As Mia trains my hands to her satisfaction I keep finding myself going back to Piero Santini’s discussion on hands in his books, “Riding Reflections” (1933), and “Learning to Ride” (1941). Santini was a student of Caprilli’s, and his books were the first ones in English explaining the Forward Seat, back then the new system of riding. In an earlier blog, “Another Blast From the Past--Caprilli on Contact“, (barnmice.com/another-blast-from-the) I discussed what Caprilli wrote about contact and the Forward Seat, and Santini’s discussions on the hands expand on what Caprilli wrote about them.
Santini started out his discussions on hands and contact in “Riding Reflections”, talking about hands in general, starting with the arms and the importance of the straight line from the rider’s elbows to the horse’s mouth. Then he got to the heart of the matter, FINGERS. He explained that he used the term “fingers” and not “hands” because he wanted his readers to get away from the picture of a fistful of leather. He writes in “Riding Reflections“, p. 29-30, “real ‘hands’, that is the two sets of four fingers and two thumbs, should resemble those of a violinist in suppleness and sensibility.” In “Learning to Ride”, on p. 47 he writes further on this, “Like the violinist whose whole bow-arm, more than hand or wrist, relaxed almost to the point of passivity, contributes to the production of his notes, ‘hands’ should be employed in such a way as to influence the whole scale of a horse‘s sensibilities.” As an illustration, back in “Riding Reflections”, he says “I have seen things done by a mere twist of a little finger in the fraction of a second by first-class horsemen that would have taken the whole arm and shoulder--and knees and heels as well--of minor lights to do far less well. Nothing is quicker and stronger if properly employed than the fingers; in the subtler shadings of pace or jumping effort nothing can replace them.” (emphasis added.)
In his book “Learning to Ride” Santini has a whole chapter devoted to what he calls “The Language of the Hands.” In discussing how to use the fingers he describes how to use the fingers without rigidity. On p. 46-47
“In what we may term the first position, they are closed no more than is necessary to prevent the reins from slipping. With the reins as near the knuckles as they will go the hand can be left, practically half open, which is all to the good so long as it works--and the longer it works the better--for the last thing to stiffen should be the fingers.
For example, if we wish gradually to increase, for purposes of pace or control, pressure on the horse’s bars without irritation to his nervous system--for which “ear signals” should always be carefully watched--after having duly and smoothly shortened the reins…, we should draw the elbows back horizontally without lowering or raising the hand and with no action of the fingers beyond the strictly indispensable closing. To obtain a crescendo of pressure, which the horse will, to a point, respond to with an increase of pace, a gradual and well measured stiffening of the whole arm should deliberately begin with the pectoral and shoulder muscles, and end in the fingers. The contrary process, with a more or less accentuated closing of fingers and rigidity of the wrist-forearm-arms-shoulder line, will immediately cause any normally sensitive horse to initiate the counter maneuver of increasing his hold.
… for if we consider that the man‘s hands and the horse‘s bars are the two most sensitive mediums of understanding between the parties to what should be a mutual agreement, no occasion to analyze what may lead to better reciprocal comprehension should be neglected.”
And finally about the action of the hands, “All that is necessary, but no more than is necessary.”
When I first read Santini’s first book, “Riding Reflections” in 1970 I had owned my first horse, Hat Tricks, for just a few months. I was an elementary rider on a green, green, green horse, and I was trying to learn contact at the same time I was trying to train my horse to accept contact. When I started trying to ride seriously I had to overcome the bad habits I had developed in South America while trail riding, as far as hands were concerned I rode with the reins in my left hand, holding on to my reins with a pretty tight fist. The first few months I had Hat Tricks I was introduced to following the motion of the horse’s mouth (to the yells from my instructors that my hands BELONGED TO THE HORSE’S MOUTH!!!), so I was riding at a pretty elementary level when I first read “Riding Reflections” and I did not truly understand what Santini was talking about. I did understand that it might be a very good idea to start relaxing my fingers from their sometimes death-grip on the reins. Hat Tricks started responding better to my hands then, but of course it took me years to truly improve.
As the decades have passed I have added my own refinements to Santini’s instructions of the language of the hands, especially with the timing of my hand aids. Once I got away from the single-jointed snaffle, I started to learn the language of the horse’s tongue. Through experimenting in strengths of contact I learned I could control my horse with just an ounce or two of contact. The more I relaxed my fingers and arms the more willing were the horses to accept my contact. When I learned to time my aids properly (from reading Udo Burger’s “The Way to Perfect Horsemanship”), I started to use my hand aids only when the horse was raising its head up and back while moving (and this happens in ALL gaits, including the trot) moving my elbows maybe half an inch further back than when I am keeping normal contact, while closing my fingers on the reins, with immediate release as the horse’s head starts to move forward. In many ways I am replicating what Santini said, just at much slower gaits. But when the horse startles and begins to sky-rocket off I do just as Santini says, shoulder, then arms, then forearms, then wrists, and only then the final closing of the hand. This all happens in a split second, with immediate release starting at my hands and going up my arms to my shoulders. The only time I do not release my hand aid immediately is when I want my horse to “freeze” in place, then I hold the aid for maybe ¼ to ½ second, then I release.
And ever since I finally bought Santini’s books and read and reread them, I find myself repeatedly going back to Santini’s “language of the hands”. My fingers are now relaxed and supple on the reins, I can keep contact with sensitive mouthed Arabians and even induce them to lower their heads at the trot on my good days. With my relaxed and supple fingers I can follow every movement of the horse’s head, mouth and tongue, and in return the horses stretch out their heads and necks to pick up contact when I ask them to with my legs. At the same time I can communicate to the horse exactly what I want him to do, the exact speed, the exact length of stride, and the exact direction I want to go. I most definitely do not have perfect hands, but the horses I ride do not fear my hands or the bit, instead they play with the bit and my hands with their tongue and they do not go behind the vertical with their heads. Two-way communication, no fear, no pain, just two beings dancing together across the ring, forward, forward, forward.
Have a great ride!