As humans we are all used to doing things with our hands. In fact, during our days we probably do most things with our hands.
Unfortunately, that tendency extends to riding. It’s all too easy to ride with our hands and that leaves us focusing on our horses’ heads, rather than on their engines.
Recently I read an interview with Phillip Dutton. In that article, he describes a “lightbulb moment” for him that helped him understand the use of legs versus hands.
If I want to add strides on the approach to a fence, I don’t take back on the reins; I make my upper body tall and squeeze my horse up into the bridle with my leg. (I credit Olympic dressage veteran Donnan Sharp with inspiring my “light-bulb moment” about this legs-not-hands concept in my first dressage lesson with her: After watching me fighting with my hands trying to get my horse round and in the bridle, she had me hold the breast-collar strap in front of the pommel of my saddle with both hands, and in five minutes my horse was soft and round because I was pushing him to my hand instead of pulling back.)
I have had this same light bulb moment myself. However, since I am not as smart as Phillip Dutton, I’ve had it twice. And, of course even though I’ve had this moment, it doesn’t always play out in how I ride.
The first time I made this realization I was riding an OTTB mare who was very fussy with her head. I was in a lesson with Renate Lansburgh, a dressage trainer in my neck of the woods. She explained to me that if *I* would just keep my hands still, stop fussing with her and put my leg on, she would accept my contact and stay still. It was just that simple. Well, not actually that simple because I wanted desperately to move the bit and fuss with her mouth; she just wanted me to stay still and give her a steady contact that she could feel comfortable with.
The second, more profound light bulb moment for me came when I was hunting. It was the first time I tried jumping Kroni in a simple side-pull hackamore in the hunt field. He jumped fabulously. I thought about it and realized that was because the side pull muffled the noise of my hands. I couldn’t fuss at him coming into each fence and that helped him jump better.
Since then I’ve made a consistent (even if not always successful) effort to ride with my seat, my legs and my back and keep my hands still. As Phillip describes, I’ve at times held onto the breast plate strap so that I couldn’t pull back or fuss; instead, I had to push my horse into contact with my legs. It was amazing to try it and realize how often I wanted to pull back with my hands.
My light bulb moments have made me very leery of trainers who expound a hands oriented approach to riding. I think that we have to remember that you should always ride your horse from back to front and your hands are there only to accept and to hold; not to bring the horse’s head down and not to rate your speed. Riding from the leg will always help put the horse in the bridle whereas riding from your hand will cause him to float behind it.