One Simple Way to Quiet Your Hands While Riding Horses

Cantering

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Well, by now, if you’ve been reading my articles fairly regularly, you might already know that when something is “simple” in horse riding, it isn’t necessarily easy! Quieting your hands falls into this category.

What is this simple way? Well, stop using your hands!

It’s pretty simple to not use your hands, but it might not be so easy to increase the use of your other aids in lieu of the hands.

If you’re anything like me, and you developed the habit of controlling pretty much everything from the horse’s mouth long ago, then you know how difficult it can be to reduce your reliance on your hands.

However, I’m here to tell you that it can be done. It is possible to go to your other aids and save your hands for only two things: the end of the half-halt (in order to help with rebalancing the horse) and straightness/flexion.

The hands do play a role in the half-halt. I’ve explained it in detail along with the other aids here and more of a basic description here.

They also can maintain the horse’s straightness, especially in the shoulders, especially when you are on a bend or turn. They also can help with maintaining the flexion of the jaw (usually in the direction you are going).

Other than that…

… the hands should and can sing poetry in the horse’s mouth and help him develop confidence and strength within his own movement. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)

The rest of the body can take over much of the in-movement communication with the horse. And this is where the difficulty comes in for some of us. It takes a quite a lot more coordination and core strength to aid your horse through your seat, legs and body. But with practice and guidance, it can be done. Only then can your horse lighten on his feet and carry you with more comfort and strength. And for the rider, there is a sense of freedom that comes along with the reduced reliance on the hands.

 4 Aids to Use in Lieu of the Hands

The Seat

The rider’s seat is the root of all good in horseback riding. Not only does the seat keep your balance and allow you to move in harmony with your horse, but it also sends an almost unlimited amount of communication to your horse.

Because, you see, the seat is the largest area of contact with your horse, and it sits (pun!) literally in the middle of the horse. From there, you have such an opportunity to send almost invisible signals to your horse. And he will likely respond easily just by virtue of the fact that it is easier for him to move from the middle of his body than the front.

The Weight

The use of weight is an off-shoot of the use of the seat and they work together in tandem. You could ride with a balanced seat that isn’t indicating anything in terms of weight, or you can use your weight to your advantage. Let’s imagine a turn – if you can weigh your inside seat bone into the turn, you will invariably help your horse turn easier and with better balance. How about a leg yield? Use your weight aid to invite your horse into the direction of the movement.

The Legs

The legs are critical for clear communication. The inside leg works on bend and keeping the inside shoulder moving straight. The outside leg is responsible for asking the hind end to stay in line with the front end (and not swing out, for example). It also is the main initiator of bends, shoulder-ins/haunches ins, canter departures and turns.

You can also “step into the stirrups” to support your seat aids, or to create a stronger leg if the horse is moving into it. The more educated you and your horse get, the more meaning you can offer through your leg aids.

The Voice

Especially at the beginning, either for a novice rider or horse, the voice can be a welcome reinforcer of the body aids. If the horse is young or relatively untrained, voice cues might not initially carry much meaning, but they can serve to calm the horse or conversely, add a little “spice” into the horse’s movement (if you need increased energy).

Voice cues can be words or sounds, depending on how you want to develop them. You do not have to be loud to be effective. Use consistent voice cues and your horse will in fact be able to understand and predict what you want.

Well, there you have it! Riding with less emphasis on the hands is possible and highly recommended, not only for your pleasure, but for your horse’s comfort as well. Although it might take more time than you might initially want to invest, developing your other aids to the point of clarity is well worth the effort.

What aids do you use instead of your hands? Share in the comments below.

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  Related reading: 

Move to Stay Still on Horseback: How do we begin to look like we’re sitting still, doing nothing on the horse’s back?

Why Would You Bother to “Scoop” Your Seat Bones? Learning to use your seat effectively should take a lifetime to develop, so we will begin with just one basic aspect: how to move the seat bones.

Rarely Considered, Often Neglected: Lunging to Develop the Riding Seat: Riding on the lunge is the best way to begin the search for the effective seat.

9 Amazing Effects From Lifting the Horse’s Back While Riding: What exactly is the result of a lifted back? What does it look and feel like?

14 Ways to Communicate While Riding Your Horse: The difference between other sports and ours is that we must learn to communicate to our teammate in less obvious ways than people do in other sports.

9 Amazing Effects From Lifting the Horse’s Back While Riding

back

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

 

The lifted back is something we all strive for regardless of our riding disciplines. In theory, we know that it is a good thing to encourage the horse to “work through his back.” We know that the hollow back is detrimental in more ways than one, and we regularly continue to use our aids in a way that encourages the horse to lift his back through movement.

But what exactly is the result of a lifted back? What does it look and feel like?

Here are some ideas. Although it is easier to feel these results in the trot, you should be able to get similar feels in the canter.

1) “Swing” Through the Back and Shoulders

When the horse lifts his back, he is engaging his abdominals more, which in turn allows the legs to flow better in the movement. This lifting seems to free up the horse’s legs, and suddenly, the movement becomes looser and bouncier. If you can’t feel the swing in your horse’s back, you might be able to see the shoulders take rounder, more lofty strides.

2) Steadier Rhythm

A lifted back helps to stop the staccato sewing machine trot and because of the increased swing, allows a more relaxed, purposeful rhythm. The strides feel more balanced and controlled. They tempo settles and the legs seem to have more time to come through during each stride.

3) Deeper Stride

As the rhythm settles, the hind legs are freer to reach further underneath the body. The hind end tucks under, allowing more weight to be carried toward the hind end. The horse’s balance improves and perhaps even the level of your contact improves.

4) More Ground Cover

A deeper stride generally translates into increased ground cover. If you notice that the horse seems to be travelling further without moving his legs faster, you have probably lifted the horse’s back.

5) Release of Tension

All this improvement in balance translates into a softness that can become a release of tension. With improved swing, the horse might stop bracing through the shoulders and then the neck and jaw. He might start breathing deeper and eventually let out a body shaking snort. At this point, if you can keep the hind end active, you will be able to influence a continued release of tension which originates in energy coming from the hind end.

6) Rounding

As the horse releases and develops a better balance, he begins to round his back. His neck arches and his poll and jaw soften – with little effort on your part. This happens as a side-effect from impulsion and subsequent release.

7) Better Lateral and Longitudinal Suppleness

Release from tension allows the horse to be more limber, both over the top-line and side to side. So if you can get the horse to lift through his back, you might also discover that bending left and right becomes much easier. If you can clearly position yourself into the bend, the horse should have an easier time following your lead.

8) Soft Eyes/Ears

Don’t be surprised if your horse seems to relax into a soft-eared happy place as he begins to enjoy the tension releases. If you can encourage this feeling often enough, the horse will learn to enjoy your rides and release sooner in the ride.

9) Slobber

And this is the final pièce de resistance. As we already know, slobber is connected to the swinging of the back. Even if you can’t tell whether your horse is “through” and lifted in the back, you will certainly notice the “white lipstick” as it develops in the corners of the horse’s mouth.

How to encourage the horse to lift his back

Well, this one is a little more difficult than just reading an article. You probably need feedback from your instructor to learn to really feel the lifted back and recognize the above signs. However, I can give you a place to begin.

Start with the leg, then seat, then half-halt combination. I know that I keep mentioning the same aids but pretty much any balancing or rebalancing starts from these aids.

Then add transitions. Start with progressive changes of gait – trot/walk/trot or trot/canter/trot. Allow the increased energy to flow over the horse’s topline by moving your seat in harmony with the horse’s increased impulsion. Stay in the middle gait (walk or canter) only for a few strides.

You are using the transitions for better use of the hind end, so come back to the trot within three or four strides and work with the resulting energy to improve the horse’s movement. The lifted back happens as the energy begins to travel over the horse’s topline.

If you have a chance to try this, leave us a note in the comments to let us know how it went. 

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If you enjoyed this article, read more here:

 Breaking the Cycle: It Might Not Be What You DID Do…: … but rather what you DIDN’T do!

Perfecting Perfection in Horseback Riding: We will never really find the perfect horse, nor will we ever be a perfect rider. However, of course we try for perfect! 

 The Pinnacle of Horseback Riding: Riding toward the ultimate release – this is the stuff riders dream of.

How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.

Why Would You Bother to “Scoop” Your Seat Bones? Learning to use your seat effectively should take a lifetime to develop, so we will begin with just one basic aspect: how to move the seat bones.

On Bubbleneck and Marshmallow Contact

short reins

Bubbleneck with high head

As you probably already know, just when you think you know something, you realize that there is so much more left to be learned. Recently, this epiphany happened to me (yet again) and this time, it was about developing a better contact. Somehow, just when I finally felt that my contact was becoming soft and supple and kind, I discovered yet another deeper level of contact that blew away what I thought I knew.

Of course, it was just a momentary tease. When these new, exhilarating feels saunter into your world, they rarely stay around long enough for you to be able to really get a good sense of what just happened. You’re lucky if you can even just recognize (and maybe memorize) the feel before it flits along on its way.

And so it was that as I thought I was teaching Roya something, she ended up teaching me something right back. Please bear with me as I use these “fluffy” words to try to describe feels and visuals.

Bubbleneck

Next time you have a chance, watch some horses as they’re ridden in the ring. Look at their necks as they go around. Are they “filled up” – topline muscles supple and bouncy in the rhythm of the movement? Or are they flat and almost cardboard-like, not responsive to the movement, braced and stiff and still?

Bubbleneck is a term I came up with to describe what the neck looks like when energy is flowing over the topline as the horse moves. The muscles at the top of the neck bulge and ripple under the skin, working in tandem with the rhythm of the legs.

In contrast, the braced neck shows the exact opposite – the top of the neck is thin and unmovable (and the horse likely moves stiffly left and right) and the “underneck” bulges. Over time, the muscles under the neck might overdevelop. Or, your horse might be naturally predisposed to developing an underneck, due to conformational reasons.

Bubbleneck during a stretch

 

The key to developing a nice bubbleneck is to get the horse to lift the base of his neck. This lift allows the horse to move more freely through the shoulders and remain in better balance in the front end. Although the feel is initiated from the hind end, it’s what you do with the energy in the front end that either drops the base of the neck or lifts it.

Now, some horses might have incredibly good conformation and front-end strength. They can almost always move with a bubbleneck no matter what you’re doing. But many others, and especially those with a downhill conformation, will have more of a tendency to just brace, drop the base of the neck and move along on their forehand. In this case, what you do affects the horse either positively or negatively, depending on the result of your aids.

Marshmallow Contact

So while I was working on getting my horse to lift the base of the neck while moving in a steady, rhythmical and energetic trot, she suddenly took the bit and softened in every aspect. My fairly steady, fairly light contact morphed into something that I can only describe as “marshmallow.”

It was soft, fluffy, malleable and yet springy like a marshmallow. It was also as crushable – so if my (always closed!) fist tightened just past the “too strong” threshold, the contact would squeeze away just like a marshmallow would collapse into itself with too much strength. And so Roya and I floated along during those precious few strides, with this marshmallow-y feeling, in balance and somehow NOT on the hands but seamlessly moving together in tandem, with much less emphasis on the hands for direction.

And then it all fell apart!

Of course, now I’m looking for both bubbleneck and marshmallow contact in all my riding, through all the movements including walk and transitions. I can find that feel much of the time, if not all of the time. But as I get better at asking for bubbleneck and allowing for marshmallow contact, Roya is having an easier time allowing it to happen.

How to Bubbleneck

NOT Bubbleneck!

NOT Bubbleneck!

 

Bubbleneck must come first. Because without the lifted base of the neck, the horse’s balance is already affected negatively. Then “contact” can never get past a push/pull level. Here’s a breakdown of what I think I’m doing.

Initiate Implusion

Squeeze with the lower legs, encouraging a higher level of impulsion and energy, and a lifting of the horse’s back.

Follow With the Seat

Immediately allow the energy “through” with your seat. Encourage the horse’s initiative to move forward. You might need to allow more movement than you’re used to in your core and lower back to allow the horse to swing through his back.

Half-Halt

I know it always comes back to the half-halt! But you must half-halt at the end of the energy surge, or the horse will simply have too much energy and fall to the forehand.

To little (or no) half-halt will just send the energy forward and down, putting the horse even more on the forehand and necessitating more bracing through the front end. Too much half-halt will stunt the energy and not allow it to “go through” enough, thereby stopping the hind legs from stepping under. So you have to fiddle long enough to find the just right amount of half-halt (all horses are different).

Find the Bubbleneck

Now you have to pay close attention to your feeling receptors. You can also probably see the topline muscles of the neck as they start to “bubble” (or not). Figure out what it takes for the bubbleneck to appear, and why it goes away.

Contact!

As you can establish a longer bubbleneck, you should be able to feel the change in the level of your contact. Finding marshmallow contact isn’t about taking more or less pressure on the reins. It’s more about creating and maintaining an ideal balance. Make sure you keep a steady contact and wait for the horse’s change of balance to allow for the better contact.

Have you experienced something like this? How would you describe it? Let us know if you tried this and what the result was in the comments below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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More reading: 

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Sometimes it feels like the word “contact” has other-wordly connotations.

14 Ways to Communicate With Your Horse: We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel – something very alien to people who don’t have to interact with a 1200 pound partner. 

Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Technically, it’s not something done by the hand.

On Slobber, Snorts and Sheath Sounds: It doesn’t matter the discipline – a good back means good movement and long-term health of the horse.

Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: Well,  I have to confess that it isn’t really magic at all. But when you “find” that feel the first few times, it really does feel like magic.

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7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition 

canter left

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

When you first learn to canter, it’s about all you can do to get the horse to change his legs from a two-beat trot to a three-beat canter. You do pretty much anything you can to make the transition happen – lean forward, kick, kick harder, kick some more, let the reins go, use your voice….

You might feel like the canter is a huge speed-up from the trot, and when the horse finally does canter, the euphoric feeling of strength and power sends you into a rocking horse motion that just can’t really be adequately described to the non-rider.

But then you get better at it.

You realize that the canter departure doesn’t have to resemble a rocket launch. You develop your aids till both you and your horse look a lot more civilized – and a lot less frantic. At some point, you realize that you can trot, maintain the trot rhythm, and elegantly step into the canter. Your aids become invisible, prompting less educated onlookers to think that the horse is reading your mind.

So how exactly do develop an epic canter transition? How do the aids become refined enough to create a smooth, balanced, active upward transition? In the following even steps, I’ve tried to break down each component of the transition in order to help explain the nuances that go into a split-second movement! Although it might seem a little complicated, I hope that it can describe each moment that goes into a better developed canter departure.

Once you know each part that goes into the one movement, you might be able to problem-solve your departures with your horse and focus on one or two aspects as needed. 

1. It All Starts With the Seat

Well, we already know this. But how does the seat exactly play into the transition? First off, your seat should be trotting when the horse is trotting. So if you are sitting the trot, your seat bones are actually moving in the rhythm of the trot. Be sure to promote a strong but not fast rhythm – one that your horse finds easy to move in while remaining supple.

If you are posting the trot, sit the last few strides before the canter. Use your seat to draw up the horse’s hind legs, asking for more impulsion.

2. Use the Inside Leg/Outside Rein

The inside leg has a very important job in this moment. Apply the whole leg (from ankle up) at the girth to ask the horse for a mild bend to prepare for the inside lead. If your horse has a tendency to lean in just before the transition, your inside leg becomes even more critical in helping the horse maintain balance by not allowing him to drop his rib cage toward the middle of the ring. 

The outside rein does little except to act as a “neck rein” – the one that sits onto the horse’s neck and prevents him from drifting to the outside. It also can work during the half-halt aids before and after the departure.

3. Half Halt Preparation

Do one or two or three half-halts before the transition. We often tend to “throw everything away” (as in, lengthen the reins, take the legs off the horse, fall to the horse’s front) as we head into the gait change. Fight that impulse and instead, keep the horse together. Falling to the forehand and trotting faster before the canter almost always ensures a low-quality canter gait. Although the horse might transition, he will likely be on the forehand, braced in his neck and jaw and hollow in his back.

Instead, after you ask for impulsion, half-halt the horse to balance his weight to the hind end. Keep your legs on for impulsion.

4. Use the Outside Leg – Ask For the Lead

The outside leg initiates the lead. Some people call it a “windshield wiper” motion: swing your lower leg behind the girth to ask for the first stride. The horse’s outside hind leg should strike off into the lead as your leg reaches back.

5. Canter With Your Seat

So far, your seat should have been trotting. Now, it needs to initiate the transition. So you go from two seatbones moving in tandem with the horse in the trot, to a canter motion with the inside seat bone leading (to allow for the horse to take the inside lead). Your seat now needs to promote the canter movement – swinging back and forth thanks to your supple lower back. Keep your shoulders fairly still by moving through your back. The swinging movement allows for the illusion of your shoulders staying still while the horse is moving.

6. Use the Half-Halt Again

Just because the horse is now in canter doesn’t mean that you should stop riding! Many of us tend to freeze in our aids, opting instead to just hang on to the increased movement of the canter. Well, as soon as you have enough balance and are able, go to riding actively again.

Half-halt – once, twice, three times maybe – in the rhythm of the canter. This helps the horse to stay “together” after the transition. The sudden surge of energy needs to be controlled so that it doesn’t just fall on the horse’s shoulders and forehand.

7. Canter on!

Now all you have to do is commit to the horse’s movement. Your seat should allow the movement that your horse offers, and it’s your job to not let your upper body fall forward/backward/sideways while your seat follows, follows and follows (unless you do another half-halt). 

* * * *
When you first start paying attention to each of these aspects of the canter transition, you might need to actually think through every part, talking your body into the necessary activity while negotiating the canter movement. But rest assured – with practice and time, things become more and more automatic, and then you can focus more on your horse’s specific needs.

Though we are talking about so many steps all subdivided here, in reality, it all comes together within a few seconds – from preparation, to the request, strike-off and follow-through. Eventually, it happens so seamlessly that the departure becomes just a quick thought – one that transpires between both you and your horse in an epic, seemingly mind-reading fashion!

How do you ask your horse for the canter? Let us know if there is anything missing in the comments below.

Want to advertise your business on Horse Listening? Click here for more info.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Related reading here:

First, Plan Your Ride. Then, Scrap It: Even though you are inspired to get that horse to do the next cool thing, your horse might simply not be ready.

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.

Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.

How the “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. The situation becomes ugly – you have a hard enough time just sitting the bounciness, never mind getting the transition. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.