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Try this Exercise for Better Hands

Published: 4/5/2017
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Editor's Note: We welcome another guest column from Juliana Zunde of Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Zunde was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1981. She has managed large horse facilities, competed at high levels, and taught extensively, especially to hunter/jumper enthusiasts. She runs Trakai Farm in Hillsborough.
Zunde teaches clinics using her Track-Momentum-Balance Method and blends Natural Horsemanship concepts to help horses and riders work together correctly. She coaches harmony and balance for the hunter, jumper, and dressage ring.
She has studied with George Morris, Joe Fargis, Jeff Cook, Ann Kursinsky, Dr. Gerd Heuschman, Maclain Ward, Buck Brannaman, and Martin Black.
Read more about her here.

By Juliana Zunde

Recently, guest columnist Amy Skinner discussed the goal of having the horse “on the aids,” rather than in front or behind them. I want to follow up with a great exercise to have a softer hand, inviting the horse ONTO the bit for better communication.  

It doesn’t matter what discipline you ride or if you’re just seeking a better feel on the trails or obstacle courses. In all aspects of riding, your hand is what guides the bit in the horse’s mouth to the place where you want to go.

I always tell my students:
  • put your eye on the track
  • let your hands put the bit perpendicular to that track
  • have your legs send the horse there.

On the trail, you should ride with a loose rein and some occasional guiding; you most likely will not need the same connection and feel as when doing upper level dressage, jumping, or Western patterns.

In English riding, we are taught to hold the reins coming in from the horse’s mouth and running between your ring and little finger, through the palm of your hand and then out around your index finder with your thumb on top of the rein. 

Pictures 1 and 2

The ideal line we are seeking is a straight one from the rider’s elbow to the horse’s mouth.

More often than not, I see very stiff wrists, curled to the inside or outside and even tilted up or down.

Picture 3

Any one of those mistakes has an effect on the horse’s mouth. He will feel that tension in an unpleasant way.

Real connection comes from softness of the wrist and elasticity in the elbow, allowing you to follow the motion of the horse’s head without interfering, thereby putting him ON the aids. That fluid connection is what lets us communicate through subtle cues. The more advanced the training of rider and horse, the less interference and rigidity you will see.

I often encounter riders who have been told to hold a certain position in a certain spot with their hands. They seem to be unable to relax their wrists and learn to follow the motion.
If you have trouble staying connected to your horse’s mouth and staying soft with your wrists, try this exercise:

Turn the reins upside down and ride with driving reins!

In this case, the reins from the horse’s mouth first come in between your index finger and your thumb and go out between the ring and little finger. 

Picture 4

-- If you try to kink your wrists one way or another while holding reins like this, it feels strange and difficult.
-- The grip makes you want to separate your hands exactly the right distance and hold them in the right place.
-- You naturally have a straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth; you have a better connection with the horse and are more in sync his motion.

Ride like this for a while and you will feel a much softer hand that invites the horse to be ON the aids. Your communication with the horse is instant, true, and not delayed or cluttered with the pressure of stiff wrists.

Try riding like this in all three gaits, as well as jumping with driving reins. It will invite your horse to want to come to your hand and ON the bit.

Remember: Practice doesn’t make perfect. only perfect practice does.

View Reader Comments:

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4/6/2017 Sally Colbert
Thanks Juliana, this is the exact problem I seem to have and your tip looks like just what I need to try.
4/6/2017 Jacky D
What an interesting suggestion, I like the simplicity of it and the basic mechanics. I'll be trying this tomorrow. Thank you
4/9/2017 Debbie
Interesting. I used to long line my horses as part of our normal training routine, and of course the 'driving rein' was how I held those lines. It is very different than the way I hold the reins in the saddle. I will give this a try to see where it goes, and what it may reveal. Thank you.

"A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care." - Pat Parelli