Achieving Steady Hands

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Aggravation is just one word that comes to mind when a horse roots and yanks at the reins, tosses his head up and down, or opens his mouth to evade the bit. Raising the head to get above the bit, cranking it to the chest to get behind the bit, locking the jaw muscles or locking the neck muscles are other bit evasions that exasperate many riders. They just want to scream, "Horse, you are not listening to me!" From the other end of the reins, the aggravated horse is screaming back, "Get out of my face!"

In most cases, we should listen to the horse. A rider's unsteady hands are usually behind that long list of bit evasions. While we should always consider that dental pain, back pain, poor saddle fit or other physical issues might be creating or contributing to the horse's discomfort, it is more often the rider who is a 'pain' from the horse's viewpoint.

Many beginner riders use their hands for balance when they ride. I ask these riders to allow a slight loop in their reins while we work on their position and seat basics. When students establish a correct plumb line from ear to hip to heel, they come into better balance with their horse, position their legs to apply aids correctly and open the front of their hips so they can begin to follow the horse's motion. Position, balance, and following the horse's motion are the basic skills needed to achieve an independent seat. And an independent seat is basic to achieving steady hands.

Riders do not need to master these basics completely before they can focus on developing good hands. However, the better these basics, the easier it will be for a rider to achieve steady hands. 'Steady' does not mean locked or unmoving. In order to maintain steady contact, a rider's hands must follow the motion of the horse's head through the elastic opening and closing of the elbow joints.

As the rider's hips follow the horse's motion, they open and close to a varying degree depending on the gait and on the horse's stride. At the same time, the elbows must open and close in the same rhythm and to the same degree as the hips in order for the rider's hands to follow the horse's motion and remain steady. When riders use their hands and reins for balance, they do so by tightening their elbow joints. Tension in any joint makes it impossible for the rider to follow the horse's motion correctly.

Ground exercises can help riders develop the feel of opening and closing their elbows while following motion. Stand face to face with a friend and place your hands on top of her hands. If you are working alone, place your hands lightly on a low fence or arena half wall. Doing these exercises on a mini-trampoline makes them even more effective.

  • Bounce up and down simultaneously on both feet. This simulates the movement of the elbow joints at the rising trot. Notice how the elbow joints open and close. At the rising trot, the rider's elbows open and close every other stride.
  • Now bounce left to right from foot to foot. This simulates elbow movement at the sitting trot. Notices how the elbow joints open and close a little faster in double time. That is because the rider's elbows open and close at every stride at the sitting trot.
  • Now lock the elbows while bouncing up and down, then side to side. The hands will move up and down, losing contact with whatever stationary surface they rest on. If the elbows are locked, the hands will bounce. Relaxed elbows can move freely to absorb the horse's motion and so that the hands can maintain steady contact with the bit.

There are also simple ridden exercises that can help riders feel the opening and closing of their elbow joints. Run a short strap from one D-ring to the other on the front of the saddle. Riders can find one in a catalog, use an old noseband, or even braid one from twine. As riders hold the strap, they can feel how the opening and closing of their elbow joints changes at the rising trot, sitting trot and canter. Some instructors ask students to press their knuckles onto the horse's neck at the trot. Depending on the length of an individual rider's arms and torso, this may or may not be a useful exercise. A variation is to ask students to ride with their pinkie fingers touching the horse's neck. Once or twice around the arena is enough for a rider to feel whether she can keep her elbow joints relaxed or is locking them up.

While students work on position and seat basics, I encourage them to let the reins go a little bit and allow a slight loop so there is no rider interference with the horse's head. A reliable school horse is essential at this stage. As their balance and seat improve, the students are ready to take up light contact with the bit and work on developing steady, elastic hands.

The walk is the first gait at which most riders develop the independent, following seat that allows them to relax their elbows and follow the motion of the horse's head. So the walk is also the easiest gait for a rider to first feel elastic contact with the bit. If the contact is steady, the rein will be taut (not tight) from the rider's fingers to the horse's mouth as the horse's head moves forward and back at each stride. If the reins go loopy/taut/loopy/taut, the rider is out of rhythm. If the horse begins tossing its head, grabbing at the reins or exhibits another telltale behavior, the rider's elbows (or some other joints) are still too tight.

As the rider moves into a trot, the elbows must open and close to the same degree as the hips in order to maintain that taut but elastic connection with the bit and steady hands. At the canter, the elbows open and close in a rhythm more similar to rhythm of the walk than of the trot. The elbows usually open and close less at the canter than at the walk. The degree of movement of the elbows at any gait also depends on whether the horse is in a working gait, collected gait or extended gait.

Remember, tension in any joint makes it difficult to follow the horse's motion and have steady hands. When I look for tension in a student's body, I add wrists and fingers to the list of usual suspects. Figuring out exactly where students hold tension can sometimes be tricky. One student with tight hips opened and closed her elbows excessively. She literally 'overrode' with her elbows to compensate for the inability of her hips to follow the horse's motion. Another student tried to use the up and down motion of 'piano hands' to absorb the horse's motion in her wrists instead of her elbow joints.

We communicate with our horses through corridors of aid pressures. The green horse starts out as a clean slate and, gradually, we introduce varying corridors of pressures to create a feeling in the horse's body of the rhythm, speed, direction, etc., we would like him to move. As the horse builds confidence in what our seat, leg, and rein aids are asking him to do, he can respond in a relaxed, rhythmic way to our requests. When we apply our aids incorrectly or inconsistently, we have a communication problem. Unsteady hands make it impossible to use our rein aids correctly. Head tossing or other evasions are simply the horse's way of saying we are not communicating clearly.

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The Manor has not only prepared me for the horse industry, but has helped me grow into the person that I am today. I couldn't have done this anywhere else.
Jennie Blanchflower: 2008 Riding Master VI Graduate