Grey Horse, LLC
Firstly, I’d like to show you WHY I’m writing this article. In the photo to the right, my student Kellie is demonstrating (on purpose), something I see WAY too often. Horrible hand position that is unbalancing both the horse and the rider, delivering a horribly-angled and unclear cue to the horse. If, when we ride, we routinely deprive the horse of his balance, he could become worried, asymmetrical, resistant and bracey. If we carry on disrupting his balance, he may quit entirely. As a rider, if we routinely practice a poor hand position, like this one, in an emergency we will likely be ineffective, and worse yet, in some situations, we could tip our horse over or cause him to fall.
So let’s look at what the problems are here. First of all, our rider is pulling DOWN on her horse’s mouth. Think about this. Our horse has two choices, basically, when we apply pressure to him or attempt to direct him. He can go against us, or he can go with us. If we pull down on our horse from the saddle, if he goes against us, his head will go up, which most of us don’t want. If he goes with us, his head will go down, likely below his withers, which will dump his weight on his forehand, and if we are turning, on his inside front foot and shoulder, which most of us don’t want. So pulling down is not a good option, however we look at it. Our rider has also tucked her hand behind her backside, which has never, in the entire history of riding (as far as I know) ever been considered a "correct" hand position. With her hand behind her backside, she has little to no feel and no ability to make adjustments in pressure or position. In this photo, our rider has also collapsed her body to the inside of the turn, which has thrown her weight to the inside, causing her horse to dive in as he goes with her. Her heel has come up as she (perhaps) cues her horse to step his hind end over with her leg. When her heel comes up, she destabilizes her position and unbalances herself and her horse further.
If this rider were to adopt this position in an emergency, it will be luck and the grace of God that would keep her on top. Habitually adopting this position will also prevent this rider from achieving higher levels of training and refinement in her riding and in her horse.
Now let's look at how "easy" it is to fix these faults.
Here (right), Kellie has corrected all the major faults I asked her to demonstrate in the first photograph. Her heel is down, she is sitting in the middle of her horse, balanced left-to-right and front-to-back. She has shortened her active rein so that she can keep her hand in front of her and not pull down on her horse. In other words, simply stated, she has not sacrificed good basic position on the horse in order to apply her cues. As simple as that is, it is one of the monumental challenges of learning to ride a horse.
This is a good example of the straight line from the elbow to the bit. Here, my hand position does not disrupt that line. In addition, my shoulder/hip/heel alignment is good, my posture is decent, my head is up, and I am positioned in a way to cause as little disruption to my horse as I can within my ability.
Opening rein: In the opening rein, the rider takes the hand from the direct rein position and opens it out away from the horse, either with the thumb up or the thumb down. The action of the rein would be out to the side. In the horsemanship context, this position would be used commonly to connect to the front foot on the side of the active rein and “lead it out” to the side.
In this photo, Glenn is pulling down on his horse. It's pretty subtle, and we can be fooled by that little soft belly in his rein, but if you draw a straight line between Glenn's elbow and Osage's bit, you'll see that his hand falls below that straight line. Therefore, he is pulling down on his horse.
There are basically three different ways to use your reins. I’m not sure why, but it appears that instructors are not teaching this any more, and it’s really just basic form and function on a horse.
Direct rein: In the direct rein, the elbow of the rider is at the rib cage, the forearm is parallel to the ground and the thumb is up. The action here, if the rider needs to apply pressure to the bit, could be straight back or up (via bending the elbow). In the horsemanship context, this direct rein action would be linked to the movement of the hind foot on the same side as the active hand. This is the position we’d use to get our inside hind to step across, in other words. If the rider finds their hand out of position when the elbow is at the rib cage, the forearm is parallel to the ground and the thumb is up, then the rider needs to shorten or lengthen their rein so that the hand can remain in the proper position(ish).
My husband Glenn demonstrates the opening rein with his left hand. That hand and the rein action are clearly connected to this horse's left front foot in this example.
Indirect rein: This is the most advanced rein action (in my opinion), and therefore the most misused. In the indirect rein, the hand starts in the direct rein position, but the action of the rein is toward the rider’s opposite hip. So if I’m using an indirect rein with my left hand (as in this photo), the action is over and back toward the point of my right hip bone. This rein action can be connected to any of all four feet of the horse, and also to just the bend in the spine of the horse, which is why I say it is the most advanced rein action.
Now that we know the three basic ways of using our reins, let’s look at a few examples and variations.
So how do we get started on this? Well, one of the things that we heard over and over as kids (and it made no sense to us then) was that our instructors wanted a “straight line from your elbow to the bit”. 40 years later, I’m thinking that’s a decent place to start for a lot of us.
In this photo, Buck Brannaman demonstrates the straight line from elbow to bit, as well as a variation of an opening rein with his left hand as he asks his colt to add some speed to his turn on the haunches. Also notice that as dynamic as the movement is in this moment, in contrast to the photo we set up as our "bad example", Buck's weight is in the middle of his horse, his left heel is stable and directly under his hip, and horse and rider are all headed the same direction in balance with one another.
This is a variation of the opening rein hand position, and also an example of an extremely subtle supporting/indirect rein action with my right rein. In this photo, I am asking my horse to step his left front out laterally and bring his right front across in a turn on the haunches/bringing the front end around.
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Here is an example of the "direct rein" hand position. This is home base, the starting point. In this photo, my hand position could have been more ideal if I'd shortened my right (active) rein so my elbow could have remained at my ribcage/hip. If our hand is out of position, it is often due to incorrect rein length.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty of this deal. We really can’t go wrong getting our “direct rein” position just absolutely rock solid. This should be the “default” position for our hands, and the starting point for any modified hand position. This is the position I would hope we would start with in an emergency. As the situation developed, we could modify our position if we needed to, but this is a safe basic starting point in an emergency. That position should draw our hand like a magnet. When we're "not thinking", that's where our hand should go. When we don't know what to do, that's where our hand should go.
Until our basic hand position is instinctive (some would call it “unconscious competence”), hand position needs to be a priority. Until we can use different positions consistently, we cannot provide our horse with consistent instructions (or a consistent “feel”), and we cannot expect them to respond consistently. The further we go in our riding, the more important hand position will become, and the more interest and joy we will find in exploring it.
If you are an avid student of horsemanship, you will likely find that as you explore hand positions and rein action, your understanding of how the reins connect to the feet and to the posture of the horse deepens. We will always have a “primary” rein and a “supporting” rein in our work. Rarely, if ever, will we use both reins evenly. Eventually, our inside rein will cause lateral flexion and the outside rein will cause vertical flexion. But we can get in to all that later.
As we advance toward softness, lightness and refinement, we will find that hand position and rein action turns into energy, thought and intent, through our deep understanding of the position and action we have mindfully practiced.
One of the things that people who ride horses are very concerned about is their hands. The quality of their hands, whether their hands are hurting the horse or not, and what the heck their hands should be doing – or not doing. It’s a big deal.
So we are going to take some time to look at one aspect of using our hands while riding a horse, hand position. Hand position while riding is not a static or stationary thing, it’s a dynamic thing. The distance and the angle/position of our hand in relation to the horse’s mouth changes from moment to moment, as both of us move and as things happen. So hand position is just one aspect of using the hands.
Hand position and rein action are part of something that in my head, I call "The Seeds of Softness". There are too many physical and metaphysical things that contribute to a feeling of "softness" between us and a horse for us to catalog and list them. But this is a clearly identifiable contributing factor to the creation of a feeling of softness between us and our horse. Hand position may seem mechanical, or boring, or tedious but I am here to tell you that your safety not only depends on it, but any progress toward true softness does as well.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to keep things pretty simple and basic. If you participate in a specific horse sport or discipline, then you may need to adhere to another set of “rules” or expectations. What we’re going to go over here is pretty “middle of the road” and can be modified to please instructors or judges with different ideas. The information here is designed to help the rider present a consistent position to the horse, to help connect the reins to the feet, and to instill in the rider effective, balanced hand positions that will become automatic and useful in an emergency. This is very important for all of us, because in an emergency (or perceived emergency), we will instinctively do what we practice the most, and if what we’ve been practicing is an ineffective or even dangerous hand position, then we’ve just doubled our trouble, if you see what I mean.
What you see here also assumes that you are using a snaffle with your horse. While the information contained here may work with other kinds of bits or head gear, it may well not, if your gear does not function like a snaffle bit.
Some of you may complain that this view of the hands lacks detail, and it does. We are not going to talk about “contact” per se or debate different academic schools of thoughts about the hands. This won’t be a history lesson. We’ll just make it a basic primer and a starting point.
This photo shows me asking Kansas for a bit of a leg yield to the left. My left hand is acting as an opening rein and is connected to my horse's left front foot. My right hand is acting as an indirect rein and is causing the lateral bend in his body and is also connected to the right front foot and right hind foot. This is why I say that the indirect rein is an advanced rein aid. If my reins were not connected (through education) to my horse's feet and spine, this would be a photo of me pulling uselessly on both reins, which would simply make my horse shut down and brace.