Paying close attention to how horses respond to the slightest pressure applied to each rein and changes in hand position is what developing good hands and feel is all about. Photo by Ross Hecox

By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

It’s true that having good hands is crucial for every barrel racer and horseman out there, but it’s also impossible to set a generic, hard-and-fast rule for hand position that applies to all horses and all riders at all times. I think it’s most important to teach riders a feel for the effect the position of their hands will have on their horses—it’s not a static position. 

In general, I tell people to bend their elbows, keep their hands about waist level—not too high, not too low—and use their hands to point the horse’s head and shoulders, guiding them into and around the barrels correctly. 

Having good, quiet hands requires the rider to know how to use their feet to push their horse into the bridle with collection and softness. 

Having good hands means paying attention to what rein you’re pulling on and when and the reaction in your horse’s mouth and body. When learning to have better hands, it’s important not to think, ‘Is my hand in the wrong position?’ because there’s no single ‘right’ position of where to always place your hands. Instead, it’s analyzing and asking, ‘What are the consequences of how I’m riding, and what position are my hands guiding my horse to?’ 

You can get your hands too high, too low, too far out to the side, but I want to always think about my hand position in relation to what is being communicated to the horse through the bit in his mouth and the effect it has on his body position.

I don’t want to see a person’s hands moving around a lot in a distracting manner. Lisa Lockhart is a prime example of good hands and a conscious effort to ride consistently and guide her horse for position. 

Getting out of position causes riders to get wilder with their hands. You don’t want to pull really hard on your horse and then throw it back to him all at once with an erratic movement. The horse will have little choice but to respond with erratic movement himself. Plus, your body follows what your hands are doing, and inconsistent movements result in un-centered riding. 

We’ve talked a million times in this column about what happens when your inside hand crosses over the horse’s mane and pulls up toward your opposite shoulder. You can hold a horse off the barrels and get by with that, but in my experience, you can bet that the  next run or two they’ll want to dive in there harder. That’s because when you’re pulling across to the opposite side and your hand comes over the horse’s mane, you’re putting that much more pressure on the inside rein, which makes the horse move in harder in response to pressure. 

I’m not saying you can’t ever take your hand across, but what I am saying is you can expect your horse to get too tight on the barrels in subsequent runs as a result if you don’t fix it. Plus, as a wrong habit, it doesn’t exhibit good timing and only gets worse with more runs. 

On the contrary, if you get by a barrel, you do have to use your hands to help your horse come around the turn. That’s where I think it’s important to be able to use your hands effectively and not erratically to help your horse. 

Similarly, you have to know how to use your hands to slow down in cases where a horse gets too much speed for the turn. In this case, you’re helping rate them down with two hands on the reins, staying straight and keeping the horse collected underneath you. 

What I see cause lots of problems is unequal pressure on the reins without a feel on the part of the rider for what this is doing to their horse and where the pressure is directing the horse. It becomes more pronounced the faster you go. 

Keeping the right amount of pressure on the reins takes lots of practice and lots of riding. Your most important job is to position the horse going into the barrels so they have enough room to get around them.

This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Barrel Horse News.