Floppy Thumbs

With a lot of my teaching I try to come up with catchphrases, so I can say a word to trigger my rider to make a certain correction or check. They often aren’t very technically correct, such as a “squashy trot” for collecting the trot.

This catchphrase has developed over this week due to some recent observations I’ve made, and I think it works quite well.

Most riders don’t carry their hands with the thumbnail pointing vertically up – even if you think you do your thumbs will still point slightly inwards. Now, don’t pretend to hold the reins and say they’re 100% correct, have a look next time you’re in the saddle.

With riders who have the classic “pram pushing” hands with knuckles facing skywards, they often have the elbows sticking out slightly. They may not be flapping like chicken wings, but they will be loose. With loose elbows, the core is weaker and less engaged.

In a nutshell, I find if I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top, I also have 5o tell them to keep the elbows snug to their sides. The two faults are linked.

When I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top there is usually an improvement, but only a 90% improvement at most, and they very quickly let the thumbs flop in slightly.

So I needed a phrase to correct both parts of a rider’s anatomy. The next time you are riding, rotate your hands outwards so that your fingernails point upwards. Can you feel your elbows squeezing against your rib cage? Can you feel your core slightly more engage? No huge clenching of muscles, but your posture and deportment improves.

Yes I agree, riding with your fingers up is a bit extreme, and not very correct, but if you over correct your hands in this way, as soon as your mind drifts to your next circle or change of rein, your hands start to revert. But because of the extreme positioning of the hands, the thumbs end up pointing to the sky, and the elbows snug by your ribs.

Now for the catchphrase. “Flop your thumbs out” seemed to work quite well for my clients this week. It’s short and sweet, draws a smile, no one feels like their being reprimanded, isn’t technical, and gets the desired result.

Now for the core effect. Once my riders have gotten the idea of flopping thumbs, I ask them how their seat and core feels. Often, they don’t notice a thing, so I get them to ride a normal trot-walk transition (with sitting trot beforehand). I haven’t corrected their position or aids for half a lap or so. I ask them how it feels. Then we repeat the transition, but this time I remind them to flop their thumbs out just before taking sitting trot, and then explain how different it feels.

With one rider this week, she noticed a huge change in her balance in the downward transitions, and could feel her core working harder to stabilise her when her elbows were by her side. We took it forwards to the canter transitions, and by the end of the lesson she could feel an ache in her abdomen, which showed she’d worked harder and differently that usual. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a huge visible change to a rider’s torso when flopping their thumbs, but they feel more stable and secure without being tense when the elbows are closed against the ribcage, and it is definitely more noticeable during transitions and sitting trot.

Try it; flop your thumbs out slightly every so often when you’re riding or are about to ride a movement or transition, and see the difference it makes to your balance, stability, and contact.

Diagonal Limbs

I often talk about vertical balance with my riders as it’s one of the easiest ways to feel if a horse is unbalanced on turns. Have I blogged about it? I shall check as it was definitely on my list to do but I don’t actually remember writing it.

Old age.

Anyway, when looking at improving vertical balance I use the concept of diagonal aids. That is, the inside leg works in conjunction with the outside rein and vice versa.

Riding a horse is all about a balancing act. From day one, a rider is balancing the horse between going forwards from the leg and not going too fast by using the hands. Yes, the seat is also involved but as that works for both teams we’ll ignore it for the moment. It’s like having clutch control; every car is slightly different and there’s a skill involved.

Once we start talking about vertical balance the balancing act becomes a side to side one.

Initially, I ask my riders to ride some turns in walk, identifying the aids they’re using. Sometimes they get it right, after all I teach “indicate with the inside rein, instigate with the outside leg” when steering, but sometimes they’ll use one limb more than another, compensate for their or their horse’s crookedness, or have totally forgotten about one particular aid. Then, we discuss how the diagonal pairs work together to turn a horse, and to keep them upright on turns.

The left rein and right leg work as opposites to the right rein and left leg to keep the horse vertically balanced.

For example, the inside rein indicates the direction of turn as the outside leg pushes the horse in. The outside rein and inside leg work to prevent over steering and the horse falling in around a turn.

When a rider starts to think about their diagonal limbs working as pairs it becomes easier for them to work on a grey scale. Instead of it being black and white, putting the steering wheel onto full lock, they can now steer by degrees. Just as learning a half halt provides them with gears to each gait.

Half halts then begin to develop from a speed regulator to asking for bend, and correcting balance subconsciously. The rein contact becomes more consistent and because a leg aid is always applied with a rein aid the horse is ridden in a more forwards manner. Using diagonal pairs helps develop the feel and timing for aids too, which helps with refining the way of going.

Developing the concept of riding with diagonal pairs naturally leads on to riding inside leg to outside rein, which is a precursor to leg yield.

I enjoyed introducing the idea of diagonal pairs to one of my young riders a couple of weeks ago to help her transition from riding off the inside rein as a child usually does to riding with the outside aids. She had fabulous results as her pony started pushing through from behind, was more balanced on all their turns and taking the contact forwards. Thinking in diagonal pairs allowed her to position her pony wherever she wanted, and to correct him if they went off course. It was a very satisfying lesson to teach as I felt they both benefitted hugely from the rider’s new found understanding, feel, and knowledge.

The Left Hand Knowing What The Right Hand Is Doing

I discussed this subject with a teenage client last week as we focus on improving her pony’s straightness and her rein contact.

I asked her if she was aware of the jobs of the inside and outside hand, and if she felt that her hands were as good as each other at each job.

She knew that the outside rein is a stabilising rein, it needs to be steady and consistent to prevent the horse falling in, losing vertical balance, or bending too much through the neck. The inside rein is used to flex the horse and indicate the direction of movement. As a result, the inside rein is more mobile (not to the extent of dancing around) but not quite so steadfast as the outside rein.

With my rider understanding the concept of the different roles of the inside and outside rein, I asked her to evaluate her rein contact and hands in each direction. Did her right hand find it easier to be the outside rein than the inside? Did her left hand provide a better outside rein contact than the left?

She correctly identified that her right rein was a better outside contact than her left hand as it stayed steady without hanging off the mouth. Her left hand found it easier to soften her pony into a left bend. In this case, the more dextrous hand was her writing hand, but this isn’t always the case. In my observations, I’ve noticed that everyone has a stabilising hand, which is used for example to hold a nail, and everyone has a hand which is more adept at finer movements – the one which uses the hammer. Perhaps that isn’t the best description. The stabilising hand holds the paper still whilst the motor hand draws the picture – how’s that? Most of the time the motor hand is your dominant hand, but it’s not a golden rule.

Once we’d established the different jobs of the outside and inside rein, we talked about how to improve the hands. I asked my rider if she felt there was an even weight in both hands, or if one was always heavier. A lot of riders carry more weight in their stabilising hand, which when it is the inside rein means that the horse is more likely to motorbike around turns and lean in. So I had my rider assess the weight in her hands on both reins to see if one was significantly more. Her right hand was slightly heavier, but not a huge amount so on the right rein I just kept reminding her to balance out the feel in her hands – taking more weight with the left hand and lightening the right. This immediately began to help create a better outside rein contact on the right rein as the left hand became more stable.

I kept the focus on the right rein (clockwise around the school); keeping the left hand more stable and consistent as the outside aid, and then as I don’t want the right hand to suddenly start leaping around we mainly worked on lightening the wrist, keeping the weight of the arm in the slightly more bent elbow. As my rider’s hands became better at each job and the weight more even between left and right, her pony started to move straighter, staying more balanced on turns and giving more of a uniform bend throughout his body. She could then add in the inside leg aid to improve his inside hind leg engagement and balance.

With her new knowledge and understanding of the job of the inside and outside reins, my rider found it easier to change their bend when we started to work on serpentines and figures of eight. Her pony then kept his balance during changes of rein and became more symmetrical in his way of going because he was giving more bend on his stiffer rein and less bend on his hollow side.

With ambidextrous hands a rider is more able to ride evenly in both directions, and with a greater understanding of the purpose of the inside and outside rein the horse can be more easily corrected in their way of going. A rider can balance the horse between leg, seat and hand more subtly and effectively when a rider has more understanding and control over their rein aids.When learning lateral work, greater control over the reins as individuals means more correct movements will be ridden because the horse can be set up on the correct bend and it can be maintained whilst moving sideways.

Riding to a Contact

I always think that teaching a learning about a “contact” is one of the hardest concepts within equitation.

To begin, the word “contact” appears on level three of the German Scales of Training. It is defined by “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth”. 

I introduce this idea, or at least make sure they are aware of it, to all my clients. With beginners I encourage a long rein until they have more stable hands so they are more forgiving on the horse’s mouth, and then we slowly shorten the reins so that we have what resembles a straight line from their elbow, through the hand, to the bit, but the riders are always aware that there should be a line of communication between elbow and mouth. With novice riders, I try to get them to feel that they are in a more direct communication with the horse’s mouth, but they don’t have to say anything, and just keep the contact light and still.

This is usually accepted and understood by everyone, but it is the next step that can cause problems. That is, going from holding a rein contact to riding into a rein contact.

“The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and “seek” a contact with the rider’s hand, thus “going onto” the contact.”

Here we can then see two types of riders developing. Those which become heavy in the hand, perhaps fixing them on the neck, or bringing the hand backwards, and those who increase the driving aids yet let the hand go forwards so the rein contact is always just out of reach for the horse.

Let’s look at the first type of rider and the mistake in this understanding. When we start talking about riding into a contact, the rider is by now aware that some horses have pretty, arched necks and some don’t. However unless they understand the biomechanics of how a horse moves they will just squeeze the rein, pull in to their stomach and try to draw the horse into a “pretty, arched outline”. Some horses will unfortunately accept this, but you can see there is tension in their underneck muscles, and the back is not swinging, nor the hind legs tracking up. Others will put the brakes on and not go forwards. 

I find the best way to solve this situation is to re-educate the rider; use circles, transitions to engage the hindquarters and focus the rider on having positive hands, using the leg and seat aids, and then hopefully when you remind the rider to lift, present and allow with the hand the rider should be able to feel the horse come through over their back, and their way of going becomes freer and lighter. This should help the rider understand the importance of not tying their horse in at the head.

Some riders tend to develop straight, stiff arms when focusing on the rein contact, which then gives a heavy feel on the horse’s mouth and encourages the horse to lean against the hand, raise the head and hollow their back.

I’ve recently worked with a client who tends to stiffen her arms. So we’ve done lots of work on bending the elbow, carrying the hands and minimising the rein aids to bring her focus onto the leg and seat aids for turning her horse. 

This has all been working so that she now has a good arm position, so my next step was to get her to hold a bit more of a rein contact without stiffening her arms. Using half halts and leg aids to “pause the front end so the back end can catch up” we managed to get the trot a bit more active but we were still struggling to find the balance between the leg and rein contact. Because the mare backed off any rein contact (probably because it had been heavy in the past) the focus of riding into the contact had to be, more so than usual, from the hindquarters. Which made me think about the fact my rider could be improved by having a more effective seat and leg, which may make it easier for her to ride towards the contact.

Which led me to lunging her in her last lesson without reins or stirrups. The lack of stirrups deepened her seat and made her use her leg, which also stayed underneath her, not creeping forwards. The lack of reins made her aware of the tension she sometimes carries in her arms, and improved her core stability and reduced reliance on the reins.

Once she was back in control and off the lunge we revisited stabilising the outside contact to support the shoulder, supporting the horse as she adjusted her neck carriage (even if the reins felt heavy for a moment), and then keeping that same feeling in each hand as the leg continued to push the mare forwards to the contact. The hand then had to allow the mare to take the contact forwards. I think the penny really dropped when my rider realised that as the mare adjusted her balance and neck carriage after the half halt she did need support from the hand momentarily while she found her balance. Then the contact became elastic, light, and steady. I’m really pleased with this pairs progress because the mare was moving much more actively and started to swing over her back, looking happy in her way of going. My rider also seemed to understand the concept and the feel of the contact, which will enable us to move into more exciting dressage! I think with this rider the focus still needs to be on the driving aids and creating an independent seat so she isn’t as likely to tense her arms up again, but now we can really crack on with the dressage ready for some events! 

The other type of difficulty that arises with teaching riders about contact is the rider who is worried about having too heavy a hand. These riders usually have light hands, in a good position, but as they use the leg to drive the horse forwards the rider’s hands tend to creep forwards.

This is a tricky situation as you don’t want the rider to develop negative hands, yet they can have the same effect as dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. With riders who either give the rein away accidentally through a weak core, or those who are reluctant to have any more than a feather light touch on the reins, I explain how horses like the security and guidance of a rein contact and how the contact gives them boundaries. Imagine you’re holding a child’s hand in a busy street. They like to feel you are always there. If you dropped their hand, they’d stop, worried. Likewise the hand is stopping them stepping off the pavement or detouring into danger. The correct rein contact provides a horse with a sense of security and guides them in their way of going.

If a rider has a weak core I’d work them without stirrups to develop this area, before asking them to maintain the hand in the same position as – elbows bent, hand carried – but to close then fingers around the rein slightly more, so they feel they are firmly holding the reins, yet without tensing their arm.  They need to become accustomed to closing the hand a bit more positively on the reins, and when they are comfortable we can focus on maintaining a consistent feeling down the reins. Usually, by holding the reins with a bit more grip we immediately get a better contact because the reins aren’t sliding through their hands. Then by using a combination of focusing their attention on the position of their hand, and the amount that they are “holding” the reins we begin to create a better contact. Then as the rider is providing a consistent contact, the horse can be ridden into one.

I’ve done some work with a client recently who’s horse has stopped going forwards, which I think is to do with the fact the rein contact is light and inconsistent (I have another client who’s nappy pony goes forward only when there is a rein contact, so that is a similar situation). Last lesson we did a lot of work on her keeping her hands still when she used her leg, and not throw them forwards so that her horse had a contact to seek. I think he was getting fed up of chasing the hand, because as soon as her hands improved he settled into work, looked happier, and was more responsive to her aids. We now need to carry on making her core strong and hands independent so that she can hold the rein contact in a supportive, guiding way to help her horse coordinate himself so the back end and front end work in unison. This pair aren’t ready to ride “into a contact” in as far as pretty outlines are concerned, but it is vital for the horse’s confidence that he has the reins to help keep him straight, or support him if he loses his balance or rhythm.

The aim of me as an instructor is to try to create the situation when the rider can feel the correct rein contact, and then they have a goal to aim for and know if they’re right during their own schooling sessions. Then we can look in more detail about the tools they need to ride a horse “on a contact” whether it’s a novice line of communication, or a more advanced rider using driving aids to ride the horse “into a contact”.

On a Contact?

A friend asked me today if I always hacked on a contact. We had just got back from a nice hack, and I have to admit that the toe-pointing Anglo-Arab I was riding had spent most of the time in an outline.

During the rest of the day I mulled over this thought. Ultimately, I do always have a rein contact when hacking, but it is for the communication between the horse and me, so that I am in control, rather than a contact to put the horse into an outline. I`ve ridden so many silly horses on hacks that I think I sub-consciously keep the contact with most.

However, I usually find that because I`m more relaxed and not thinking about the horse`s way of going, and they are more forwards thinking, they usually put themselves onto the bridle and are very consistent. How frustrating!

The horse I hacked today always puts himself onto the bridle when you pick up the reins, especially when he`s pointing his toes along the road like a ballerina, which possibly looks like I`m doing more than I actually am!

If I`m riding a spooky or green horse then having a rein contact is really useful when they side step or shoot forwards. I think if I don`t know a horse that well then whilst I`m not tense while hacking, but I definitely make sure that I`m in control – and that means having a rein contact and doing transitions or lateral work along the road – so that the horse trusts that I know what I`m doing and will keep them safe.

Hacking along a road, we should all be in control for everyone`s safety, but when going through fields and woods I can see that people often lengthen their reins and let their horse pick their own way. I do too on horses that I hack frequently and know well, but if they rush or have a discombobulated walk then I will ride them together to help them keep their balance.

So my answer is that yes, I do keep a contact whilst hacking, but it`s a contact for control and safety rather than to look pretty, even if it ends up still looking pretty!