What Is Proper Hand Position?
Obviously, that can vary depending on exactly what it is you are doing. I'm speaking in general terms to help someone who is learning to perfect their English riding technique.
Proper hand position has our fingers closed shut around our reins. Not clenched, just a solid grip so the reins do not slide. We keep our thumbs up pointing up. As a kid, I can remember my teacher saying pretend you are holding ice cream cones. Don't tip over your ice cream cones!
If you could see yourself ride, you would want to see a straight line from your elbow to your hand to your bit. When we see this, this indicates we have the correct amount of contact and that we are holding our hands in the proper position.
You Know How To Hold Them...But Where?
Your hands should always be out in front of you. You want them to float at a height somewhere between your belly button and the saddle. Again, they should be out in front of you, not down in your lap or up high above your waist.
Remember, straight line, elbow, hand to the bit.
Why Straight Line Elbow, Hand to Bit?
Your bridle should be adjusted properly so that your horse's bit is sitting correctly in his mouth. A good way to judge this is to make sure that there are just one or two wrinkles on the corner of his mouth. You don't want it uncomfortably high, but also, if it is too low, it will not only bang the horse's teeth but won't be effective.
The bit is meant to lay on the bars of the horse's mouth. Which is a gap in their teeth where the bit sits just on their gums and lays across their tongue?
By holding your reins at a length that allows a straight line from your elbow to your hand to the bit is the position that allows you to use the bit the way it is meant to in the horse's mouth.
Common Problem #1- Hands Too High
Riding with your hands too high is going to make your horse reluctant to go forward. It will make some horses want to go with their heads way up in the air.
Also, it will be confusing to your horse to feel you pulling up and back if you are asking him to move more forward. We want clear communication with our horses. So anything we can do to prevent conflicting signals is worth working on.
Common Problem #2- Hands Too Low
Most likely if you are riding with your hands too low, your reins are also too long.
When your hands are down too low, the horse is going to feel downward pressure on the bit everytime you move your hands. This is going to be uncomfortable for him, so he may end up with his head up in the air.
Also, riding with your hands to low inadvertently makes your shoulders lean forward, which makes your lower leg swing back. With your leg back behind you, that gives up your base of support in the saddle. You could end up in a precarious position if the horse stops abruptly or pulls his head down.
Common Problem #3- Hands Uneven
You want your elbows at your sides. One hand on either side of the horse neck. They should be placed evenly apart from each other. You don't want one hand way forward and the other way back or vice versa.
If you ride with your inside hand too far back, that is going to tend to bring your horse's head too far to the inside. Which is going to most likely make his shoulder pop out and haunches swing to the outside.
If your inside hand is too far forward, and you don't have enough contact on the reins, you will have trouble steering.
Remember, we move our arms and that shifts our whole body in the saddle so it really affects how the horse travels and carries himself. Anytime we have our hands too far forward we are again, probably leaning our shoulders forward and giving up our secure seat in the saddle.
If you ride with your outside hand too far forward, that is like opening a door on the outside for the horse to get crooked and pop his shoulder out. Especially if you aren't using your outside leg properly. Which will be hard to do because when your outside hand is too far forward, you will not have as much weight on your outside seat bone. Your lower leg may also in turn slide back too far.
We want to keep our hands even, we don't want to ride with one hand way forward or way back. It will make our horse crooked, and just lead to other problems we have to fix later. Not to mention creating bad habits in your position.
Your Reins And Hands Are A Tunnel For The Horses Front End
You want your reins even, and your hands in the proper position. That way as you keep your leg on your horse to keep him coming forward, he will keep his shoulders and neck straight. With even hands and legs on, it is like your leg is pushing him and your reins are catching the movement, directing, and keeping the horse's shoulders straight.
What Is The Big Deal About The Shoulder Popping Out?
If your horse's shoulder pops out, as we call it, as in drifts too far to the outside, that probably means that not only are you overbending too much to the inside, but it also means that the horse's haunches are also going to be moving to the outside. Instead of staying straight.
By keeping our hands correct and our outside hand in place, we can use our outside rein and outside leg together to prevent them from getting crooked.
The problem with a crooked horse is that he is going to be hard to steer. He most likely will not bend properly on his circles. Also, since you are allowing his haunches to swing to the outside, he is going to be prone to picking up the wrong lead.
Also, a crooked horse is a lot of times made crooked by the rider. Riding is all about creating muscle memory, so we want to make sure that you are creating the right muscle memory. Instead of having to undo bad habits later.
The Wrap Up
Think about it like this. Your hands, holding the reins are controlling the horses front end, while your legs control the back and encourage the motor.
If you have the proper hand position and rein contact, you will be able to make small adjustments and corrections very easily. For example, if you wanted to move your horse's shoulders to the left, you can just pick up your hands together. Your hands are working together as a team, just lift your hands up and left. Remember, your rein contact and hand position make a tunnel for the horses front end, and then your legs send him through it.
If you have your leg on and are sending the horse forward, but don't have the correct hand position, you are going to end up with a very crooked and wiggly horse.
My students are always surprised at how fast the horses get straight when they have the proper hand position. Also, keeping your hands up and in the right place, plays a part in keeping your body position correct in the saddle.
Remember, everything is connected, if you move your hands a certain way, your body moves a certain way, which moves your seat, then your leg. We want to ride with a straight line from shoulder to hip to the heel. Then another straight line from our elbow to our hand to our horse's bit.
The better you get, the better your horses will go for you. Practice makes perfect! Remember that riding is all about muscle memory so we want to create the right kind from the start. It is also about multi-tasking. It takes a lot to control a thousand pound animal. The more that you practice doing things correctly, the more it will become second nature.
When the basic things, like the hand, seat and leg position become second nature. That is a huge turning point in a rider's career. When the basics become second nature, and you don't have to focus on them, then you can put your focus on learning new and exciting things!