Good hands are the hallmark of a great rider. Take a look at how you can build this trait.
Having “good hands” is a sign of riding excellence. However, it doesn’t come from just working on your hands — it comes from working on all the other things that allow you to have good hands. In fact, in order to get good hands, we often have to forget our hands!
There are many different styles of riding but I’ll focus here on what we all can agree on. A definition of good hands is hands that the horse trusts and understands, and that don’t conflict with what he has been asked to do.
There are three things we can analyze about hands: look, feel and function.
The look of good hands
This is the easiest quality to observe. Good hands look like they are a part of the arm and the reins. There will be a smooth transition from arm to rein without any zigzags when viewed from the side or top. “A straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth” is a good rule of thumb. It’s not a crime if the hands float up or down from there, and the distance between the hands can change depending on the situation, because different positions will have different effects. You want to have conscious control of where your hands go.
Think of the hand as a doorway that messages must travel through to move between the horse and rider. Twisting wrists, dangling fingers or over-gripping fists can confuse the message, like a bad cellphone connection. The message we send to the horse will be less clear, and so will the information we receive back from him.
Good hands look “steady”, but not in a fixed way. They need to be in a consistent place with respect to the horse’s mouth, especially when riding in connection with the reins.
The look of hands is not as important as their feel and function. If you try to make your hands look good without addressing the necessary feel and functioning, you will struggle.
The feel of good hands
Good hands feel information coming from the horse’s whole body and mind. They can feel every problem in his mind and body, when riding in connection. However, not every problem needs to be solved by our hands!
It is human nature to want to fix things with our hands. Riders with excellent hands have trained themselves to use their hands to feel more, and do less. Most issues we feel through the reins are balance issues, and most imbalances start somewhere else in the body (crookedness, lack of engagement, lack of speed regulation) or the mind (confusion, anxiety).
The function of good hands
So far we have seen that hands are part of our connection to the horse, and that they receive information. Those are both fairly passive activities. The key to having good hands is to make sure we aren’t using them too much. Their only active job is to give subtle communications about the position of the horse’s head and neck. The general positions of his head and neck are a reflection of the balance of the rest of his body and his mental state. So if you need a big change in the head and neck, it’s better to look to his mind and body first. If you feel you need complicated rein aids, then there is likely another issue that needs to be addressed.
In order to make those subtle communications, the hands need to be still with respect to the horse’s mouth. We can’t do that if our hands jump around. The elbow and shoulder joints need to be relaxed and allowing, so the seat can swing and your body can move with the horse’s body while letting the hands float with the mouth.
To have good hands, strive for balance
Notice all the places where you or your horse are out of balance, and solve them. Eliminate all the reasons you are using the reins other than what they are for: to connect a circuit of energy, to receive information, for subtle positioning of the head and neck. The fewer things you need the reins for, the more your hands are free. When you do this, you will end up with excellent hands that look good, feel wisely, and function well!
Karen Rohlf, creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally-recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm.She is well known for her student-empowering approach to teaching, her ability to connect with a wide range of horses, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view. Karen believes in getting to the heart of our mental, emotional and physical partnership with our horses by bringing together the best of dressage and partnership-based training. She is happy to speak to your dressage club or organization. Learn more about Dressage Naturally and how it can help you at dressagenaturally.net.