Dear Jessica, HorseSense is the greatest! My instructor doesn't have a computer that does internet things yet, so she gets me to print all your HorseSense articles for her. I think that's really cool. She's a great instructor anyway. Anyway here's my question, and I know what my instructor says but I want to know what you say about this. I want to have soft hands because my horse is really sensitive, she's an Arabian mare and she has a very soft mouth. So here's what I want to know! My instructor keeps telling me to keep contact with Kira's mouth, and to keep my hands closed on the reins. I always want to ride holding reins with just my fingers so I can be softer, and basicallly I want to ride with the reins loose most of the time so I only have to use them if I want Kira to stop or turn. This is so that I can be very soft with her. I know how sensitive she is because she flips her head a lot even though I am so gentle with my hands, and I'm afraid that if I do what my instructor says and use a lot of contact Kira will go crazy and rear or something. She is VERY sensitive. What do you think?
I have to tell you that I'm with your instructor all the way on this question. By trying to be extra-gentle with Kira, you are actually being much harder on her -- and you are confusing her! Let me explain.
Soft hands are nice, but softness isn't the same thing as throwing the horse away! Softness doesn't come from opening the fingers or from letting the reins hang loose. Kira DOES need contact -- she needs to know where you are, and what the bit is going to be doing. I'm going to assume that you've already checked her mouth and her bit, and that her teeth are fine and her bit is suitable and fits her well. If you haven't checked these things yet, this is where to begin.
Softness comes from good contact, and that means always having enough tension in the reins that you can feel the right side of her mouth with your right rein, and the left side of your mouth with your left rein. You're not PULLING -- you're FOLLOWING, but you DO have constant contact with your horse's mouth. You can give her a long rein when she needs a break, and keep the contact. You can shorten the reins after the break, without losing the contact and without grabbing her.
If you ride her with steady contact -- which doesn't have to be HARD -- she will be able to relax, and she'll stop flipping her head. If the reins are loose most of the time, you have NO contact with her mouth, and when you pick them up to ask her to turn or stop, or for ANY reason, she gets a sudden, surprise bump in the mouth. This makes her worry all the time, and it makes her flip her head when you pick up the contact, because it's a surprise and not a very comfortable one.
If your fingers are closed on your reins, and you hold them in a soft fist -- not clenched and gripping, but with the ends of your fingers just touching your palms -- then you can be NICE with your hands. With THOSE hands, you can add a little pressure by closing your fingers more tightly, or you can release the pressure by moving your hands forward slightly, or by relaxing your fingers even more, just for a moment. But when you hold the reins loosely in your fingertips, you can't GIVE with them, you can't talk to Kira or respond to her, you can only TAKE, and when you do, it's sudden and unpleasant for her. She's not fussing about the contact, she's fussing about the surprise "grab" in the mouth.
Try riding her with your reins shorter and your fingers closed, and let her move your arms at the walk. Don't push the reins back and forth, just relax and let your upper arms hang straight down from the shoulders, and allow your elbows to open and close as the reins move back and forth following Kira's head and neck movements. Your instructor can help you with this.
I think that you and Kira will both be happier -- and I know your instructor will be happier -- once you've learned to ride your mare on contact with a following hand. "Soft" , to a horse, means "steady and following", not "loose and intermittent." Try it your instructor's way for a few weeks, and tell me what happens. I'll be very, very surprised if you don't like the results.
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