Can you feel your hand? How about your fingers? Literally, can you feel them if there isn’t a paper cut or a hangnail?
When I was just settled into riding lessons, back at the dawn of time when I was still riding a Wooly Mammoth, I had a problem with my right hand wandering when I was in the saddle. My left hand was there, just where I left it at the end of my left arm, but not the right. I’d been fighting to learn to keep my eyes up, so I had no idea. Eventually, my riding instructor insisted I look down and I was shocked. My right hand was like a stray dog. It wandered out sideways, it dropped down low. If it hadn’t been attached to my arm, I would have lost it entirely. It totally had a mind of its own, not that I’d noticed. How was I supposed to fix my feral hand if I didn’t know what it was doing?
My trainer found a stick, not more than twelve inches long, and asked me to ride holding it between my hands. For the next few months, I sweated and groaned and fought with my own body. The stick reminded me when I was riding with my hands rather than my seat and legs; reminded me when I was picking a fight that I didn’t know about. I was the joke of the barn, not that they were any better. I just took my trainers thoughts to heart, kept the stick, and didn’t care if I got teased. I wanted to be a good rider so badly, and the stick told me how I was doing when I didn’t have the wits to tell on my own.
I began to feel my hand from time to time, especially if my horse looked one direction and the opposite rein got tighter. When I felt the rein pressure in my hand, I pulled back. It was a reflex, the most normal thing for a human to do. We return pressure with pressure. then my horse pulled harder to avoid my death grip. Both of us had the most natural response, neither species gives to pressure. It’s not in the nature of a flight animal to enjoy containment or restriction and it’s not in our nature either. So, to sum this up, I was starting to notice my hand more often, but it was always when it was picking a fight. Better than not noticing but not by much. At least I’m breathing intermittently now.
(A properly adjusted neckring will do the same job as a stick, with some added benefits for the horse. I think neckrings are are a bit more sophisticated than a stick broken from a downed branch. I still ride with them, they are an aid to remind me to be conscious.)
It went against every instinct I had, but I learned to let my hands surrender to my horse. I released my hands to any pressure they felt, in other words, my hands followed my horse. If he looked to the side, my hand followed farther. In a second he came right back, straight again, without me asking. No need to be adversarial with the reins at all if I gave up the desire to micromanage his nose. If doing less gives you anxiety in the beginning, consider breathing. The most natural thing in the world happened; my horse relaxed, softened his poll, and put his head right where I wanted it in the first place.
Can you feel your wrists? Literally, right now. Are they straight and open, or do your wrists have a kink or bend in them? Tight wrists mean tight hands. Now, look at your wrists when your hands are in the rein position with thumbs up. Splay both hands to the outside. Notice how your hands feel. Not very soft, are they? How will your horse ever have a soft supple poll, without fear of his face being pulled on, if we can’t feel our own wrists?
How about your elbows? Can you feel them elastically loose? Your horse takes a hint about his neck from your elbows.
I could go on and on. Good contact with a horse should feel to them as if they are walking on a long rein, while we do not interfere with their balance. But before a rider can hope to do well with her hands, she must have total awareness of them. Most of us don’t have great body awareness, much less hand awareness and if we are aware of anything, it’s an intellectual idea of what we want and the stress of not getting it.
You probably know someone who moves fluidly with a carefree consciousness of their body. Kids who learn to ski at a young age are “naturals.” Kids who did serious coordinated athletics or dance grow up with more body awareness. The rest of us must teach ourselves, at a less flexible age, how to feel our bodies one joint at a time. Correcting ourselves before our horses, we must patient and forgiving when we get it wrong, and try again.
Eventually the moment comes, usually in the middle of a ride when both of you are warmed up and listening. You feel the smallest change in the tension of the rein, so slight it could be a breeze, but you answer with the same softness. It isn’t a correction, so much as a bare hint of a suggestion. In that instant your horse gives to your hand, fearless and peaceful, as light as a kind thought.
How does it happen that horses look perfect? How do riders balance that dressage fundamental: asking their horse to be both relaxed and forward, knowing that they may never sacrifice one for the other? That illusion that we call perfect simply isn’t. Horses are in constant motion, we can’t force them kindly into a frame. They must find that sweet spot on their own, but if we are consciously in control of our own bodies, we can hold a tiny constant conversation that’s so quiet that it appears to be invisible but this time it happens with our total awareness. It’s the calm commitment to not react, but rather chose a soft response goes against our instincts but we can only have the illusion of control on a horse if we can take total control of our own bodies.
One more question: can you feel your little toe on the stirrup?