Still hands are good hands, right?
Well, yes… and no! As is often the case with riding, it depends.
As something to work towards, then yes, hands that appear to be still can be a sign of a well schooled horse and a skilful rider. But if you want a happy horse who enjoys being ridden throughout his career, how your hands behave has to be determined by what your horse’s mouth is doing and not the other way around.
When a horse is trained sympathetically, through progressive and horse-friendly schooling, a number of changes occur in the way they move. One of the results of this physical and mental education process is the development of collection.
When a young or unschooled horse is moving in a natural way, he uses his head and neck as a balancing rod. From the saddle, you’ll feel a clear back and forth nod of his head, especially in the walk and canter.
When a schooled horse is properly collected, the joints of his legs play a bigger role in his overall movement while his head and neck – and therefore his mouth – move much less as he takes each stride.
But ‘fixing’ your hands (holding them still) in the hope that this will be enough to change the way your horse uses his entire body isn’t good recipe for success.
The tongue is very sensitive and your horse will do everything he can to protect it and avoid bumping his moving mouth against a bit that’s being held still. This is the origin of many contact or postural problems.
Doing away with the bit and riding in a bitless bridle will, of course, reduce the symptoms. But your horse will still be bumping his nose against the noseband and the symptoms of that irritation will soon begin to show up in other ways.
A better way is to begin by ‘following’ the movement of your horse’s mouth so that you can have contact on the corners of his mouth and yet avoid hurting or irritating him at all.
The simplest way to do this is by allowing your hands to swing back and forth in harmony with his movement. The amount of tension in your reins (which need only be a very slight amount) should stay the same in both directions.
For a more advanced rider, this movement occurs through every joint in their spine before continuing through their shoulders and elbows. For less experienced riders, just allowing your shoulders and elbows to open and close throughout each stride is a really good way to start making positive changes.
Think of the experience of going for a nice walk hand in hand with your partner. If your partner holds their arm stiff or rigid, their tension will quickly spread to you too. Finding a rhythmical sense of harmony as your hands swing back and forth allows both of you to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Staying in harmony with your horse’s mouth is just as important, maybe even more so, when giving aids with your reins.
In our Schooling Made Simple coaching programme, Jo and I explain how to establish and maintain harmony with you horse’s mouth while progressively developing his or her schooling, all the way from the very beginning to advanced stages of riding.
As a starting point, though, try focusing on following your own horse’s mouth the next time you go riding. We’d love to know what you discover. Why not leave a comment and let us know…?