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.
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.
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.
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.