Hands are so important when we ride. One often hears comments like “oh, she has such lovely hands” or “he has got awful hands” but what is meant by this and what are good hands? Firstly what should our hands do? Well if one looks at the FEI Dressage rules (Article 418), they state “the hands should be carried steadily close together. With the thumb as the highest point and a straight line from a supple elbow through the hand to the horse’s mouth. The elbows should be close to the body. All of these criteria enable the athlete to follow the movements of the horse smoothly and freely”.
So to do what the FEI says, we need to look not just at the hands but the position of the arms, elbows and shoulders. Biomechanically our shoulders are responsible for our hands, if our shoulders are square our hands can be carried correctly, if our shoulders are rounded then our hands will automatically be carried thumb inwards. Think of your shoulders being a fixed point and be aware that any giving or taking of the reins will start at the shoulder girdle.
Our upper arms should fall from our shoulder joint, dropping downwards because of their weight and not because we have forced them into position. They should hang down by our sides, with our elbows held close, but without tension, to our body (or just to the front of our body). It is important to keep the elbow softly bent and not to lock the elbow as this causes arms to become rigid. Our elbows must remain flexible so that they can follow the horse’s head at a walk and canter and open inward and outward in a rising trot
Our lower arms (with the reins) should form a straight line between our elbow and the horse’s mouth. There should be no ‘break’ at the wrist and the hand should not turn independently of the forearm.
Our hands should work as a unit or pair and be held about a bit’s width apart (although you may want to carry then wider on a young horse). They should be held thumb uppermost, so that the rein passes over the index finger and is held in place by the thumb. Don’t hold your hands flat with the thumbs pointing inwards. There are two bones in your forearm (the ulna and radius) and when you turn your hands so that your knuckles are horizontal, these two bones cross each other in a locked position. When you have the knuckles almost vertical the two bones run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive. The hand should be closed to form a soft fist with the fingers lightly closed around the reins. Don’t hold the reins too tightly but do not be tempted to ride with open fingers as this deprives both you and your horse the subtlety of your knuckles as a rein aid. Sally Swift famously said “hold your reins as though they were little birds. Don’t squeeze them too hard or turn them so their heads bang together”.
It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands. Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!
And finally we need to talk about giving with the reins. Giving is the primary reward for your horse for doing the correct thing. Most of the time, a softening in your fingers, which is reflected up through your wrists and elbows to your shoulders is all that is needed. And remember the timing of the reward is of fundamental importance. It should not come after the movement but be simultaneous with the end of the movement!
Shoulder stretches are necessary to maintain a balance among the muscles around the shoulders and upper back. As gravity and desk jobs pull us forward, the muscles on the front of our chest and shoulders shorten. These forces can not only have major ramifications in your riding position they can also cause disc degeneration, head and neck pain and rotator cuff impingement. Regular shoulder stretches can improve posture, improve function, and make us feel and look younger. For a lot of us, the stress in our lives is manifested by tightness in our shoulder muscles, which all too frequently is mirrored by our horse. These exercises are designed to help dissolve tension and increase motion and stability in your shoulders:
Do stability exercises first for:
Subscapularis, (internally rotates the shoulder and acts as a shoulder stabilizer).
Infraspinatus (externally rotates the shoulder and acts as a stabilizer).
Trapezius (upper fibres of trapezius elevate the scapula, middle fibres of trapezius retract the scapula, lower fibres depress the scapula and rotate the glenoid superiorly).
Shoulder Stretch on a gym ball