A big part of learning how to ride a horse is learning how to have a soft and following ‘hand.’ In this article, I’ll share with you the 7 things I find I have to go over with every new student, regardless of their level or riding experience. I cover exactly how to use your hands to hold the reins in a previous post (read it by clicking here), where I explain why each of my suggestions is functional and beneficial for your riding position. Now, let’s talk about what to actually DO to have a soft and following hand while you’re riding!
In this article, you will learn seven simple strategies to develop a neutral hand, rein and riding position. I explain how to have a ‘soft and following hand,’ and how to find the Feel of the correct hand position. I’ll also cover why you should always keep your hands above the withers, and why you should never cross one rein over to the opposite side of the neck.
In another post, I’ll explain to you how I teach my riders to steer, stop and back up, all without pulling on the reins. Instead we can use energy, intention, and subtle body language to communicate through the ‘seat’ and reserve using the reins for support, extra engagement, and fancy flexion! But for now, let’s focus on those hands being neutral.
7 Tips to Ride with a Soft and Following (aka Neutral) Hand
In an ideal world, your horse would stay “level-headed” and relaxed for your whole ride, and so would you! But in reality, stuff happens. So, while I think it’s important for you to know that about the “straight line from elbow to mouth” that I talked about in my last post – you also need to know that this is the ideal position, not a static one that you should be in 100% of the ride. It’s more important to have a neutral hand and rein.
1. Follow the horse with your hands (literally)
Follow and match where-ever the horse’s head goes. This means that pretty often, you are going to have to lift your hands up, up, UP! When you don’t move with your horse, or if you are late in following the movement, you only cause disharmony and bumping. So even when your horse lifts her head up high or twists it to the side for a bit, it’s an opportunity to stay in harmony, and then return to a neutral position together, are you following me? 😉
The neutral position itself is it’s own reward, for both of you! So go ahead and praise your horse when you get there, but also take note of the feeling of being there, together. That is what you need to memorize. If you have trouble feeling where your body is in space or are distracted by stiffness or pain while riding, I have a Somatics for Riders INTRO Course that will help you quickly get back to feeling supple and having more body awareness so you can more easily find and ‘live’ in neutral with your horse.
If you aren’t softly following your horse with your hands, you will cause the bit or nose band to put incorrect pressure on the bones of the horses head, which can cause pain, miscommunications, and bad habits like head-tossing horses and ineffective aids.
When I ride with a bit, I like to use my Micklem Multibridle, which is designed to ergonomically fit a horse. In this video, William Micklem, the designer of my fave bridle, talks about overcoming the 5 main areas of pain caused by the typical bridle.
2. Always Keep your Hands At or Above the Withers
Both of your hands should be at or above the height of the withers at all times, unless you are resting your knuckles on the horses neck while going over a jump. I see so many riders with their hands “down” on either side the withers, or even at the level of their knees, and this is a bad idea for several reasons:
• Holding the reins low does NOT encourage a horse to carry his head low, which is why most riders do it.
• It hurts the horse and usually causes them to open their mouth to get relief. When your hands get too low, it causes the bit to press down on the bars of the horses mouth, and/or to bump into the first molars, which can be both painful and damaging to a horses mouth and confidence.
• Low hands cause riders to hunch forward or collapse the upper back. This makes it impossible to maintain a soft and following hand while you ride.
Here’s the thing.
I know you want to get your horses head down…
Because everyone wants their horses head down for one reason or another.
Why you should want your horses head to be down is something I’ll talk about in another post – but carrying the reins down low is the WRONG way to go about it. I believe most riders do this unconsciously, but some instructors are actually teaching a low hand position to pull the horses head down with the reins…
When you keep your hands above the withers, you keep the bit pressure off the bars and tongue and on the soft and stretchy corners of the horses lips. This gives a more elastic and comfortable connection, and a steadier contact. Because the bit is not banging the bars or teeth, the horse will “trust your hands” more, and respond more readily to your aids.
Another reason I love my Micklem Multibridle is that you can configure it to protect the horses mouth from too much pressure! Because we all accidentally balance on the reins sometimes. It’s also great when you have a beginner or unbalanced student on a horse.
When the horse is comfortable, pain-free and trusts your hands, he or she can relax and get to work responding willingly to your aids and building fitness and self-carriage. These are the ingredients that lead to a horse dropping his head in a relaxed manner and ‘collecting’ correctly!
3. Hold the Reins Correctly
Closed fists are the KEY to Riding with Soft and Following Hands
You don’t want a tight fist on the reins, but a softly closed one. Open hands are more likely to be injured if the horse makes an unexpected move.
You want a steady feel without gripping or adding tension to the rein or to your body.
When we grip our hands, our whole body tightens up too, from our lips to our glutes… I have written a whole post dedicated to how to hold the reins, you can read it here.
4. Never Cross the Neck-line with Either Hand!
Keep the right hand on the right side of the horses midline, and the left hand on the left – always. I know several instructors and methods of training that call for using an “indirect” rein position with one rein going over the midline, and I do not recommend it.
Why? Because the moment you bring one rein across the midline, you start to tilt the bit or put twisty pressure on the noseband of a bitless bridle or halter.
This causes the horse to tilt their head at the poll and to flex to the opposite direction, setting up ‘incorrect’ movement and a bad habit that can lead to tension, pain and arthritis of the poll and thoat-latch area.
If your trainer wants you to use an indirect rein, you can use a modified technique that I talk about in another post (coming soon).
5. Find the Feel to Ride with a Correct Following Hand Position
Imagine that your arms are made of bungee cords from the elbows down. There is a stretchy sense of ‘positive tension’ when you are riding with contact (ie. short reins). Try to extend the stretchy feeling beyond your fingertips and into the reins anytime you are holding or adjusting them. To do this, your hands and arm muscles must be relaxed and free from tension.
Even when you are riding with loose reins (ie. On the buckle) put effort into touching and moving the reins smoothly. Try to match the movement or level of tension already on the reins, so the horse barely feels you, unless you want him to. This takes a little practice to master, and most of us have some bad habits that will get in the way.
Don’t worry, there is a solution to beat your old habits!
The fastest way I know to erase tension and old habits is using Somatic Movement. I invite you to join my free 7-Day Somatics for Riders Challenge to start unwinding your habits, tension and poor posture. Day 7 is all about the hands!
6. Use a Tool to Find the Feel
Try holding a short whip, like a jumping bat, across the tops of your fists while you ride.
Hold the bat between both hands, tucked under your thumbs close to the webbing, so you can still hold the reins with the tips of your thumbs against the second knuckle of your index finger.
Close the rest of your fingers into a fist. This will feel awkward but give you lots of feedback. When your hands tilt or drop too low, the bat will bump the saddle or the withers, and you will feel it instantly so you can correct it.
7. Softly Engage Your Core to Follow the Movement
I think there is too much emphasis on having a ‘strong core’ for a correct riding position. Use your core, YES, but holding it or trying too hard to contract your abdominal muscles actually makes them act weaker! Your core will automatically activate to keep your torso vertical – that’s what your vestibular (balancing) system is for.
Too much core tension will restrict your breathing and make you less flexible.
Try lightly pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth while you are riding, and breathe through your nose – this helps you to engage your core just a little bit without getting stiff or interfering with your natural breathing.
You want the minimum amount of muscle engagement in your core to keep you from sliding off your horse and into a puddle of goo on the ground – just enough to sit upright and balance. Any more than that leads to stiffness and ‘blocked’ energy. If you’re having a hard time understanding what I mean, or finding the feeling in your body – my 7-day Somatics for Riders Challenge will help you with this one too!
I hope you found these tips helpful! Drop a comment for me below if you have any questions, and let me know what other tricks you use to keep your hands soft with a following feel.