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.