teach me tuesday: good hands

Having good hands is something I aspire to.  I’d like to think that I have soft hands, because even though I tend toward too long of reins I’m quick to slip them or release, and I can follow decently.  Also, I’m a big mane grabber — so at least I’m not balancing on my horse’s mouth.


But what I really want to talk about is how people are taught to ride, and what they do with their hands then.  Because I see an awful lot of riders getting pulled up out of the tack by their hands and I’m like… don’t we all know we’re not supposed to be doing that, right?


Some horses are more sensitive than others, of course.  I think if I’d tried to haul myself over a fence on Murray’s mouth when he was four, five, or six (or honestly, even now) he’d be like UMM EXCUSE ME pretty hard.  But Quincy was just a fucking trooper of a five year old and was happy to drag me over whatever.  He was the best.

So I wonder: how do you think the way we are taught to ride influences our proclivity to haul on our horses’ faces?  I honestly don’t remember a ton of my training as it pertained to hands in the horses immediately prior to Murray, but Murray let me know early and often that he was not comfortable with a constant contact.  Especially not my shitty, incompetent, amateur contact.  He would accept a loose rein or march his ass backwards to the barn and that was that.  So a loose rein it was, and I learned to steer with my legs and seat.

I hear a lot of instructors (including some of my early ones) telling their students to keep a steady pressure or contact on the reins.  Inevitably, you see a lot of nooblets pulling themselves up and down and up and down at the trot on their charming, patient, lovely lesson horses’ mouths.  I also understand the lure of holding on to those reins — without them, you can’t pull your horse up quickly if they do something stupid and before you learn to steer properly they are your steering wheel.  Not everybody likes to ride around on gigantic, unfamiliar beasts all “Jesus take the wheel!”


We know that one can’t have good hands without something of an independent seat, but are we shooting ourselves in the foot by teaching students to ride so much with their hands from early on?  Is there another option?

Based on my experience with Murray, I really feel that it would be better for students to learn to ride with a loop in their reins and still steer, brake, and balance.  Sure, learning in this order has created some problems for me (like a general reluctance to feel pressure on the reins, and an inability to hold up the weight of my own hands), but I think it’s avoided other bigger problems: I don’t balance on my hands (mostly) and I don’t throw my entire body forward over the fences in an attempt to not hit my horse in the mouth (mostly; I do it for other reasons though).

So why do we teach our students to hold the reins in such a way that they end up balancing on their horses’ mouths?  Every student is going to balance on her horse’s mouth to learn to post at first, but after you find your balance point why keep doing it?  Why let someone balance on their horse’s mouth as they are two-pointing around?  Or am I seeing a hugely biased sample of young amateurs at small shows that are friendly to nooby riders?

2002_riding_n2_2Ok so lots of little kids with long reins in this pic… but we were also walking.

So tell me, how were you taught to hold or keep contact on the reins when you learned to ride?  Is there something I’m missing here because, shut up Nicole, you’ve been riding for ten minutes in a very small geographical location?  Has it changed since you were taught to ride?  Do you see young students riding differently now than when you were a student?  Am I full of shit and it really is better to learn to ride with contact because [valid reasons]?

It just seems to me that there’s a better way, and I wonder why more students and riders aren’t employing it.

15 thoughts on “teach me tuesday: good hands”

  1. This is really interesting and something I never thought about! I was taught to have reins short enough to have a straight line from elbow to bit all the time. I also had probably the world’s worst early riding education at a very unusual barn where the school horses where whatever crazy, lame things came in from the dealer on the way to the auction that day. You needed short reins to stop a buck, bolt, or other misbehavior quickly. I did not learn about actual contact until college.


  2. That picture kill me every time OMG

    This is such a unique topic. I had to think hard and I honestly don’t really have an answer. I struggle with my inside hand floating down, any direction with any horse, on the flat. I like to think I have soft hands, but they can tend to be busy. I feel like this is a product of my very early hunter days. Unfortunately I was taught the crank and yank and a young age. Around 10 I started eventing and was taught the more correct way of going, but its hard to reverse perch and pray and crank and yank. I feel like 16 years of dressage training has helped with correct, even and forgiving contact, but sometimes I still hang incorrectly on the inside rein. I have to focus so much more on my hands each ride than anything else. With jumping, Yankee always required strong contact up and over fences. I learned the automatic release, following contact over the fence and never losing it–or trying not to. With B, he’s is SOOOO sensitive that I feel like I barely ride with feel at all. I over exaggerate the release because how dare I touch his face even slightly over fences. Even in a hack, he’s so so so sensitive…

    This is curious. I want to see what other people think.


  3. I was taught to ride on a longe line without reins, and I still see this method being used today, and instructors that emphasize fixing problems with leg and/or seat, not hand. I had longe line lessons without reins, and eventually without stirrups, well into my teens. My hands are still undisciplined, but I know I don’t balance on the reins.


      1. Ha! But yeah, I wish this were more prevalent today. If nothing else, it emphasized that point of contact at the bit is pointless until you have balance and control of your seat and legs.


  4. idk i learned to ride with a loop in my reins (and in a hackamore bc trainer grew very conservative and protective of her horses with age and wanted ZERO contact), then moved to a hunter barn where contact was still very light. it’s only when i switched to eventing with isabel that i began to learn what contact (in the dressage sense) really means, and only when i started riding with Dan that i learned that a loop in the reins while jumping was verboten.

    all that to say…. i’m not sure it’s made much of a difference in my quest for better hands. idk. i think it’s just hard, and you just have to really focus on learning. and like you say – working on the independent seat. all the same tho, i try really hard not to balance on the horse’s mouth. it happens tho 😦


  5. I am a recovering too-long-of-reins-hands-open rider. That’s my natural way of existing. Unfortunately because for pretty much all the years I’ve been riding I haven’t had a proper feel of the horse’s mouth, I actually had really stiff/hard shoulders and elbows (which I am working on…along with the closed hands/somewhat of a contact thing).

    I can’t remember what I learned in lessons as a kid… but I remember hearing “shorter your reins” a lot. I’ve certainly seen a lot of kids holding onto the horse’s face to balance (over fences and on the flat). And I cringe. Good observation!


    1. Actually this is a very interesting point too. Another type of rider I’ve seen is one with short-ish reins but still a loop in them and VERY rigid elbows and shoulders with no give. So it’s clearly not all about hands, the whole arm plays into it. Yes…. A very good point.


  6. I don’t exactly remember how I was taught about this, but I can speak to what I’ve done in teaching lessons. For real beginners, I would only encourage them to keep their reins short enough so that they can turn effectively without having to pull their whole arm back to their side or farther. I never really taught about having a “contact” until they were a little more independent of their aids. If beginners have trouble, my go to was a strap across the front of the saddle or a neck strap. These were good tools for riders learning to post the trot or canter, as well as for riders learning to jump. I’m big on rider responsibility, but as you are learning I think it’s a lot to ask of a newbie to become proficient at every single thing. That said, I would explain that they used a saddle/neck strap because it prevented them from knocking their horse in the mouth – so they start learning to think about how their riding effects the horse.


  7. I was totally taught to ride with a loop in my reins. Now, it is hard because I’m constantly trying to correct my weak connection in my hands. However, I definitely prefer I was taught this way


  8. When I used to teach beginners at summer camps, I would tie bailing twine on the reins where I wanted their hands. Because otherwise the kids would insist on yanking at their horses’ mouths and by the end of the summer I’d have very bitter camp ponies who all needed grass reins.


  9. I see many riders with very good connection. In dressage. Lower levels, yep, tenser, but most often I see good hands at clinics etc. It’s become my mantra, creating good contact.
    It’ll take another 20 years of riding 😉


  10. I learned to have very loopy reins and no contact because I started out as a Western rider with pleasure and refining influences. So this whole dressage and contact thing kind of like me. 15 years of Western vs my almost 3 years of attempting dressage. I actually had my first dressage lesson the other day, so maybe I will get better at it!


  11. I don’t remember how I was originally taught to ride, but I’m certainly guilty of getting too handsy at times. BM is definitely a proponent of light hands for all her riders from little kids up, and it’s obvious in that all her lesson horses are quick to tell you “No! That’s not how you ride!” when you start to get too fussy with them.


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