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This is a continuation of a series of Articles. 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Horse Training - Communication 101
Part Twelve
By Beverly Whittington

The Hands as a Form of Communication

The main thing that differentiates the skilled rider and the novice is the ability to use their hands correctly. The hands must be independent of the body, while working in unison with the body. Almost sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?  You can add to this the additional irony that when the complete rider/horse team is formed, the most skilled riders communicate with their hands as a secondary means of communication, for it is through balance, seat and leg cues that the rider communicates most efficiently with the horse. This is a very confusing concept to a lot of people.
People will become frustrated when trying to develop good hands, often giving up because they get to the point where the just feel it is not worth the trouble, or work, that it takes to develop them. Most of these same riders care deeply for their horses. Have you ever wondered why riders with good hands are often described as sympathetic or kind riders? It is because their hands never used to harshly punish or inadvertently confuse or cause pain to the horse. Their hand aids are always the minimal amount necessary to get the point across to the horse. This usually leads to a horse that both respects and trusts its rider. When the elusive “good hands” seems to be a goal that you may never reach, keep this in mind. Good hands = giving your horse the opportunity to respect and trust you. This will help make the hard work all worthwhile!

How are YOUR hands?

First you need to consider where you are at this point in your communication with your hands. 
If you have communication problems with your horse, what is your first course of action?
1. Do you examine your riding habits or training schedule? 
2. Ask for help from more experienced riders or a trainer? 
3. Or rush to the store to buy a more sever bit for “more Control”? 
Does your horse do any of these things?
1. “Root” with his nose, pulling the reins from your hands.
2. Work with his jaw braced, mouth open.
3. Stick his head up and the nose out when you pull on the reins.
The individual who answered #3 to the first question or a yes to any of the second question DEFINITELY needs to work on improving their hands. Although the hands are not the roots to all problems with a horse/rider communication, poor hands cannot help improve any of the issues! If you use your hands to balance, you cannot effectively communicate with your horse, and are most likely causing him pain or discomfort!

Rider Loosing Balance and using Reins to Balance.


All horses (including both hard and soft-mouthed ones) must be taught to work on the bit, in order to do this your horse must be accepting and trusting of your hands. Horses with hard mouths can indeed be a challenge to cause them to become responsive to a light touch on the reins. However the alternative of resorting to a harsher bit or yanking on the bit or engaging in an eternal tug of war with your horse will only cause their mouths to become even tougher. The hard mouthed horse cannot be “fixed” with a harsher bit, for it is often a one way street with a domino effect. The horse will never improve in his mouth until he becomes responsive and supple. The key to this type of horse is to slowly introduce the concepts of suppling and yielding to rein and bit pressure, with patience, most hard mouthed horses eventually becomes an enjoyable horse to ride.

I used to have an instructor, many years ago that said, “There are no harsh bits, only cruel hands.” I think it is also a true statement that there are no mild bits when used by a rider with heavy or harsh hands. 

A rider must be supple through the hands, wrist and arms. Ok so exactly what is meant by supple? Elastic, Pliant, Giving, Flexible these are all other ways of describing the Supple contact of good hands. This is not to say that the rider should throw away all contact with the bit. The reins should feel alive, with even the tiniest movement of the horses mouth or tongue instantly felt by the rider.

Try an experiment; 

Take both reins in your hands as you would normally. Now have an assistant be the horse by taking up the “bit side” of the reins. As you hold the reins, shut your eyes and have the assistant move their hands. Ask them to make the movement as light and as imperceptible to the eye as they can. You will be surprised just how “Light” a vibration in the rein you can feel. Now think about this. Do you really think that your horse can't feel that with his MOUTH? Of course the horses mouth is capable of sensitivity far beyond what most people are able to feel with their hands! It is simply a matter of enabling the horse to RESPOND to these lighter cues. 

If you feel that your hands are not light enough, work with a slight amount (1-2 inches) of slack in the reins. You can always take up the slack should the need arise, and it will allow the horse a respite from constant pressure, he cannot become more responsive to a lighter contact unless you allow him to experience it! Remember that you need to be balanced in your seat, not using the reins for balance. 

Stopping without the use of reins.

How do you normally ask your horse to stop? Most people will simply respond "by pulling on the reins". Remember that when ever possible you do not want to PULL on the reins. Why? Well anyone can see that a horses can out pull you in a tug of war, it does take TWO for this to ever even begin. If you do NOT pull, he cannot pull either... So how do you stop your horse without pulling? Begin by breaking the stop down to steps. From a walk;

  1. Shift your weight into your seat and lean back slightly.
  2. Apply a “but tuck”.
  3. Use the voice command "ho" ( I like ho better than whoa because whoa can sound too much like Walk.)
  4. Begin to take the slack out of your reins and slowly increase the bit pressure until your horse stops. 
Many horses are very perceptive to this stimuli and if you do this correctly and consistently, your horse will begin to stop before you even begin step three.  After several days of consistent work, your horse will start to notice the shift of your weight and stop simply from the seat cue.

Ask for backwards with your seat.

One way to both improve your hands and the horse's lightness in his response to rein pressure is to work on a back with little or no rein contact. You will be using your seat to push (driving) toward the rear of the horse. Your hands will simply be there to block any motion forward with a firm contact that is instantly relaxed when the horse ceases forward movement. In this means the horse will, by process of elimination , figure out that you want him to BACK! You are communicating with your BODY, backing it up with rein cues. So how do you “drive with your seat”? You remember how to "hula hoop"? Visualizing the use of a hula hoop, or actually getting one out and using it will help you to figure out how to use your pelvis and seat to drive the horse forward and back. Driving your pelvis forward you ask for forward motion, backwards should ask for backward motion. So you simply apply how you would ask the horse to go forward, and do the opposite of that! This is not something that will be instantaneous in either your getting it correct or the horse responding correctly when you do, so be patient. Your approach should be trying to make the horse think he's teaching you to stop driving with your seat by his stepping backwards. It is therefore imperative in the initial sessions, that The INSTANT he rocks or attempts to take a step backwards, you stop the driving aids and reward the horse with PRAISE REINFORCEMENT to establish the cue for this behavior pattern. The release of the driving aids is a Primary reinforcement (a.k.a. negative reinforcement), and it acts on the instincts of the horse (what works FOR the horse). Vocal praise ('good boy') or a rub on the neck (rub, don't pat!) are Secondary reinforcements (a.k.a. positive reinforcements, what works WITH the horse) and have no power if your primary reinforcement is not used properly and at the correct time. Ask for a only little movement at first, rewarding even the slightest tries. This exercise can serve several purposes, you can initiate the use of the seat driving aids, teach the horse the proper method to back, work on the first stages of shifting the horses weight to the rear (important in getting the horse to engage his hindquarters) and begin lightening the horse's response to rein stimuli while lightening your hands at the same time. 


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