Showring equitation in the various disciplines spells out the ideal riding posture for the winning look. Hand position varies widely from style to style and bridle to bridle, with each derived from the position that works in the real-world applications. Saddleseat riders elevate the hands for elevated action. Stock-seat riders have one hand free for roping, gate opening and the like. Hunters go long and soft, jumpers more in the bridle, and dressage competitors "on the bit" to suit their working "frames."
Though the model positions are sound, equitation competitors sometimes carry them to extremes that are unworkable anywhere but in the showring on dead-broke horses. When mastery of a "correct" pose produces rigidity and lack of responsiveness in a rider's hands, they're anything but "good" and effective, no matter how picture-perfect they may look.
Good hands defined
"Good hands" support and work in conjunction with the other aids--principally the seat and legs--to shape the horse's movement. They also are sensitive to the horse's reactions and way of going, channeling tension and stiffness, relaxation and elasticity back to the rider in the constant interplay of effective communication. "Bad hands" are erratic, harsh and unresponsive; they inflict pain, intended or inadvertent, on the vulnerable tissues of the horse's lips, tongue, gums and muzzle. Bad hands are to good hands as chainsaws are to delicate carving tools, and their effects on horses are as distinct as the statuary hacked out by saws and artworks crafted by fine chisels.
Recognizing that your communication through the bridle is less effective or more punishing than you would have it is but the first half of the self-improvement process. Developing the skills to use your hands independently and subtly may take you all the way back to riding basics. The stiffness that has you jabbing the horse in the mouth when the riding gets a bit rough or your unconscious tendency to take a chokehold on the reins isn't so much a hand problem as a reflection of an insecure seat. Those rigid, unyielding or ever-moving hands are "holding on for dear life" in an instinctive response of prehensile animals when they're threatened with falling. As your position in the saddle becomes more secure, the dynamic balance you attain frees your hands to listen and communicate precisely via the bridle.
Good hands in any discipline clearly define the comfort zone where light or no contact tells the horse that this is the spot to carry his head. When your hands are absolutely consistent in defining that zone, you and your horse are moving in harmony.
This article is excerpted from "How Good Are Your Hands?" which originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of EQUUS Magazine.