If you are a more advanced rider: Would you be able to ride a good, round circle in trot or canter without the bit with your horse working correctly in a slightly rounded posture? Would your horse work “on the bit” without you acting on the reins other than retaining connection?
If you are a novice rider: Can you turn, stop, circle, change direction, leg-yield on your horse without using your hands as a dominant aid (imagine having no bit, would your horse go where you want it to go)?
If the answer is no to any of those questions you might want to read on…
Something that surfaces over and over again as a riding issue across all disciplines at pretty much any level is difficulty in keeping rider’s hands “quiet” and therefore not causing discomfort or having detrimental effects on the horse’s mouth.
The issue will have many shades and variables depending on rider’s experience and will vary from complete lack of independent hands, through hands that love to see-saw on horse’s mouth to keep its head “in” to more specific sins of contact like for example overusing inside hand in turns.
My way of working on rider’s “hands issue” has its origin in a simple belief:
YOUR HANDS WILL ALWAYS TRY TO CORRECT WHAT YOUR SEAT HASN’T SUCCEEDED IN ASKING FOR
Following this thought, “hands issue” is very rarely to do with hands themselves – at least in my experience – and pretty much everything to do with the seat skill set.
90% Seat 10% Hands
The kind of riding I like to teach, watch and do is one that doesn’t focus on pain response i.e. doesn’t abuse horse’s mouth in order to turn, stop, round the neck or engage. In other words I like to see 90% of rider’s seat/energy/thoughts and 10% of head placing through the reins or simply hand positioning. For this to be possible the rider needs to be able to successfully communicate with the horse through intricate pattern of slight muscular and weight adjustments that are correctly perceived by the horse.
With this in mind, I generally see 3 main causes of “hand problem”:
1) Inadequate balance in the saddle (lack of independent, balanced, safe position in the saddle)
2) Low level of seat effectiveness (can be due to no. 1 point above but also due to incorrect schooling of the horse, laziness of the rider, horse’s soundness problems, tack issues to name a few)
3) Impatience (this I see most often in experienced/advanced riders and with complete beginners)
Sometimes the rider battles with all three causes at the same time or a combination of them. The first step in making a change is to determine the cause.
There are of course ways of working on the symptoms – like attaching a balance strap to the saddle and holding it throughout the ride – which do sometimes solve the problem by revealing real reasons for ‘handiness’ or simply by increasing rider’s confidence. However, if like me, you are a cause focused instructor or rider, you will want to widen your training plan a little.
Re 1 – INADEQUATE BALANCE IN THE SADDLE
This is absolutely normal in riders from beginners to intermediate (Aspire Start and Foundation) and might have nothing to do with the length of time spent on riding lessons. I see riders who had been riding for 10-15 years who come for assessments for Aspire training and who I advise to go on the Start Programme to develop basic, correct seat.
If you are a rider who struggles with good balance and you really want to improve, set yourself a plan made up of sessions with friendly chiropractor or physiotherapist who is aware of demands and needs of riding (to get to know the physical strengths and weaknesses your body has and work on them in relation to riding) and a series of well thought out lunge lessons or lessons on a riding simulator. Winter is a great time for it especially if you dislike getting cold and wet but would want to make a difference to your skill come spring.
Re 2: LOW LEVEL OF SEAT EFFECTIVENESS
I won’t go into horse’s or tack problems in this post but it goes without saying that these should be seen to first. Assuming we are free to focus primarily on the rider, my advice would be to spend 2-3 months riding bitless. There are bitless bridles available on the market if you fancy one but a headcollar and a leadrope will do just fine.
Here are a couple of photos showing me on my client’s pony. She brought him for lesson on a headcollar one day becasue he was due his dental check up and there was a worry about the state of his teeth. However, as the girl needs to work “on her hands” too we kept the pony in the headcollar even though his dentist found nothing to correct.
I can tell you now that 3 weeks into her riding without the bit she is using her seat much more, she stopped being obsessed with keeping her pony’s neck round with the reins and instead is addressing her ability to bend him well to both sides, his forwardness and obedience to seat aids.
It’s relatively easy to be effective with a bit in horse’s mouth. Picture a situation in which you forgot to turn at the right moment, then you realised you made a mistake and turned quickly. What did you use to turn? I would hazard a guess that 99 out of 100 riders would pull on the inside rein to make a quick correction.
As long as a hand reliant rider has their tool (i.e. the bit) it is very difficult for them to think “seat first” then the mouth. Having no bit calls for early preparation of every move, discovery of thighs for turning, hips and upper body for weight shifts, eyes for direction, arms for channelling the withers, legs for bending…The rider also starts thinking differently about their communication with the horse. It has to start with intention because no quick correction is possible. The “mouth rider” turns into a creative, seeking and feeling rider.
At times riders tell me “but I can’t ride with no contact” or “but my horse must work on the bit at all times and he can’t just be ridden without it”…If you think this too, you have even more of a reason to ride without a bit for a couple of months.
As you can see on above photos I have no bit to ask the pony to be “on the bit” yet as I am asking him to bend correctly on the circle, to lighten his inside shoulder and step under his centre of gravity with his inside hind leg, he assumes a rounded posture himself. Should I had the bit I could have asked him for more correct inside flexion at the poll (he is tilting his head here but you might argue it’s a longer process of helping him be more supple through the right side of his body rather than demanding the flexion) but there is not much else that he could do better at this moment in his training if he had a full bridle on.
Below is a photo of the same pony with his teenage owner during her yesterday’s lesson. She is learning to be more proactive rider as far as a shape of her pony goes and the work she puts into the training is starting to pay off. On the photo below you can see her holding the reins with her hands upside down.
This is simply to give her “another feel” of the reins, to make her focus on degrees of contact she can have but also on creating a channel from her forearms into which to ride her pony’s backside 🙂 She is leaning back in her sitting trot here which is something we are working on but is otherwise doing her best to use her legs and seat to ride the pony on the shape of the circle. As you can see, the pony responds with relaxing the bottom of his neck, lifting the base of it and dropping his head on the vertical.
If you are a riding school rider, your riding school might have rules that forbid clients from riding without the bit. If that is the case you can ask for the horse to have a headcollar on top of the bridle with second pair of reins attached to it. This way, you have the usual set of “breaks” required should you needed to as well as your bitless bridle to practice with.
Re 3: IMPATIENCE
My view is that in both cases – of an experienced rider and a beginner rider – the more knowledge we acquire the less anger and impatient reactions. Understanding why exactly things happen, how horses learn, how human body reacts and functions gives us something positive to focus on.
It’s unlikely that we will ever completely eradicate the feeling of impatience but I find that knowing the “why” helps me not to act on that feeling.
The more we know the more we realise how little we know and that thought might shut down the impatience and switch on the curiosity…
Do let me know if you try riding bitless for a while in order to increase effectiveness of your seat. I would love to hear about your experiences.
- Bitless Bridle Now Allowed for Dressage Competition (alove4horses.com)
- Rider Training: Learning the Feel for Half-Halt. Step by Step Exercise for novice riders. (aspireequestrian.wordpress.com)
- Feel the fear (kickingon.wordpress.com)
- Rider Training: Fun Ways to Increase Body Awareness and Balance Perception (aspireequestrian.wordpress.com)
- Come for a day of November Aspire Training! (aspireequestrian.wordpress.com)
- Horse Riding and Dystonia. Progress Report 17 (dystoniagirlblog.wordpress.com)
- Discussion on Pressures Applied to the Horses Mouth/head (happyhorsesbitless.com)