The dictionary defines having light hands as "handling things delicately." Your hands are one of the primary methods of communicating with your horse. When you have light hands, you have gentle, kind and responsive hands. But how do you develop the coveted light hands that riders are always talking about?
The Natural Aids
Your hands are one of four natural aids: voice, legs, seat, and hands. Lightness or heaviness of the aids depends on many factors, one of which is the horse. A sensitive, high strung horse needs lighter aids than a 'farm chunk' used as a school horse who is more inclined to head back to his stall for a nap than canter about the ring.
Your hands form a direct connection with the horse through the reins and bit. A rider with so-called light hands is able to respond appropriately with the correct amount of pressure to the horse's movements. The rider's hands move softly, without jarring or hitting the horse in the mouth, and give and take naturally and subtly. Ringside observers may not even notice the subtle opening and closing of fingers, the slight give and take of the hands that communicate so much to the horse.
Light Hands Mean Balance
Light hands are the hallmark of a balanced rider. When a rider has good posture, a strong seat and leg, he or she is able to keep the hands calm, steady and still. Riders who slump in the saddle, who lean to one side or the other, or who resist the horse's motions tend to bounce the hands to compensate for their lack of coordination and balance. The result is a heavy hand prone to hitting the horse in the mouth, causing undue pain, pressure and miscommunication between horse and rider.
Three Exercises to Develop Light Hands
The following four exercises can help you develop lighter hands. It's a good idea to work with an experienced trainer who can provide feedback during your ride. If you don't have a trainer, ask a friend to video tape your ride, and review the tape to spot problems or discrepancies in your position that may be impacting your ride.
Exercise 1: Squishy Hands
Find bean bags or those squishy plastic stress balls that give to the pressure of your hands but take a few seconds to spring back into shape. Sit on a straight-back chair and hold a bean bag in each hand, or a squishy ball. Sit in riding position on the chair, as if you're on your horse. Hold your hands in front of you while grasping a bean bag or ball in each hand. Make sure your thumbs are pointing together and your hands are approximately four inches apart. Pretend you are riding, and gently squeeze the bean bag or ball. Practice strong pressure and light; get to know the feel of each. Vary one hand hard, one hand soft. Try for the very lightest pressure you can hold; does it even leave a mark on the bag or ball?
Exercise 2: No Stirrups
Sometimes I think that riding without stirrups is a trainer's answer to everything, but in truth, it really does help you become a better rider. Riding without stirrups helps you develop a strong, balanced and confident seat. It can also help you develop an independent leg and hand, which is important for light hands. Bring your horse to the center of the ring and pull up your stirrups, crossing them across the pommel if you must. If you can work on a longe line, do so, holding the strap, pommel or saddle horn if you need to. Building up your seat and leg will, in the long run, help your hands.
Exercise 3: Sitting Trot without Stirrups
In this exercise, pick up a sitting trot or jog after your horse is thoroughly warmed up. Drop your stirrups along the long wall of the arena, while concentrating on keeping your seat centered and deep. Are your hands bouncing all around, or can you keep them quiet and steady? Aim for a deep seat and quiet hands. On the short rail of the arena, pick up your stirrups again. Avoid 'fishing' for them, but practice keeping your heel down and finding them with the tip of your boot. Drop your irons again on the long wall, pick them up on the short, and repeat, all the while keeping your hands steady. It's not as easy as it looks!
A Bird in Hand
Sally Swift is one of my favorite equestrians, and in her book, Centered Riding, she uses a great image to help students understand light hands. Imagine you are holding a little bird in your hands instead of the reins; would you squeeze with a death grip? No, because you'd kill the bird! If you imagine a little bird fluttering about in your hand, you will hold the reins lightly, gently, calmly. Keep this imagine in mind as you practice these exercises, and you can improve your hand position, attaining the light, gentle hands so often mentioned in equestrian literature.
IMAGE SOURCE: Cestrelle, Morguefile.com