I can still hear my early instructors barking at me. Like any novice, while I focused on keeping my horse going or identifying the right diagonal, my hands would elevate and bounce around. But the more I tried to force them down, the stiffer and more jarring they became. As a coach, I make it a goal to describe the importance of and specifically how to develop elastic arms
1. Good hands deliver a clear “code” to your horse. Are you speaking so your horse is listening?
Riding effectively can be boiled down to a signal/response/ pressure or release system. Your hands send the signal, communicating messages such as slow, turn and flex to your horse. Each signal is precise and distinct. When your horse responds to your request, you respond with a reward, releasing the pressure. By trial and error the horse learns that a certain response always yields consistent release.
2. Good hands prevent a dull horse. Blah, Blah, Blah…
Do you ever tune out a voice on the TV or car radio to focus on something else? A rider’s unsteady hands can be just that – background noise that drowns out other signals you’re trying to send to your horse. At best, the horse can ignore the noise, becoming desensitized to it. Equine behaviourists call this habituation. Unsteady hands interfere with the code, like static interfering with a radio station. The real message is hard to discern.
3. Good hands prevent an overly sensitive horse.
At worst, erratic hands will not only confuse or dull your horse, but scare him. He’ll learn to preserve himself by avoiding the bit in some way. Gapping mouths, elevated heads, hollow backs and choppy gaits are common evasions. Instead of having a conversation of “no” and “yes” to your horse, abrupt hands yell - putting your horse on edge.
4. Good hands are rewarded by the judge.
Judges look for elastic hands. Subtle communication enhances the show ring presentation. Research shows tension in a horse’s mouth and tongue trigger tension through the neck and spine – the result? Shorter, rigid strides – yuck!
Rule books use words such as relaxed and supple to describe the arm position for equitation and horsemanship. Loss of contact between rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth is a major penalty in some scoring systems. For western riders, AQHA includes excessive pumping of the free arm as well as excessive stiffness will be penalized. Hunter and equitation judges learn the rider’s wrist is to be kept straight and relaxed, with the hand held at about 30 to 45 degrees inside the vertical. On the equitation over fences scorecard, judges have symbols for straight arms, stiff wrists and reins too short or long.
5. Good hands minimize the use of artificial aids.
The solution to bit evasion is usually not in the tack box. And most training aids are not permitted in the show ring anyway. Instead of making the mistake of solving those problems with band aid solutions such as nosebands and artificial aids, as riders, let’s go first to the root of the problem – developing elastic, independent hands.
Unlocking the movement in your shoulder, elbow and wrist joints is the first step to soft, following hands. I ask my students to picture holding a cup of coffee as they drive over a speed bump. Shock absorbing elasticity will keep you from spilling the coffee.
Soft hands will lead to a soft mouth, soft ears and soft expression in your horse.