I’ve given a lot of thought lately to my student’s hands while riding. While it is true that every instructor has their own way that they want a rider to position their hands, there is a definite advantage for a rider to maintain a constantly balanced and natural position with their hands and body. Maybe it is the thousands of hours spent freezing, sweating, and practicing before & after school riding growing up, but the elements that were instilled in my head as a youth for equitation and showmanship have structured how I both ride and teach today.
There is a line. A line that your posture maintains, that provides the rider both balance and strength. A rider should always strive to be “a part of their horse.” Your hands should be an extension of your arms and your body and a steady means of communication between your horse’s mouth and you. It has taken me 30 years to develop my hands, and I am far from being the best I can be at communicating with my horse. Only in the past 4 or 5 years have I really began to experiment with different bridles, bits, saddles, pads, cinches, reins, and aides to assist in what I am trying to accomplish. While that is an entirely extensive discussion in its own, it has made me really think about how my signals are being received by the horse I am riding.
Teaching students has also really made me pay attention to the details surrounding how a rider uses their hands and how their signals are communicated and received by their horses. It is extremely interesting to watch different riders work through cues and learn to develop the feel of a horse’s mouth. While is extremely interesting, it has also been something of an agony as well. There is so much frustration that a rider and horse feel when they are not communicating clearly with one another. So many times, simple cues become huge obstacles because a rider is not giving clear signals. Now whether that is due to their feel, their bridle, their reins, horse’s dental situation, how a horse carries themselves, rider hand position, mood, anxiety, blood sugar levels, dehydration, weather, choice of clothing, etc, so many secondary factors influence and dictate how your ride will go.
What works for one rider may or may not work for another. One rider’s length of arms, height, how they are built, etc, all differ between riders. No matter which factors are playing roles in your riding, it is up to you as a rider, to learn your body and your horse and pay attention to tiny detail and signals. A rider can be shown and watch a thousand times how to do something, yet they still have to be able to do it themselves and develop their own feel for how to achieve certain signals. This is true about a rider’s feet and legs and body position as well, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The long and short of it is, feel is not something a rider can master overnight, and nor should they want to. The process of learning feel and continuing to develop feel is part of the process of growing as a rider and horseman. When you can work as one with a thousand pound animal, thinking, moving, reacting and responding as one with that animal, you will find the greatest joy; I would dare to say, ever experienced by mankind and well worth the wait. One must never stop working at continuing to develop their feel as that the link between yourself and your horse can only always get better, stronger and more efficient. The hours of blood, sweat and tears, frustration and thrills, are all part of the process, and a rider should never be made fun of by others for where they are in that process, as it is different for everyone. My advice to you, cherish every moment that you have with your horse, because those moments are not promised, riding and competing is a privilege and should be treated with the discipline of a paying job, even when it isn’t. God bless the horse for teaching us what only they can.