Olympian and coach, Jim Wofford, gives an excellent description of the rider hand position in his book, Training The Three Day Event Horse and Rider , James C. Wofford, 1995 Doubleday, Pg 44-45
“The position of your arms should form a straight line to the horse’s mouth. Your thumbs should be on top of the reins, turned slightly in from the vertical with elbows close to the body. The forearm, the wrist, and the fingers will form a natural and direct extension from the elbow to the bit.
Note that this line will change as the training of the horse proceeds. As the elevation increases, the forearm of the rider will be carried higher above the withers. The straight line should be maintained, however. The position of the hand is not determined by some artificial measurement but rather by the state of training of the horse. A very green horse will naturally carry his head and neck quite low. This is to be encouraged rather than discouraged, but you must compensate for this by riding with an extremely low hand position. In highly collected horses the forearm of the rider may actually be above the horizontal, yet still show a straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth.
It is a misnomer to say that riders have good hands. Good riders have good elbows and good shoulders. The range of motion of the hands is limited. They can either squeeze or release the reins. The elbows and shoulders create the elastic feel that you seek.”
Tension in the shoulders and lack of flexibility in the elbows will create a rider hand position that follows the rider’s body as opposed to following the movement of the horse’s head and neck. Stiff shoulders and elbows inhibits the rider’s ability to move their arms naturally, limiting the flexibility with the horse’s mouth.
Following Wofford’s description there is plenty of room for the differences in horse type, level of training, and rider’s build. There are many categories for rider’s hands; good, cruel, educated, passive, interfering, etc. But for this post, I use good hands to mean ones that are gentle, causing no pain to the horse and allow the horse to do what he’s asked.
So Why Don’t All Riders Have Good Hands?
It isn’t possible to have good hands unless you have a good seat. A good seat allows the rider to absorb movement and keep balance without needing to depend on the reins. A good seat also goes a long way towards helping the rider not to be tense in the shoulders. Developing an independent seat requires hours in the saddle and it’s a use it or lose it proposition. If you stop riding for a while, you’ll probably find that your seat needs redeveloping when you return to the saddle. The quality of the rider hand depends on the quality of their seat.
Riders Who Interpret Hands to Mean . . . Hands
There are riders who believe that soft hands come via flexible fingers and wrists as opposed to a relaxed arms. They hold their upper arms very still and do most of the work by flexing their wrists and opening and closing their fingers. This rider usually carries a tension in their upper body and has stiff, tight shoulders. It’s identifiable by low hands, somewhat rounded shoulders and the rider’s dropped head. Some hunter under saddle and hunter pleasure riders demonstrate this hand.
A rider who carries the reins loosely in their fingers is not one who has good hands, they are merely one who is at risk of having the horse snatch the reins away.
Hands That Are Too High
When I see a rider hand position that is above the desired straight line, it’s usually the result of poor, or lack of, instruction. Or the rider may lack understanding of how the bit is carried in the horse’s mouth. The rider has been taught to hold the hands a certain height above the withers and distance in front of the saddle, without an explanation about the horse’s mouth or the purpose for the hand position.
I see this more frequently with people who have had a little bit of dressage instruction. They have been taught to hold their hands up and in front of them (carry your hands) in apparent hope that the horse will soon join them in the little box they have created. This might work well for an upper level horse in a full bridle ridden by a rider with a deep seat and excellent legs, but it does not work for the vast majority of horses and riders at lower levels.
If you have the opportunity to look at the pictures in Basic Training of the Young Horse by Multiple Gold Medal Olympian, Reiner Klimke, you’ll notice that in almost all of the photos, the riders naturally use the desired straight (bit, hands, elbow) line. And as Mr. Wofford points out, the rider hand raises relative to the increase in elevation of the horse’s forehand. The hand follows the elevation, not vice versa. It’s also interesting to notice that in most situations the horse’s nose is not much higher than the rider’s knee.
A rider who uses very short reins and has arms with no bend in the elbow can indicate fear. Fear that the horse will bolt, buck or spook.
This rider leaves absolutely no room for error or movement. Every movement made in the body is felt directly by the horse in his mouth. This is because there is no opening/closing hinge in the elbow.
The short, stiff arm rider hand position contributes to the rider leaning forward, usually in front of the center of balance, making the rider prone to losing their balance, perhaps falling when the horse spooks or bucks.
This type of rein position will make a nervous horse more nervous, giving the nervous rider more to fear.
This rider needs to be encouraged to lengthen the reins, bend the elbows and sit up in the saddle.
Hands Up and Forward
Hands up and forward are usually a combination of a rider who has not understood instruction about the hands correctly and fear.
You’ll notice the rider continually adjusting the reins, making them just a hair tighter, especially for upward trot transitions.
This rider will also lean forward, creating a precarious situation for themselves. They need to be encouraged to lengthen the reins, sit up, and lower their hands.
The Nervous Rider
If your rider is over mounted, discontinue the ride on that horse. A spooky or flighty horse doesn’t respond positively to a tense nervous rider with short reins, high hands or stiffness in their shoulders..
Sometimes the rider’s fears are general and would be the same no mater what horse they rode. You can help this rider through encouragement and reminders to lengthen rein. Lessons on a lunge line can help correct the rider hand position as well as help develop their seat. Be sure to set up all your lessons for success, choosing achievable goals and activities. Success goes a long way towards eliminating fear.
There’s More To It
Tension in one part of the rider’s body will cause tension in another part. You have a good start when your student demonstrates a rider hand with the desired straight line and a nice bend in the elbow. Next examine the shoulders and upper back for tension. Riders can have shoulder tension before they even mount up because it’s one of the main areas that humans carry stress. The more stress they have from work, life or getting to the barn on time, the more tension they may have between the shoulders. If it’s added to the tension of holding their hands correctly or compensating for a weak seat, then you’ll have a rider whose hands bounce off of or hang on to the horse’s mouth. Shoulder exercises, breathing exercises, and stretches are helpful for this kind of tension. You may need to recommend that your student have a periodic massage.
Students who fear falling can become grippy with their reins. I make a point to tell students that the rider’s hands may be able to discourage a potential buck, but their hands have little to do with whether or not they will be able to stay on the horse. It’s the seat and legs that help the rider to stay mounted. The independent seat leads to the potential good hands. (I say potential because not all riders with good seats have good hands.)
Stiff, tight, grabby, fearful hands prevent the horse from going forward. It’s like slamming a door in the horse’s face. Some horses will become nervous in this situation. Other horses become annoyed and angry.
If your student complains that their horse is lazy, or doesn’t go forward freely, is behind the leg or needs spurs and a whip, take time to analyze the rider’s hands. Sometimes changing the rider hand position will change the horse.
Do you have a solution for problems in rider hand position? I’d love to read your comment.
Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.
Barbara Ellin Fox
I have had the same frequent problem one of the other trainers mentions here: riders holding their reins at the end of their finger tips. This results in straight elbows and inconsistent communication. I think it may help to hold a short crop under the thumbs, because students necessarily have to hold the reins more firmly to keep the whip in position too.This can also help with the other problem so many of my students have which is pulling the inside rein causing some to the horse to run out through the shoulder. My biggest challenge is teaching the role of the outside rein: how to get the correct feel, neither pulling it, nor letting it just go slack so that the horse can run through it. Also, I have to repeatedly correct students who lean the opposite way they want the horse to go. Of course, this often stems from pulling one the rein. Suggestions appreciated!
Thank you for your comment.Not knowing the level rider you refer to makes my answer a bit more general. Often riders who hold their reins in their fingers think they are being gentle. A fist sounds tougher than fingers. Perhaps it stems from past riding levels where they have struggled with keeping their hands still. As I mention in the article, good hands stem from a good seat. They also require a good base of support, so anything you can do to strengthen seat and legs should help the rider’s hands.
It sounds as though some of the riders have a fixed picture of how to carry the reins. I might be inclined to make a game of things and have them hold two marbles in their hands and have a reward for who has them left at the end of a lesson or exercise. Or some variation on this with something small that takes an effort to hold in each hand. Or something of value they may keep if they still have it at the end of the lesson -Stickers, a horse charm, or lip gloss, small bells, a dollar bill, change? – all depending on the age etc of your student. Have you tried your idea of holding a small crop? Did it help?
To keep riders from grabbing the inside rein for turns you can follow the tradition method of working through weaving poles to practice turning with seat and legs. Or you could try having your riders carry a foam ball between their elbow and rib cage. If they pull they will lose the ball. (and then they have to dismount to retrieve their own ball) Until riders grasp and own the concept of using the outside rein for support to the horse they will allow the horse to run through the shoulder. Teach the concept that a horse’s body doesn’t necessarily follow where his nose leads.
This also works as an exercise for working with outside rein control. (don’t frustrate your riders by doing both in one lesson!) The soft foam ball between the elbow and ribs requires just the right amount of support to hold it. That will keep the rider from giving the hand forward. I would teach that they are to support the horse with the outside rein with about the same amount of tension it takes to keep the ball in place at the trot but be sure they aren’t clamping the ball to their side! (dare I say if I needed to really drive home that clamping isn’t what we are after, I might use a soft squeaky toy? But don’t ever try this with a horse that will react to the noise or you may have an even bigger problem)
Reverse the thought process- not so much the straight line from the elbow through the hands to the bit but rather the horse communicates from his mouth through your hands to a soft elbow. What is he saying?
Most riders with hand problems view control of the horse as hands first, seat and legs second. See if this is the issue with your riders by asking random questions during their lesson about how to make a turn or how to get from point a to point b. Then change the thought process. From Hands first to seat and legs first with hands last.
Let them ride through a trot poles chute while tying knots in bailing string. Ride without reins. Strengthen the base of support. Any thing that will help riders to achieve independent aids.
I hope my off-the-cuff thoughts give you some ideas. We really get to use our imaginations as riding instructors. But always remember- Safety First.
Thanks again for your comments,
Hi Barbara, I teach mixed groups of usually advanced beginners / early intermediate riders on riding school horses. A common problem is the soft, floppy fingers that are never still, often associated with loose reins. Any ideas for exercises or drills that can improve these hands? all I’ve come up with is shaking hands with the riders to show how much ‘grip’ is needed, eg on outside rein through a corner compared with inside rein. I find teaching a good contact / connection one of the hardest things and there are not many suggestions re exercises, etc around – just descriptions of what it is, not how to get it. BTW I really appreciate the site, it’s been immensely helpful
Thank you for your question. I’m a little lost picturing soft floppy fingers but I can picture lazy arms, stiff arms, hands that alternate between resting on the neck and moving, no contact to sudden contact so I think we are in the same vicinity for the problem. These are issues that are apparent before the rider has developed independent aids and an independent seat which is exactly the riding stage you have described. School horses know these riders so well and also know how to take advantage of the weakness. Unfortunately, we can not teach, describe, or show feel very well. This is not to buy into the phrase that you can’t teach feel, because I think you can, but it’s more you can develop feel a student. School horses are perfect for this whether it is a group lesson or a single student.
Rather than an exercise that makes the rider think about how much weight to put into reins or how to feel the reins I might choose to give them activities that make them use the reins. I would be creative and get them off the steady rail work as much as possible with weaving, serpentines, circles in corners, changing the rein on the diagonal, changing down both the short and long center lines, circles against the rail, alternating circles off the center line. I’d do these at the walk for starters (your level group will get bored fast) then I’d move it up to the trot. And I’d emphasize the coordinating hand and leg. Once they had that down I’d probably tighten up anything they were weaving through, requiring them to be more precise with the hand leg coordination. I find that most students begun to develop a basic feel this way. The situation necessitates action which practiced enough becomes automatic reaction.
The trot is a great gate for this because it’s quick and you can increase the difficulty or change the activity from sitting to posting to without stirrups, and if you teach jumping the exercises can be done in two point (without leaning on the neck). And all the while that you’re helping riders develop better hand coordination they are developing seat, legs, and balance.
I hope this helps. I’m so glad you read The Riding Instructor. And thank you for telling me the site is helpful. That’s so encouraging to read.
Barbara Ellin Fox
There is a student at my barn that I teach occasionally (alongside her lessons from my trainer) who has a tendency to drop her hands down and out, particularly her inside hand while doing transitions from trot to canter. I saw this article and immediately thought of her, but you really only address hands that are too high here. I would be interested to hear what you have to say about hands that are too low. (There is someone at my old barn who also drops their hands down and out but hasn’t been able to break the habit for three years!)
Hands that are too low also cause problems for the horse. For one, they pull a snaffle bit down on to the horse’s bars when’s intended to work on the lips. This can cause the horse to raise it’s head from discomfort. Often riders with low hands think the position will cause the horse to lower its head, but it doesn’t work that way. Hands too low becomes more a matter of lack of understanding of the action of the bit and hands and also the rider not understanding that they need to carry their hands. Another poor hand position is the ones that are too wide apart. You see this more frequently in trainers who are trying to make the horse flex at the pole. But you’re right- we need a hands article to address some of these problems, too. I’ll work on it. Thanks Barbara
I have a rider hand solution that uses a hay string. Tie loops at both ends and put string behind back. String needs to be short enough to keep elbows at rhe rider’s sides with elbows bent . Rider then holds the reins and the string is looped around each thumb. The is only done with a quiet steady horse. The rider pushes their back against the string as well. Keeps the rider sitting up well with elbows bent.
Dear Michelle Haseltine
Thank you for taking the time to comment. Yours is an interesting solution for rider hand position. I’m glad you mention a quiet steady horse. I’m averse any sort of tying with riders because of the potential danger to the rider. Even a quiet horse can stumble, trip, or spook. Baling string/hay string is particularly strong and would not allow for breaking in an emergency. Perhaps a person could do this with thread, receiving the same pressures but minimizing the risk to the thumbs. I also do not go for tying the elbows, putting whips behind elbows or tying stirrups to girths (you did not suggest any of these). I would only use these methods with someone who is not on a live horse. They might safely give the rider a sense of feel on a mechanical horse, a saw more or a saddle rack but are too risky for me to suggest on a live animal. I appreciate your comment. Barbara
Only just discovered you and have found this particular article of such high value. I have a hotish spanish mare and I have been struggling to work with her. She is highly spooky and I know that I have been wrong in my hands and elbows, and shoulders , the whole works. This has lit a few lightbulbs for me so thank you so much for this information. So very valuable.
I’m so happy to be helpful. I hope some of the suggestions make your mare happy. Barbara