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Holding with my hands through the corner

Thoughts on Hands

I have a lot of  less-than-put-together thoughts bouncing around in my head about various aids, starting with hands. I find the role of hands in riding very interesting, because in different disciplines, the ideal position and use of the hands is both so similar and so different. I also think it’s one of the more difficult aids to truly master because it goes against our instincts. For me, it’s really easy to fall into habits with my hands without really realizing it.

In many types of riding (at least, the ones I have some experience with which include hunter/jumper, equitation, dressage, and western horsemanship), you want to have your hand(s) hovering a few inches above the horse’s wither, with a slight bend in your elbow. For English disciplines, you tend to look for a straight line from the elbow, through the rein, to the bit; in Western I believe you want more bend in your elbow, closer to 90 degrees, so your hand may come up a bit, and be a few inches higher, depending on your conformation. Typically in these disciplines, you strive for “soft hands,” meaning you don’t want to use abrupt movements, and only enough pressure as needed.

Hunt Seat Equitation and Western Horsemanship

Another similarity is that in these disciplines, you need to start with leg, before going to your hand. This is the part that goes against human instinct a little bit. If you are losing control of something, such as dropping a pen, your natural reaction is to grab for the pen with your hands. But in horseback riding, you don’t necessarily want to grab the reins first. For example, if you want to collect your horse, you first need to add leg so he doesn’t break gait. Then you can add some pressure through the hands to ask him to shorten his stride.

While that is certainly a high-level overview of correct position and use of the hand aids, I know all of this and can explain that pretty easily. Putting it into practice is a whole ‘nother ballgame. You’d think after riding for 15+ years, I’d have figured out the basics by now… but you’d be wrong. When I get nervous, I tend to lift my hands and actually not use them. I’m also really pretty terrible at remembering to add leg first, before using my hands. I definitely struggle to fight the instinct to grab with my hands when things aren’t going my way.

Tracy's Hands
Physically lifting my horse up with my hands… oops!

The other thing I’ve noticed lately is that I have some really great muscle memory… but it’s not remembering what it should. For example, I read this article by Jan Savoie on how to sharpen your horse to the leg aids and one of the things she mentioned is making sure you as the rider are not giving mixed signals. Perhaps your legs are asking for a bigger canter, but your hands are holding steady (coughTracycoughcough). So I thought really hard about this in my most recent ride, and realized that yeah, I definitely do a little bit of that. And to re-train the “go button,” everything needs to exaggerated, so I really need to throw away my reins when I ask for a bigger canter. Later, I can work on adding back in some contact, but not right now.

Holding with my hands through the corner
Perfect example of how I hold with my hands through the corner. I’m not actively pulling back on the reins, but I’m also not following the motion through my elbows — I’m simply static, which has the effect of half-halting.

And when I really thought about this, I also noticed I hold still at certain other points… namely in the corners. So at the canter, when we are coming out of a corner, I balance Miles up and hold. I’m not pulling back, but I freeze in place for a stride or two, which tells him to slow down just enough that we lose some momentum coming out of the corner (to the hypothetical first fence of a line). When really, what I need right now is to speed up through the corner so I hit the first fence in the line with more pace, and perhaps a slightly longer distance. Because ideally, I don’t want to have to pick up all of our speed in the line… I’d rather have a shorter distance out over the oxer, or be able to balance just slightly to create a better jump. But none of that is possible until I stop holding in the corner.

Do you have any bad habits with your hands? Anything you’re working on improving with your hand aids?


Fly On Over is an equestrian lifestyle blog devoted to connecting horse lovers around the world. By providing equestrians with practical tips and tricks related to horse ownership, discussing training techniques for horse and rider, as well as covering industry news.

15 thoughts to “Thoughts on Hands”

  1. I always have a bad habit of pulling outwards when trying to get the horse to turn! Which in Barrel racing, is a bad thing because it tends to allow the horse to drop its should and circle or turn flat. I found that pretending there is a rectangular box above the withers really works to keep your hands inward with elbows bent. Crossing your right hand over on the left side and vice versa is a big no, no, so I also pretend there is a dividing line at the withers on both sides. Its hard to explain over typing, so it might not make sense haha! But it has definitely helped me with my habit!

  2. My hands do all sorts of things without my knowledge or permission. This is why I love videos of myself, because I can see just how bad it is. Someday maybe I’ll get them under control. Maybe?

  3. ugh hands are basically the worst haha. i’ve read before that humans as a species are programmed to ‘solve problems with our hands’ which may explain why we so often resort to hands first. or at least that’s what i tell myself when i get caught pulling yet again…

    really tho, for me personally – a lot of the problems stem higher up – locked elbows or shoulders or a stiff back. and then for whatever reason i try to soften too much with my hands to counteract the tension so the reins keep slipping out while my arms keep coming further back. it’s, uh… a work in progress lol

  4. YES. I love how you noted that, as humans, our instinct is to grab with our hands. So true. I find that I go to my hands first, whether I want Drifter to go long and low or lift and collect. When he gets spooky, I grab with my hands even though I know and have literally proven to myself over and over that if I soften my hands and close my legs, he moves on calmly rather than getting more jacked up and giraffe-like.

    I have two images that help me remember to have soft and steady hands. One is that my elbows are attached to my hip bones with elastic. This reminds me to give and not get stiff. The other is that my hands are enclosed in a glass box with an inch or two of space between the walls of the box and my hands. This reminds me to keep my hands still so I can provide resistance if he pulls, and a light release when he goes where I want. It’s not perfect but I’m working on it!

  5. This is a very timely post for me. As I was reading through this thinking about my own hand position issues I realized that the other day when I was working on getting more go from my leg aids I wasn’t really giving enough through my hands to actually teach her anything. No wonder Katai was getting annoyed at times!

  6. I’m a praying mantis. Can’t keep those thumbs on top.

    And I get yelled at for being too soft. I don’t close my hands around the reins. One pro: when my ride tries to buck me off, the reins slip out so easy so I don’t get pulled forward! Silver lining.

  7. I always think my reins are shorter than they really are, which has the unfortunate effect of them being in my lap for every dressage test, ever. They’re ineffective and unattractive there!

    I also noticed that in jumping, I have a tendency to do what you’ve described- I try to hold my horse up with the reins. Something to work on! (I’ll just add it to my list…LOL)

  8. OMG why do we always have the same issues?! I find myself unconsciously blocking with my hands/arms ALL THE TIME – especially in lateral work. Sideways suddenly means I don’t breathe through my arms or keep a soft connection, for some reason. Gah! Dang human desire to fix everything with the hands!

  9. Ugh I literally just wrote a lesson recap and somehow didn’t write about this at ALLLLLLLL even though it was a very large element.

    I begin to see the draw of ten thousand longe line lessons until your instinct is to go to your leg instead of to your hands.

  10. Usually when I am having a problem, my hands are at the root of it. It is so frustrating to fight instinct. My worst offence is pulling my horse back out with outside rein when she falls in. I’m working hard to get muscle memory to use inside leg/slightly lifted inside rein instead but its so hard to change habits!

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