Your hands should be held upright in a fist, with your forearms aligned with the rein. Nowadays, I sometimes see trainers who promote riding with arms spread more widely. They say that you can keep the head in the middle of the chest better that way. I don’t have good experiences with that. Only when I stretch the neck I sometimes see its usefulness with a wobbly horse. With young horses I sometimes have my hands a bit more apart, but that is a maximum of 20 centimeters and not half a meter. With a contact rein, too wide almost always ends up in having too much pressure. That’s because your upper arms don’t hang down relaxed with your arms wide. It takes muscle tension to keep your arms wide and before you know it you will tighten or raise your shoulders. Your fine motor skills, which are needed for a soft rein contact, are hard to maintain with hands wide apart.
I am not in favor of rigidly holding the head of the horse straight in front of the chest. Although the straightness gurus are very much opposed to controlling the position of the head of a horse, that is just what you mainly do if your main focus is trying to keep it there. Straightness is about aligning the front and back legs. The neck is a kind of “garden hose” that can go in all directions. A horse can walk straight with its neck bent and that is what we call flexion. Neck flexion can be functional in some cases. You just should not do it constantly. Reins are for control of the shoulders, not for the head. So keep your hands where those shoulders are.
Common posture problems and the solutions:
– Head bobs up and down
You probably will have seen them: the riders with a bobbing head. What’s going wrong? The horse’s movement must be absorbed somewhere in the rider’s body. That’s supposed to happen in your back, especially your hips and loins. When they are stiff and tight the movement goes up. You can see that some riders shrug their shoulders and tighten them. It does not help to say that they should keep their heads quiet. That only creates more tension in the back. Try to get them to release the lower back and hips. Imagine there is a spring there, something like you find in a ballpoint pen. This has to absorb the horse’s movements.
– Leaning backwards
You should be in a vertical position as a rider or if you imagine a clock at six o’clock. There are various reasons for leaning back. There are riders who try to get the front of their horse up. That does not work, because when you sit like this you cannot absorb the movements of your horse in your lower back. It is blocked and as a result you also block the back of your horse, which is less able to move through, which is a precondition for more rising of the front end. There are riders who brace themselves sometimes to put a lot of pressure on the reins or who do that because their back hurts. In all cases it is not good. Try to flow with the movement, let go of your lower back and sit upright.
– Leaning forward
Riders who are leaning forward try to get a hold with their knees. You often see it when people are afraid or sit on a spooky and jumpy horse. It may be a conscious thing to do on young horses to relieve the back slightly. That is of course fine, provided it does not become a habit, because you do put more weight on the front end this way. The solution is to take away fear and practice sitting, instead of clamping. Feel your seat bones and dare to keep your knees away from the saddle.
Clamping knees and thighs ensure that you are squeezed out of the saddle as a rider. Picture a horse as a round barrel. You sit on the top half. The more you squeeze, the more you push yourself out of the saddle, making yourself less stable. Try to change this in a safe environment during a sitting lesson on the lunge by consciously opening your hips more. I always say “sit like the letter O” and feel your seat bones. Release your upper legs. Take your knees off the saddle, let your lower legs hang without squeezing and feel your horse move under you.
– Flapping lower legs
Flapping lower legs have to do with clamping knees and thighs or with pushing too much. Both reasons are unwanted. Take your knees away from the saddle and sit like an “O”. If you push too much, read the chapter about being off the leg more. Sometimes the saddle is the cause, especially when the seat is not comfortable for your physique. Some riders tie their stirrups to the girth. Never ever do that! It is dangerous and it doesn’t help, because it doesn’t change the reason why you flap your legs in the first place. Try to relax your upper legs and hips more.
– Heels too high
“Heels Down” is probably the most made remark by instructors. But if those heels keep coming up then something else is going on. It doesn’t help to forcefully push your heels down all the time and on the whole “heels down” is a relative thing. They are in that position because you let your legs dangle in a relaxed way, with your calf long and ankles like springs. And not because you use muscles to keep your heels in a certain position. Low heels are the result of a relaxed leg and a good seat position. Squeezing with your knees make your heels come up. If a horse is crooked, your leg on the hollow side goes down, while the other one on the round side goes up and your heel too. Find the cause and solve this.
– Arms or one arm away from your body
Arms are attached to your torso by your shoulders. When both elbows are held out, it is often because the shoulders are lifted or tightened. That happens when your back is not supple. Riders who keep both arms very wide are in many cases trying to force their horse’s head into a position with their hands. One arm goes out when the rider does what a horse does. So when a horse presses against the rider’s leg with his bulging side, the arm on that side often moves away from the torso. The solution is to make the horse stop leaning to one side and making it more straight. Imagine you have a weight hanging on your elbow. Relax your shoulders. John used to put an elastic band around the upper body and upper arms of a rider who just could not get the hang of it. I find that quite dangerous. Suppose you fall off with your arms tied. Moreover, I believe more in relaxation and feeling to achieve something than using force.
– Moving hands
Hands that are all over the place are attached to unstable arms. Most of the time, you will find more problems in the torso. A better seat and posture gives more quiet arms and hands. But it also has to do with the connection with the bit. Are you trying to force him into a position or are you trying to feel his tongue in your hands? Hands that are held in one position with force are not friendly. You have to learn to move with the horse by being elastic, but not more than he moves. It takes a lot of feeling and a stable and independent seat. The more perfect the outline, the quieter the hands can be. Remember “it takes two to pull”. Be the smartest and try to release the pressure all the time, even when you think you can’t.
· It takes practice if you want to be good at something
· You can only feel and give correct aids if you can sit independently
· Let go of the tension in your body but keep your posture
· Your spine is a stack of loose cubes that should not fall
· Imagine your head being tied to the ceiling by an elastic cord
· Keep imaginary glasses of champagne in your hands and don’t spill them
· Many riders do with their posture what the horse should be doing