Functionality in Equitation: The Forward Thinking Hand

Mon, 09/09/2019 - 09:14
Training Your Horse
Hand position and direction shown to the rider from above :: Photo © Silke Rottermann

Yielding with the hand is a valuable skill, it is one of the keys to create correct balance with sophisticated communication while riding. The quality of contact is often seen as a result of a well-trained and correctly moving horse, but it is also a tool that will lead to better balance and easier movement when used wisely.

The horse needs to understand the contact, and good contact gives the rider the possibility to help the horse move even better. It is also important to be able to correct contact problems when needed, and for this it is beneficial to use the sensitive and precise motoric skills of the hand. The rider’s ability to relax and soften with the hand, to yield, should function like a reflex – instantly and automatically after any correction.

Horses Avoiding the Contact

Sometimes contact is avoided in order to try to be kinder or softer to the horse. This does not work for dressage, which requires the contact. It might feel easier to just let the rein be loose, as it requires skill and precision to use the rein with a soft, elastic and sensitive contact with different kind of horses. But a good contact provides the rider a lot of useful information, allowing us to correct problems in frame or releasing any beginning tension in mouth, poll or the neck. Because if the horse gets tense, it is useful to be able to help the horse relax and balance itself instead of simply continuing the resistance. We are then dealing with pressure and tension, and this needs to be solved out before it creates a conflict which leads to a stiffer movement. This requires that the rider recognizes the tension, and can react and correct it towards relaxation by correcting it with half halts and a soft hand, inviting the horse towards better balance. Short: The rider needs a good feeling for the balance as it is a conversation with the horse.

The function and sensitivity of the hand is depending on the quality of the rider's seat. To use the hand properly in an independent way, the seat must be balanced, relaxed and efficient. The whole hand and arm including the shoulders? also need to be relaxed to be able to feel the little nuances and changes in the muscle tone and balance of the horse. For a relaxed hand and riding, we need balance that is both physical and mental, allowing us to focus on details.

A Good Hand Through a Good Seat

Elbow/arm position, arm resting relaxed on the side
To create a hand that has the ability to communicate correctly the rider needs a good classical seat, a balanced upright position with relaxed shoulders and elbows resting softly on the sides. It is important to keep thumbs upright, and keep fingers soft. If the rider turns her thumbs in (with or without pushing the elbows out - the typical "piano hand") the hand becomes slightly stiffer, even if the rider still seems to be as flexible as in a normal position. The elbows should rest on the sides, and they give and return from there easily. If the rider is too straight with the elbows, the elastic function gets lost. If the rider turns his thumbs downwards, the stiffening effect is the same for how the horse feels it. Actually any excessive turn or tension in the hand will affect the quality of the contact, and the effect is easily noticed when the trainer holds the reins (or preferably even the bit when tested without the horse, this really helps to feel the difference) to check the quality of the contact. It is important to learn keeping the arms and wrists in a relaxed position, which will help the rider use the hand effectively and safely for a moment when needed, with as little force as possible.

When rider picks the contact in walk, the hand should think forward immediately and the horse should accept and follow the hand like in a discussion he is interested in. I usually test the rider’s contact from the ground to see if they have a tendency to resist, or if they are allowing the movement naturally. There is a difference in how the giving movement feels in the bit, depending of the direction where the rider is letting the movement flow – is it towards the horse or the rider? Are you actually thinking forward when you yield? It often tends to happen towards the rider, and when this is corrected we can see a change in the frame and how the horse is moving. We want to create balanced upwards-forwards movement, so we need to allow the movement flow to that direction. If there is any issue with the balance, we need to adjust the impulsion level to the situation so that we are always taking care of the balance. The horse needs to think forward, but not too much and not against the hand.

The Forward Thinking Hand

A good hand allows the natural movement of the horse’s head and neck, which becomes especially important in walk. This can sometimes be causing problems, if the rider is unconsciously resisting with the hand, even if only slightly.

Riders (as human beings) have a natural tendency to automatically affect backwards with the hand. If the horse is getting tense, the rider usually instinctively tries to block the hand slightly downwards-backwards. This often leads to a situation where the horse tries to resist the contact, trying to push against the bit. At this point it is important to help the horse understand how to react to the rein to avoid unnecessary resistance. There is fine line between resisting with the hand when needed to correct the horse’s response and holding back in a way that causes more resistance. The horse needs to respect the hand, but before this he needs to understand what the hand means and the rider should be able to recognize if he is allowing or blocking the movement.

Hand position affects the frame, to lift the frame relax the
hand a bit forward and upward from here
If the horse is uneven with the contact or doesn't trust the contact, one really useful technique is to hold the hand against horses neck. This works especially well in walk. If the horse gets tense, sometimes the natural neck movement is blocked and it may feel difficult to follow the neck movement properly. To be able to give with the hand in walk, we need a horse that uses its whole body correctly. The neck movement can be reset by holding the hand against the horses neck (still keeping the contact with the reins with one or two hands), and the hand can be slightly pushed forward in the rhythm of the walk to give the horse an idea of the neck movement. This exercise can be done in all gaits, but it is especially useful in walk. It helps the horse to trust the contact, and it creates a forward thinking movement in the rein. Sometimes riders are holding the hand against a strap in the saddle to try to create even contact, but this can cause the horse to avoid the contact even more. By using the rein against the neck we are inviting the horse to trust the contact easily, and the effect is usually seen instantly.

In trot the hands are hold quietly, and only used for the moments of corrections. To hold the hand softly on the spot, we need relaxed shoulders and elbows that allow the movement to flow through. In canter the hand follows the horses neck movement slightly, but the movement is smaller than in walk, depending on the situation (for example extended vs collected work).

Text by Niina Kirjorinne
Photos by Minna Tallberg, Silke Rottermann

Related Links
Functionality in Equitation: Balance, the Key in Equitation
Functionality in Equitation: Aim for Good Movement
Functionality in Equitation: Fascia and Movement
Functionality in Equitation: Fascia Treament - Surface Has a Deep Effect
Meet Niina Kirjorinne, Classical Dressage Rider and Physiotherapist
Effect of Noseband Positioning to Fascial and Neural Dynamics of the Head