As dressage riders, we strive to achieve an “independent seat,” to remain balanced and communicate efficient aids through the least amount of movement in the saddle. However, an independent seat isn’t worth much unless the rider can also pair it with independent hands. As humans, we use our arms and hands as our primary means for balance, and horses use their heads and necks for balance. This often causes frustrating miscommunication between horse and rider. Even worse, it prevents your horse from gaining a stable foundation for movements on the bit and severely limits the horse’s capacity to maintain a balanced rhythm in any gait.
“Loud hands” are a problem that solitary riders fail to recognize in themselves–until they are able to see video footage that proves that their hands are an alien entity, floating around doing as they please. We’ve all been there. Oh the cringing as you stare at the screen, following your busy, skittering hands hopping across the screen like the dot on a karaoke prompt.
How do we fetter these wayward hands and make them contribute to the civilized, ordered society that is the rest of our body?
By quieting them down, of course! The best training advice I ever got from my instructor was to ride every horse as if it were a Grand Prix horse. Keep your body in alignment and give your horse all the guidelines he heeds to succeed in small increments. As far as hands, you’ll want to keep them as still as possible in order to keep a straight and consistent line from your elbow to the bit. While going through the learning process and establishing posture and muscle memory, it is perfectly acceptable to cheat your horse into thinking you know what you are doing.
By cheating, I mean bridging your reins. This is a tried and true method for stabilizing your hands, keeping them level, and helping your horse learn to travel through the bridle. It is often used by jockeys and cross country riders to help the horse stay straight and discourage your fingers from letting the reins incrementally slip through their grip.
Simply put, all you need to do to bridge your reins is loop excess rein on both sides of the buckle around so the rein passes through your thumb and finger and goes across your horse’s neck to the other hand, where it also goes through your thumb and finger.
The bridging can be a little claustrophobic at first. You’ll feel your range of motion severely limited and you’ll be desperate to pop those reins back out to their original glorious length. If you stick with it for a few laps around the arena and some circles and serpentines for good measure, you’ll find that with your hands “tied up” you are forced to ride more from your core and you’ll start to feel the inklings of seat-to-hand connection.
Even better, as you drag your bridge into trot and canter work you’ll see your horse practically faint with relief that he doesn’t have to run algorithms and mental gymnastics to figure out where the heck you want his head to stay.
And if this exercise isn’t torture enough (bonus points for bridging your reins and going sans stirrups), then you can try the neck strap method that riding instructor Wendy Murdock uses. Basically, you hold your reins normally, but slip a thin strap around your horse’s under-neck and hold it under your reins for stability. It will prevent your hands from jumping up and down.
And if neither of these exercises strike your fancy, you can always reach for your riding crop or bat and hold it cross-ways across your hands, hooked under your thumbs, and play around with the distances between your hands. The most advanced riders dictate that there should be about a fist-width between your hands, but it takes a great deal of practice to get to this point.
As always, thanks for reading!
Happy riding! May your hands be as ridiculously stable as this gyroscopic chicken head!