The elusive task of developing the perfect connection through our contact with the horse’s mouth is one of the most important keys and yet one of the most complex mysteries of riding, all at the same time.
An even and elastic contact with connection is what all trainers strive to teach and riders look to achieve – however, more often than not, this concept can often seem as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! Contact will vary from horse to horse, and it takes more than a little “feel” to be able to figure out the type of contact a particular horse prefers.
There are an array of things that can affect the contact the rider has with the horse’s mouth, including;
- The level of the rider’s experience
- Any prior injuries
- The experience or inexperience of the horse
- The discipline – hacking, dressage, show jumping, cross country, western, etc.
- The type of bit
- Whether the horse has any pain or discomfort in his mouth
- The horse’s past experiences
Common Rider Hand Problems and Ways to Fix Them
- Bouncing Hands (Vertically or Horizontally)
Your contact is directly affected by your balance! If your postural stabilizers are not strong enough, it will challenge your balance and may cause you to seek the reins as your helping balance buddy. What does this get you? Bouncing hands.
- Fix: Supplement some schooling sessions with 1-2 lunge lessons/week with your trainer where you can focus totally on yourself and your position, with the addition of a Performance Refinery wristband to activate postural stabilizers.
2. Locked Elbows
Lack of softness at the elbow has an opposite effect and often makes the rider rigid in the hand, creating no “feel” to the horse’s mouth and a dead connection. A quick check in sitting trot will usually expose where these weaknesses are. The elbow is part of the rider’s biomechanics chain, which absorbs some of the movement of the horse.
The elbow joint should be flexed and feel heavy and weighted; concentrate on this feeling as if the arm becomes too straight, the hands will become rigid and the reins will act as a lever on the horse’s mouth. A heavy elbow will result in a light wrist and a natural hand carriage whereas a straight arm and a fixed elbow will create the opposite effect.
- Fix: Lunge lessons will allow you to ride without your reins and explore how your balance feels through your arms without having to worry about your contact with the horse’s mouth or any control issues.
3. Open fingers around the reins
This is a common problem and the rider will keep finding that their reins are too long, needing to shorten them up all the time, or they look like they are at a tea party with their pinky fingers poking out. Some riders worry that the contact is too strong on the horse’s mouth and open their hands in a desire to be softer, whereas others make the mistake of riding with the reins too long.
For most, it is just a bad habit. Whilst no contact should be rigid and unchanging, most horses dislike a rider who is constantly picking at the rein and then letting it out again. A definitive feeling of connection comes from a softly closed hand and will be much more forgiving to your horse.
- Fix: There are many teaching techniques to encourage riders to make a closed grip around the reins. The key is to create a spongy feeling grip. Imagine you are carrying a bird in each hand: you don’t want to let them fly away but they’re also not something you would want to grip too hard! Adding a small, thin kitchen sponge between your hand and the rein is another great tool to develop mobility of the rider’s fingers around the rein for a “feeling connection.”
4. The backward hand
Some riders have the habit of drawing back with the hand. This can be obvious (when the elbows come behind the vertical midline) or it can be quite subtle. Both will form a “reverse connection” against the bit in the horse’s mouth. The backwards hand is often caused when the rider seeks security from the rein due to their balance becoming challenged.
Working on your postural core stabilizers is key here! A softer arm and better contact often come with a shorter rein, not a longer one. Long reins are far more likely to encourage an inconsistent contact and the rider will end up with their hands in their lap. The elbow joint should sit just in front of the body and be softly flexed but weighted (imagine you have a 1-pound kettlebell hanging from your elbows).
- Fix: Some reins have markers to help you keep your hands in the right place or you can wrap an elastic band/tape around the rein in the correct location so you can feel the ridges which will confirm that you have the reins at the right length. Don’t swap one problem for another – don’t keep looking down to check your rein length!
- Fix: Core strength! Work in the Performance Refinery Postural Slings to develop your stabilizers. Training your body to put your leg on and ride forward to the hand will override your brain telling you to hold harder. The stronger you pull against your contact, the stronger you will encourage your horse to lean and pull against you. You will never win this tug of war. Synergistic patterning is key as taking your leg off will lose your horse working properly from behind and its ability to travel up to the bridle towards your “feeling” hand.
5. Flexed or Pronated Wrists
Riding with flexed wrists will often end up turning the hands in or make the rider look as if they are playing the piano with the palms facing downwards.
- Fix: Strengthening your posterior chain (wrist extensors and triceps) off the horse will help to keep you out of your flexors!
- Fix: Kinesiotaping of the wrist extensors and supinators is incredibly effective at bringing proprioceptive awareness and neuromuscular facilitation to the rider of what they are doing in real-time. This is often an ingrained habit which can be difficult to change if the rider doesn’t realize they are doing it.
Riders should strive to develop hands which are independent of the seat and this only comes through practice, time and patience of hours spent both in and out of the saddle with focus on the correct training concepts. A great trainer once said to me “The rider’s hands belong to the horse and that includes the arm as well right up to the elbow.” Pay close attention to your hands during your next ride, and you might find yourself guilty of a few of these “bad hands” habits!
Author Britta Pedersen owns the Performance Refinery. Photos by Sally Spickard Media.