In this series we will break down our anatomy as riders – how each individual body part should function… and how sometimes they go on a sabbatical to do whatever they desire. In this article we will be discussing our hands.
A correct hand has the thumb pointing upward, in relation to the forearm. That means that your supple elbow and forearm should flow in a steady line the direction of the horse’s mouth. Your thumb follows those angles downward and is bending neither inward or outward. Your wrist can change the angle of your hands in a number of directions – it may break it downward, upward, forward or backward.
Take a look at these photos as reference. Your wrist does not flatten your hands into those ‘piano hands’ we’ve heard so much about, that is more a function of your forearm.
How do I hold the reins?
Take your reins in your hands, if you are at home, use a piece of rope or a thin belt. The reins will be clasped in two separate areas of your hand – between the pinky and ring finger and then tamped down by the tip of your thumb. You will want the reins placed close to the base of your hands, just past the middle joint of your fingers. You will then hold this in place with the tip of your thumb. When done correctly, your thumb will look like a tiny tent. This allows your wrist to remain mobile and independent. Many times riders will get into the habit of riding with a flattened
thumb, but this begins the cycle of bracing your wrist and arm, and should be avoided.
You will want to feel the tips of your fingers pressing softly into the palm of your hand. In dressage we ride with a closed fist. Believe it or not, this is the kindest way to ride for the horse’s mouth. It allows us to feel more nuanced pressures and forces us to remain elastic and giving with the major giving joint of our bodies – the elbow.
But I thought the hand gave?
It is important to separate phrases that are often used with what is actually happening anatomically. It is a common misconception and leads some riders, in a effort to be kind, to ride with the previously mentioned opened fingers. Your finger joints should not open. It is the elasticity of our elbows and somewhat in our shoulders that allows for a giving hand. In dressage, but also in all riding, there are some parts of our bodies that are responsible for stabilizing and other parts that are responsible for movement. The key to riding well is knowing which parts are your mobile parts and which are supporting those mobile parts. Your fingers are not one of the ‘giving’ portions of your position. While you might supple a horse with your wrist or even by squeezing your fist, you do not reward by spreading your fingers open.
Think of our hands as indicators as to the overall balance and independence of our positions. Oftentimes our bodies will mask issues that then will show themselves in our hands. There are many examples of this – the broken wrist, the piano hand, bleeding reins.
Imagine that you are not holding onto a set of reins, but that you are actually holding hands with your horse’s mouth. What sort of hand would you like to hold, one that is firm, one that is supportive, one that is constant. No body would want to hold hands with someone who was constantly fluctuating their patterns, over toned or a limp noodle. Imagine the type of hand you would like to hold and use the tips above to maintain this connection with your horses mouth. Your job is to be consistent even when he is not. A note – while I
photographed myself without gloves to show more clearly what is happening with the hand, I believe strongly that everyone should ride with gloves. They aid in gripping the rein (think of those hot days with sweaty hands), maintaining a more refined feel and protecting your hand against the elements.
For additional learning tools, click on the video below to learn how to do the rein game with a friend. This will give you a change to maintain your hand while learning to supple your elbow.