“The hands receive the work of the legs”
This quote from Nuno Oliveira sums up the crucial relationship between the rider’s hands and legs, if a rider’s legs and seat act correctly, the hands can be light and tactful. If the rider’s legs and seat don’t act with precision, the horse becomes heavy in the hands.
Remember that a rider’s hands start in the shoulders, as any movement in the arms or shoulders is magnified in the hands and can interfere with the rein aids. The upper arm should hang close to your side, not clamped in, with the elbow near the hip. Your hand is carried by your forearm allowing the wrist to be supple and the fingers free from gripping. Your hands should be close together, as a pair, just above the withers, not dropping down to your thigh or carried wide. Keeping your elbows close to your hip, your back and seat moving with the horse’s back, your hand will follow the movement of the horse’s head.
It’s difficult to control your hand movements. In everyday life we tend to use our hands first, but in riding we should use them last and with great tact. You must be able to have a still, soft hand before you can do anything with them, then you can give delicate tactful aids and place your hand in the best position to help your horse.
And a thought from William Cavendish about the hands:-
“The main secret for a horse that is heavy upon the hand, is for the rider to have a very light one; for when he finds nothing to bear upon with his mouth, he infallibly throws himself upon the haunches for his own security.“
These pictures demonstrate the effect of the hands. The first two show correct hand position and contact the other four pictures show the negative effects of incorrect hand aids.
The correct position in the saddle directly affects your ability to communicate with your horse. Good posture allows the rider to move as one with their horse and give the lightest aids with precision. Poor posture inhibits the horse’s movement and means that the rider’s aids are ill timed and unclear to the horse.
Sit on your seat bones with the pubic bone resting towards the twist of the saddle. The thighs should hang from the hip sockets, slightly forward, and the upper body balanced over the seat bones. Our spine has a natural “S” curve and this should be retained so that the lower back can move exactly with the horses back, otherwise the horse will be blocked.
The seat extends up through the lower back and if this does not move the seat is blocked. A supple lower back moves with the horse’s back, or you will block the horse’s back and the movement from the quarters.
Never support your position by hanging on the reins or gripping with the legs. When the position is right it should feel easy and connected. This position allows the rider to feel and direct the horse’s movement and not disrupt it.
The first picture below show a correct seat.
In the centre picture the rider has lost contact with the saddle and is gripping with the knees which is pushing the seat up towards the back of the saddle
The last picture shows how the rider has lost the seat forward, the seat is being held in the saddle by the thighs braced against the knee rolls and the hands are pulling back on the reins.
Self-carriage is a quality that results from correct basic work and gives lightness to the horse. A trained horse should be able to maintain self-carriage throughout his work, whereas a younger horse may only be in self-carriage for a few steps before losing balance and needing help from the rider to correct himself. Self-carriage is a combination of balance, strength, straightness and energy, maintained by the horse without intervention from the rider. Additionally the horse needs to be mentally calm and receptive, as a tense horse will be trying to escape the rider’s aids and therefore will not be in self carriage.
Developing self-carriage in your horse takes time, carefully working through simple exercises (ref Circles) makes your horse supple, improves their balance which leads to a straight horse, and this is where self-carriage begins. Once the horse is straight and has no weight in the shoulder, you can increase the impulsion which will elevate the forehand.
There is a lot of discussion around horses being in self-carriage but the rider must also have self-carriage. An unbalanced rider who uses the reins and grips with the legs to stay in the saddle will create and unbalanced tight horse. A correctly seated, balance rider is able to give clear aids to the horse and remain quietly with their horse when the horse has responded and is performing the movement. The ultimate test of self-carriage is “descent de mains”, where the rider simply opens the fingers, and the horse remains in the same posture, gait and cadence.
The pictures below show horses in self carriage (top row).
Below them are 3 more of the same horses when they have lost their self-carriage. (All the riders brought their horses into self-carriage again after the photos were taken.)
The first horse has fallen through his outside shoulder on a circle, he has lifted his head in order to regain his balance.
The bay horse has lost his balance on a straight line, he has dropped onto his shoulder and is leaning on the rider’s hands.
The last horse has come off the rider’s inside leg in travers, she has lost the bend and is pressing weight to the inside shoulder.
Diane Followell Classical Dressage Trainer