If your hands are not level, it is very likely you have a different feel on each side. The horse gives you an uneven contact, which means he’s crooked. But who started, you or the horse?
That’s a difficult question. Point is, you are making each other worse if you don’t do anything about it. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Almost all horses are not completely equal on both sides. Try not to give more pressure on the side he’s leaning on. That will only invite him to lean even more and he’s far stronger then you are.
If you want the same feeling in each rein, so you can keep your hands more level, start with your position in the saddle. Are you sitting straight? It’s very hard to correct your hands if your body is twisted in any way. Use your leg on the heavy side to push him towards the lighter side, to stimulate him to take up more contact there. You can do this by leg yielding or by opening up a circle towards the lighter side. If he stops leaning, try to be equally light on both reins.
An uneven rein contact is solved behind you. You feel it in the front, but it originates in the back.
Here’s the difficult bit, try to stay with me: if your horse leans on the right side, he is pushing his weight towards his right shoulder. Use your right leg to move him a little bit more towards his left shoulder. Don’t push your leg back while doing so, because that would be the aid for leg yielding and that’s not what you want. His left hind is most likely placed beside his body anyway. So don’t push it even further out. You just want a light bend on the stiff right side, so your leg should be like a post to bend him around. You can bend him a little to the right to make it easier, but don’t overdo it. If your right leg moves back too far, you push his hindquarters to the left and he will drop on his right shoulder even more.
If you are on the track left and he’s leaning to the right, so to the outside, it should feel like you bend his head a little towards the outside. Not too much, just enough to make him straight, as he will be inclined to keep a little bend to the left to get his weight on his right shoulder. If your horse is leaning on the left side, you should read the above with ‘left’ where is says ‘right’ and so on.
This is all about straightening a horse. I talked a lot about this with my idol, the British rider-trainer-Olympian Carl Hester. In later episodes I’ll tell you all I discussed with him.
The problem with working on straightness is you tend to lose your position. The horse is used to a certain way of going and so are you. The neural pathways to your brain have become highways, while the feeling of how you are supposed to sit has become a neural byway. It takes time and persistence to rebuild it into a new highway. The right way of sitting and moving feels uncomfortable for the two of you in the beginning. And when a horse starts to protest you’ll find yourself slipping back into your old position. It helps to be aware. And you need someone to keep pointing it out to you. Even the top riders have someone on the ground. Carl Hester and Olympic gold winner Charlotte Dujardin are a hilarious when they ride, as they are always bickering at each other like a long married couple (which they are not). But by doing so, they became the best riders in the world.
Here is also a different kind of unevenness in which one hand is more up. Sometimes it is done on purpose, when a horse tilts it’s head. The side his ear is lower, the hand goes up. But if you do this accidentally on a horse that carries his head straight, he will tilt as a result to avoid the heavier pressure in his mouth on one side. Use the trick with the elastic band to get your hands more level.
Once your horse knows what steering means, you can move your inside hand up a little in a circle of turn, to keep the contact even. Never more than a hand and without pulling. But it is the logical thing to do. As you make a turn, the inside of the horse becomes shorter. So if you want to maintain the same feeling in both reins, which you do if you have straightness and the hindlegs follow in the footfalls of the frontlegs, you have four options. Make the inside rein shorter, move your hand sideways, back or up. Shortening the rein is too much fuss for just a turn. And you will have to let it go once you go on the straight line again. Moving your hand sideways is done with younger horses, to explain them where you want to go. But it doesn’t look good and it easily turns into pulling. Hand back is no good either. Your belly is in the way. And on a circle or in a turn your hips should be in the same position as those of the horse. So your inside hip moves forward. But if you pull your hand back, most people also rotate in their body, pushing the hip on that side back too. That way you sit against the movement, you are not with the horse anymore.
So try to just carry your inside hand, and use it to invite the horse to become soft. If he does, release the pressure without making the rein longer.
One very important thing: your hand is never to cross over the manes to the other side. It is okay to hold the rein against his neck if you want a little more bend, but never push your hand across. They both have a side and stay there.