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.