reins for balance is a result of a problem somewhere else.

The Fix

I’ve left discussing the arms and hands until last because I firmly believe that a rider will never be able to develop good hands if the rest of the body is not right. If the rider is still having issues with the heels coming up and the ankles being tense, then there will be problems with the hands and arms. If the rider is having issues with the lower spine flexing adequately, there will be problems with the hands and arms. If the shoulders are tense and rigid, there will be problems with the hands and arms. The only way to attain good hands is to make sure that all the other body components are correct. When the rest of the rider’s body is relaxed and in tune with the horse’s movement and motion, then and only then, will the rider be able to focus on feeling the horse’s mouth and fine tuning the hands’ signals and reactions.

Unlike many other of the rider’s body parts, there really are no useful exercises to help one develop better hands. The rein aids, in all their infinite shadings and degrees of control, are the most sophisticated of all the aids. These infinite nuances can only be learned through feel and experience. Of course, good hands and educated hands also require the support of the seat, legs and rider’s balance at all times, so these other elements must be in complete harmony with the horse, leaving the hands free and independent. It is this independence that allows the rider’s hands to respond, signal, and counteract in the most minute manner possible. It is only when the hands are independent of the rest of the body that they can truly coordinate with the other aids used in riding. If they are not independent, they will always be out of sync with the other aids, and their timing, so vital to the horse’s learning and understanding, will be lost

Riding many different horses with different attitudes and mouths and varieties of problems and their relation to the horse’s carriage and balance problems in general is the only way to develop truly educated hands. As we all know, habit is a very difficult thing to change, and when one rides only one horse, or rides only one style, the hands can become set in the way that works best for that one particular situation. Educated hands take their cues from each individual horse and each individual moment. They can adjust and produce the correct signal or response instantly without jerking or loosing any smoothness or suppleness. All of this is years in the making and requires countless hours on many different horses in many different situations. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes to attaining good or, ideally, educated hands. The only exercise is to spend many years riding a variety of horses and styles

For this reason, I counsel my students to not be frustrated or upset when their hands seem to have a mind of their own. Invariably, out-of-control hands, or stiff, tense hands and arms is a symptom of a problem elsewhere and the true cause must be discovered. It’s my opinion that the lack of “sympathetic following” motion and fluidity in the cues is more a problem of general tenseness, nervousness and inability to mentally separate the hands from the rest of the body and the root cause of these things generally are to be found in the other parts of the body.  Quite often the problem is more of a mental one, as the rider simply does not realize that they’ve “set” their hands and arms and mentally forgotten about them!  Making a conscious effort to soften the arms and to keep the joints supple and flexible despite how much strength they need to maintain (think of how bungee cords work) will correct this.

I believe that the only true hand/arm problem is aggression, or over-use of the reins.  Once a rider fully understands how easy it is to become too demanding and too aggressive with their hands it generally doesn’t take long to overcome this problem. Once a rider understands that they cannot force a horse to do something through excessive use of the reins, the overly aggressive use of reins is halfway solved. 

When the rider has his body in harmony with the horse with all his body parts correctly doing their job, so as to allow his hands to be independent of the demands of his own instincts, when he understands that using his hands is just one small part of his vocabulary, then he is well on his way to developing good hands.

When a rider’s hands have the experience and knowledge that comes from many hours of feeling and experiencing many different horses and situations and can act and react instantly with subtlety and smoothness and sympathy according to the horse’s temperament, when they can maintain their smooth and elastic and quiet communication regardless of what the rider’s or horse’s body is doing, then he is well on his way to developing educated hands.