In order to be successful in the dressage discipline, it’s crucial to have ‘good hands’.
Soft, sympathetic hands encourage the horse to relax and soften at the poll and to work forwards in order to seek the pleasant contact he is being offered.
Hands that are rough or blocking have the opposite effect.
There is some debate as to where riders should carry their hands. Some professional dressage competitors carry their hands very high, whereas others hold them low and wide.
So, where should you hold your hands?
How should you hold your hands?
Before looking at where you should carry your hands, it’s important to understand how you should hold them.
There should be a straight line from your elbow, down your forearm, through your wrist, following in an unbroken line to the horse’s mouth. Your thumb shouldn’t bend inward or outward but should follow this straight line.
Keep your wrist upright and don’t flatten it. A flat wrist results in ‘piano hands’ and a blocking contact.
Make sure that your fingers are kept folded into the palm of your hand so that you have a closed fist. This allows you to develop better ‘feel’ by helping to keep the joints in your arms soft and your contact elastic.
Always check that you are carrying your hands as a pair. Many riders get into the habit of holding one hand higher than the other or riding with one wrist flattened. This can be uncomfortable and confusing for the horse as the bit will be placed at a different angle on either side of his mouth.
Your hand should also be held still. Continually fiddling or sawing on the horse’s mouth in an attempt to ‘soften’ him will not encourage him to work into the bridle, and will probably just result in resistance, tilting or a swinging, unsteady head carriage.
Dressage riders should always wear gloves. This will help you to keep the reins securely in your hands, especially in warm weather when your hands are sweaty.
(Please note that riders must wear gloves when riding in competitions run under British Dressage rules.)
Where should you carry your hands?
Your hands should be carried at roughly the width of your horse’s withers, and slightly above them.
Horses that are working at more advanced levels can be ridden with the hands closer together because they are able to depend on the rider’s leg and seat aids, rather than on the hand for directional guidance.
Your elbows should be carried slightly in front of your waist to encourage you to ride with a ‘forward’ hand. If you have your upper arms too far back, you’ll be more likely to pull back on the horse’s mouth instead of allowing him to work forward to seek the contact.
You can use a slighter lower, wider hand to help give clearer directional aids to a young horse, but make sure that you are using your rein aids in conjunction with your leg and seat, and don’t try to use the reins alone to achieve uniform bend.
From time to time you’ll see dressage riders carrying their hands very high; this is usually just a passing ‘fashion’ and is not beneficial to the horse’s way of going.
If you hold your hands too high, you’ll become tense in your upper body and you may also be inclined to lean backwards.
This tension and incorrect position encourages the horse to hollow his back away from you, and can also result in an artificially high head carriage.
How you hold and carry your hands has a huge influence over the way your horse performs.
A horse whose rider offers him a soft, elastic contact and a still, forward hand will be confident and happy to work forward in search of the bit.