What About Hands?

“Need I recommend discretion in your demands?
I think not.
If the rider,
having reached this stage of his horse’s education,
cannot comprehend
and seize
that fineness of touch,
that delicacy of process
to the right application of my principles,
it will prove him devoid of every feeling of a horseman;
nothing I can say can remedy this imperfection of his nature.”

Baucher, F. (2011-12-06).
New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
(Kindle Locations 144-146). . Kindle Edition

I was appalled when I realized that nobody involved in a recent study measuring the amount of pressure placed on the reins by successful show riders seemed in the slightest perturbed by the results. I can only attribute that casual acceptance of tests showing that most horses had to cope with 30-60 pounds (25-30 kilos) of pull on each rein to a gross lack of imagination and consideration for the horse. Not one of those riding or measuring would ever consider going about their day carrying a fifty-pound bag of feed in each hand, yet they never stop to consider how hanging on the reins like this affects the horse.

To experience for yourself how pulling this hard affects the rider and the horse, you could try this experiment. You would need:

• Two lead ropes
• One small indoor exercise trampoline
• 16 one gallon jugs full of water or two 50lb sacks of feed
• A solid fence rail or gate at least waist high, but lower than your shoulders

  1. Find your fence rail
  2. Tie one end of each lead to the rail about one hand-width apart
  3. Lay the ropes out parallel on the ground
  4. Line up 8 jugs of water close together along each one of the ropes
  5. Run each the rope through their 8 jug handles ( or tie the rope around the bag of feed)
  6. Set the trampoline at the ends of the ropes
  7. Stand on the trampoline and get your balance
  8. Then pick up the ropes while standing on the trampoline
  9. Shorten the lead ropes until they make a straight line from the fence rail to your hand
  10. Yep, all 16 jugs (or both feed bags) should be lifted off the ground and hanging freely from the ropes
  11. Stand balanced
  12. Release the ropes slowly and smoothly one at a time

All disclaimers, of course, apply. Discussing what it takes to raise and hold these weighted ropes takes us swiftly out of horsemanship and into weight lifting, so suffice it to say that delicacy and finesse are not the paramount qualities displayed. Most horses, quite sensibly, resist having their heads weighted down and their movement restricted like this. Unfortunately, the all too pervasive mindset of domination has created a gazillion variations of brutal instruments of torture to force a horse to not only carry the weight and pressure of the riders grip, but to do it while carrying their head in a certain preset and arbitrary position. This is in flagrant and callous disregard of the physiology of the horse:

• Horses’ balance and proprioreception depends on the free movement of their head. The jaws, tongue, and hyoid bone are all connected to the fascia of the forehand via the omni- and sterno- hyoid muscles of the neck. The horse’s head, mouth, jaws, tongue, and neck must be free, mobile, and relaxed for these muscles’ delicacy of response to function (click here).
• Horse eyes are designed as bifocals. They always have close vision that allows them to see what is near the end of their nose for grazing and far vision that detects movement in the distance. To gauge distances, they have to move their head (click here).
• Horses have no collarbone. Their heads, necks, and shoulders are suspended in a sling of muscle and connective tissue between the shoulder blades (click here). Restricting the movement of their head and neck makes it that much more difficult for them to carry themselves, never mind the added burden of a rider (click here).

Relentless weight and pressure on the reins is a serious insult to the horse as it throws them off balance, makes it much more difficult for them to carry a rider, and interferes with their vision regardless of what kind of gear you hang on your horses’ heads. However, those riders who have dared to leave the horse’s head free and look to their own balance throughout time have found that:

‘When a horse is light and supple
Proper position of the head
Takes care of itself automatically;
It depends on
What the horse is doing
And the conformation of the individual animal.’

page 176, Schooling for Young Riders by John Richard Young

If you are interested in communicating with your horse through your hands instead of bullying them into a blind (and dangerous) submission, try this experiment:

You will need:
• A bridle with a plain snaffle bit
• Supple thin leather reins
• One small indoor exercise trampoline
• A solid fence post

  1. Hang the bridle so the bit is at least waist high, but lower than your shoulders
  2. Hold the reins out horizontal and put the trampoline at their end
  3. Stand on the trampoline
  4. Take one rein in each hand
  5. Make a soft fist with the rein coming in under the little finger below and the excess out over the thumb on top
  6. Slowly take the slack out of the reins until bridle hangs freely but you can move one side of the bit with just a twitch of your little finger
  7. Practice with one hand at a time until you can move just one side of the snaffle with either hand

Once you can chose exactly how much movement you wish to see, you have a glimpse into the degree of sensitivity inherent in the horse

• Having succeeded, put just one empty water jug on each rein and try again.

Then you can begin to understand why weight on the reins is such a disaster for the horse.

Of course, in order to be able to make such small precise movements with either hand and have them be meaningful to your horse while riding, your upper body needs to be supple and resilient, your arms and hands independent. This takes strength and skill. Both are acquired through practice. The following exercises are intended to help you develop coordination, sensitivity, and understanding in yourself before you ever put a bridle on the horse. the links will light up as I get them posted:

• Developing Awareness
The Following Hand
• The Fixed Hand
Rein Effects
• Jaw Flexions

When you are comfortable with your own body, try doing your exercises with your horse in the same space. This can be illuminating to both parties. Just make sure you and the horse have plenty of room to move as some horses to do get very intrigued and enthused by this work. A round pen or small (30’x 30’) paddock is fine; a stall is much too small. Strive for quality not quantity as practice makes perfectly wrong as well as perfectly right and keep these points in mind as you move:

  1. Move as slowly as you need to get these patterns entrained into your body memory, speed comes later
  2. Make sure your body remembers successful movements by stopping when the going is good, forcing yourself to the point of pain and error entrains your body into resistance
  3. Remember to circle both directions, working towards becoming equally proficient on both sides as horses are all too often blamed for their rider’s stiffness and one-sidedness.
  4. If you need more challenge, vary the degree of bend in your joints as well as the length of your steps.

If you continue to have problems in a specific part of your body or step, you can always go back to the warm-up exercises. Complete the full set of hand exercises in each arm position. That can help isolate any physical problem that might need to be addressed.

click to head back to the beginning or go on to the next


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