We’ve talked in past columns about what it means to have good hands—that perfect amount of pressure on the bridle reins—but I think the topic is important enough to merit more discussion. A lot of people think that having good hands means you’re not touching the horse’s face at all. Others think not jerking means that you have good hands, which is true but we’ve got to get somewhere in the middle of that to really get it right.
Be smooth and steady
When I was a kid, my dad always put me on very broke horses. I mean very broke in the sense that you barely moved your hand and they were light and responsive to your rein cues. When we were kids, if we ever jerked on a horse we weren’t allowed to ride, it was that simple. If you’re loping around and decide things aren’t quite right and respond by jerking your horse in the ground, you’re not accomplishing a thing—in fact, you’re going backwards. Your ability to get your horse to lope perfect circles, guiding that horse to keep him soft and correct, is key and is possible to do on any horse. If you cannot lope a perfect circle it means that your hands are guiding the horse incorrectly. Your cues with your hands and body are what cause horses to move in or bow out, that’s why learning to lope perfect circles is so important for all riders. Learn to use your hands and feet to guide correctly because if horses fade in, or block off a portion of that circle, it means that you applied too much pressure before that cutoff point.
Another common thing I see is riders who’ve develop the habit of side passing to move their horses off the barrels. I feel that this is a counterproductive move to practice because it’s not natural for a horse to move sideways in a run. You have to guide and train for correct position on that path that must be taken to and around the barrels. A horse cannot side pass away from a barrel when running, and if he tries to it’s definitely not going to be smooth or fast. Correct position in a run depends on the rider’s ability to guide with good, quiet hands that aren’t giving mixed signals or disrupting the horse’s movement by jerking, or by pulling across the horse’s neck to the opposite shoulder and then throwing it all back in the turns. These habits make it harder on the horse.
I think one of the No. 1 things for a rider’s hands to be good and quiet is to learn not to move them around dramatically with fast or jerky action. The goal is to be steady, slow and still, which is smooth as well as reassuring to your horse. Quick hands make a horse worried.
You want your hands to be about waist high, elbows bent slightly, and not moving more than four to five inches around that imaginary box in front of you. When you’re just loping around, let the horse find their comfort spot and just relax without always being in their face. Likewise, when working or running the barrel pattern, you should not go into the turns and just throw all the slack in the reins forward. Nor should you cue with a quick, hard jerk on the reins at the barrels. These types of cues, especially when coupled with coming up with your inside rein toward your opposite shoulder, cause a slingshot effect.
Oftentimes, people I teach at my schools aren’t aware of these habits until they watch their videos and it’s pointed out so they can see what their hands are actually doing. Watch your videos because pictures can be deceiving in that the image might not have been captured at a moment when your hand was in the wrong spot. A person’s hand could have gone clear up to their shoulder and back down to their knee (thus the slingshot effect) and a photograph won’t necessarily tell the whole story, so you’ve got to watch your videos. I’ve had people tell me, “Look at this picture, my hand was perfect,” but I say, “Let’s watch the video,” and it sometimes tells a different story.
I can’t emphasize how important it is for riders to understand that jerking on a horse’s mouth does nothing more than cause a horse to get mad, defensive and block you out. You never achieve softness in a horse by jerking; you only inflict pain, which builds resentment. The goal for any horse you ride should be to get them soft and responsive, but being heavy handed gets you the opposite effect. It’s safe to say that everyone at some point has gotten frustrated and jerked on a horse, but you cannot let emotions take over and risk ruining the horse. There’s no place for angry emotions when working with horses.
If your horse isn’t soft and responsive, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Have I had my horse’s teeth done by someone qualified and knowledgeable? Does my horse have cuts, sores or sharp points in his mouth that cause discomfort? Just because a horse’s teeth have been done, doesn’t mean there’s not still something going on in their mouth. I’ve seen so many horses that people tell me had recently had their teeth floated that still needed work done. You also have to ask yourself questions about your own riding habits. Am I consistent about my riding? Am I spending enough time riding with a good balance of working on perfect circles and helpful exercises, as opposed to making too many fast runs? Do I need to control how much I run my horse? You’ve got to strive to connect with your horse in order to know what he, as an individual, can take.