How often have you read ‘keep your hands still’ only to read ‘take a check’, ‘move your fingers on the reins’ or ‘squeeze’ two paragraphs later? With so many references to hands, reins and fingers is it any wonder many riders get confused?
The first thing you need to understand is your fingers are a part of your hands not the same thing. So your fingers can move although your hands stay still.
There’s never a time when your hands need to move away or back from their position in front of your body. They should stay above your horse’s withers to keep control of his shoulders. When your body turns your arms and hands should go too. This moves his shoulders whilst your legs push his body and quarters behind them.
No pace or movement benefits from your reins being too long. Clamp your reins between your thumb and first finger and don’t let go!
Pull back on your reins and your horse will tighten his back. When he does that his hocks can’t step underneath him and he loses impulsion. Nag at yourself to ride forward and never pull back. Holding a contact is the same as holding a toddler’s hand. You’re there to guide them not to break their fingers.
If your horse has been leaning on the bit your fingers stiffen up. Is it his weight or your tension that makes them ache? He can only lean on something if it’s solid. If he can’t lean on your hand he’ll have to sit on his hocks. Move your second, third and little finger as if you’re drumming them on a table or dabbling them in water. That small amount of movement stops you tensing your hands.
Your contact is ‘soft’ when your fingers are mobile. You can still feel your horse at the end of your reins but he isn’t a dead weight. Push him forward into a soft contact and he’ll relax, round his back and go naturally onto the bit.
If your horse resists your hands then your contact should be restrictive. Imagine you’ve got a wet sponge in each hand and have to squeeze all the water out. Squeeze both reins together. This gives him an even but pressured feeling in his mouth. It’s enough to say “Don’t do it.” Keep up the pressure until he relaxes his jaw.
Many riders get confused when they start trying to get their horse on the bit. They squeeze one rein and then the other swinging their horse’s head from side to side. It gets a result of sorts because the horse puts his head in to avoid the discomfort BUT he isn’t on the bit – the second they swap a whip or do something different he pops straight back up again. (Imagine for a second how distracting it would be when you’re trying to read this if someone was pulling your head from side to side.)
Compare your horse to a bottle of coke. Shake the bottle with the lid on and the drink inside fizzes but can’t escape. Your rein contact is that lid. If it stays consistent it contains the energy your legs create. When his hocks are under him and the length of his neck is determined by the length of your reins his back has to round. Without so much as a squeeze or a pull he’s on the bit.
Imagine if you opened and closed the lid of the bottle. In time the fizz would escape and the drink would become flat. Releasing and taking your contact has exactly the same effect on your horse. When his hocks aren’t under his body he can’t go onto the bit because his energy has dropped and his back will hollow.
If your horse is heavy on one rein the chances are he’s not in the other. Never ‘drop’ him off the heavy side. Always put him onto the lighter side. You need an even pressure on both sides of his mouth to contain his energy and keep him on his hocks.
Here’s something to try –
Take up your reins and stay in walk. Now ride forward, move your fingers but don’t pull back. Follow the movement of your horse’s head in walk. Your hands and arms should move forward and back to keep the same weight in each rein.
Some horses accept a contact instantly. Others are less trusting. Never resort to a quick pull because that’s exactly why your horse won’t settle in the first place!
Try putting your leg on and moving your hand two inches forward. Your horse should ‘look’ for the contact. This means the weight in your hand stays the same because he stretches his neck to find the contact. So instead of pulling him back into a contact you’re pushing him to one and because he’s relaxed he’ll actively look for it.
You may be wondering how you should ask him to bend if you can’t tug, pull one rein and not the other or squeeze. A horse bends through his body around your leg – not from your inside rein. And that’s a topic for another day.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.