“Contact” is the third essential component of good dressage riding on the Scales of Training.
The ability to maintain an elastic, even contact is crucial if your horse is to work forward through his back to seek the contact. However, your horse won’t feel confident in working into your contact if you can’t keep your hands still.
Without that open communication channel, your rein aids cannot be subtle, and your horse can easily become confused. Your work will lack harmony, and your marks in dressage competitions will suffer.
In this article, we share some top tips on how you can keep your hands quiet.
Why do your hands move?
For your hands to remain quiet and still, you must be able to follow your horse’s movement, independently of your reins.
Related Read: How to Get an Independent Seat
As your horse moves, your hips should follow the movement, opening and closing, depending on the horse’s length of stride. For your hands to remain still, your elbows must open and close to the same degree and in the same rhythm as your hips.
Problems arise when the rider tries to use their reins for balance, tightening their elbow joints as they do so. If there’s tension in any of your joints, it will be impossible for you to follow your horse’s movement correctly with your hands.
How should you carry your hands?
Your hands should be carried as a pair, out in front of you, just above the horse’s withers.
There should be a straight line from the bit through to your elbow, and your upper arms should hang quietly without tension or stiffness.
Your fingers should be lightly closed around the reins with your thumbs on top. The rein length is held by pressing your thumb onto the rein where it passes over your index finger.
Your hands should hold the reins softly without tugging or setting against the horse’s mouth. The horse will only seek a contact with his rider’s hands if that contact is elastic and comfortable, and he can trust that his mouth won’t be bruised.
Your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should all ‘breathe’ with the horse’s movement, rather than remaining fixed and rigid.
Common problems and simple fixes
An unsteady contact manifests itself in several ways. Here are some of the most common issues when it comes to moving hands and some exercises to help you correct them.
1. Hands that bounce up and down
Generally, if your hands bounce, the problem is most likely in your elbows rather than in your hands.
Bouncing hands are a common problem that’s caused by a lack of softness or stiffening in the elbow joints.
Try this simple exercise to give you a feel for how much your elbow joints need to close and open.
Thread a grab strap through the D-rings on your saddle to create a loop. (An old flash strap will do for this exercise if you don’t have a proper grab strap).
Hold onto the strap and ride your horse around the arena in a rising trot.
As you ride, focus on the feeling that you have through your elbow joints and how the joints open and close to absorb the horse’s movement.
Recruit a helper so that you can ride the same exercise on the lunge. As you ride, close your eyes and concentrate on the feeling in your elbows.
2. You keep needing to shorten your reins
Sometimes, a rider’s hands are continually moving because she is constantly having to adjust her rein length. That results in an unsteady contact and lots of confusing “background noise” for the horse.
The problem is most common in riders with a horse that’s behind the leg. The rider releases the contact to try to persuade the horse to work more forward. Also, some riders don’t want to pull on the reins too much, so they ride with their reins too long and don’t maintain a contact at all.
Although you might think that you’re helping your horse or being kind to him, riding with an inconsistent rein length doesn’t provide the horse with any form of contact to work into.
Basically, you can’t connect the horse from his hindquarters through his back into the contact if you don’t provide your mount with a consistent and steady contact in the first place!
This simple tactic can help you to keep your reins at the correct length, helping to maintain a consistent contact with your horse’s mouth.
Grab a helper and some colored electrical tape.
Establish an elastic contact with your horse’s mouth with your reins at the correct length.
Ask your helper to put a piece of electrical tape around the rein at the spot you identified as correct.
Related Read: How Long Should Your Reins Be?
Now, a quick glance down will tell you whether you’re holding the reins at the correct length or if they’re slipping through your fingers.
Alternatively, wrap a couple of rubber plaiting bands around the reins in the right place. That will enable you to instantly feel when the reins are slipping through your fingers.
Be careful not to tense or clamp your fingers around the reins.
Instead, tuck your fingernails into your palms and keep your thumbs on top. That should be enough to prevent your reins from getting too long.
To gauge the amount of ‘grip’ you should have, imagine you are holding a bird in your hand – strong enough that you are not going to let it escape, but not so strongly that you will crush it.
If you need to allow or give with the rein, do so by pushing your hand towards the bit rather than letting the rein slip through your hands.
3. Pulling back on the reins
Many riders tend to pull back on the reins in an attempt to hold the horse in an outline. That often happens when the horse is strong, and the rider rides “with the handbrake on” to slow the horse down.
Related Read: How Much Contact Should You Have?
Unfortunately, thinking backward with the hand is not limited to inexperienced riders on hot horses.
Some dressage riders hold their horses in a fixed outline. That simply causes the horse to hollow through his back, trail his hocks, and tighten through his neck. Often, horses ridden in that way are behind the vertical, and the strides are shortened and restricted.
Instead, keep your hands forward and in front of you, guiding the horse, and ride the horse from behind into your contact, never the other way around.
Every few strides, scratch your horse’s neck just in front of the withers. That ensures that your hands are not sneaking back toward your stomach and pulling back on the horse’s mouth.
Good practice for the rider is to consider that the rein contact originates in the horse’s mouth and terminates in the rider’s elbows with the hand as a modifier en route. With this concept, pulling on the reins becomes a thing of the past, as the elbows should never move behind the rider’s body.
4. Fiddling/see-sawing with the reins
Sadly, many riders try to ‘fiddle’ their horse’s head down into an ‘outline’.
Not only is this very uncomfortable for the horse, but it creates a lot of background noise down the reins. The horse may also try to evade the constant see-sawing on his mouth by ducking behind the contact.
For a lot of riders, this constant movement of the bit becomes a habit that’s difficult for them to break. If this is you, try riding with a short whip or stick placed underneath your thumbs. This will help you keep your contact steady and your hands working as a pair.
Your hands should never ‘take’ a contact. The outline and the contact with the rider’s hand come from the impulsion and the horse’s willingness to work forward and over his back.
Keep your hand steady, light and supple and your horse will gradually become sufficiently confident to seek the contact.
For your dressage horse to work correctly from behind through a supple back into an elastic contact, your rein contact must be consistent.
If your hands are unsteady, your reins too long, or your contact fixed and blocking, you will never be able to develop that feel and communication with the horse that’s so essential for good dressage.