Two Easy Exercises to Make the Rider’s Hands More Sensitive and Effective


“That rider has good hands.”

The comment might mean little to those outside the equestrian realm, but within it, we understand it as a compliment. And one of the highest order.

As young riders, we try our darnedest for a somewhat light connection with the school horses and tough little ponies we likely learn on. We know we should be able to turn and stop with almost invisible aids…we’ve been told, and we’ve seen great performances by liberty trainers and dressage riders and accomplished horsemen with that magic touch on a horse. I even vaguely remember reading a story about a fairy with a tiny, mystical mount, and reins of a spider’s thread…and this is what I aspired to, over the years, despite a number of equine partners with less-than-enthusiastic responses.

Certainly, it would seem some people are born with feel and good hands. They get on a horse the first time and just know, innately, how to communicate with the animal beneath them. But the rest of us needn’t feel dismay, as we can improve the sensitive and effective use of our hands. The late great Sally Swift gives us two fun and easy exercises to help in CENTERED RIDING 2, her phenomenal followup to the international bestseller CENTERED RIDING. Here’s my take on both of them:


Booze Cruise (My Name for This Exercise, Not Sally’s)

With your fingers around the stems, walk around with two full (right to the top!) wine glasses. Notice how much easier it is not to spill the wine when you are grounded, centered, and soft with your fingers, than when you tighten and hold the glass stems with tense hands. Practice finding a more grounded, centered self that filters out to soft hands. Note: I recommend doing this in a room with tile floor or outside, where spillage isn’t a concern. Bonus: Go ahead and have a drink when you’re done. (And repeat the exercise as often as needed!)



Ball in the Bowl

Take a large mixing bowl and place any small ball (a tennis ball, for example) in it. Walk around holding the bowl loosely with your arms relaxed, your thumbs just under the outside of the rim, and two or three fingers underneath. Experiment with what you need to do to keep the ball “quiet” in the bowl (ie, not rolling around) as you walk. You will quickly discover that you must not try too hard, hold your breath, or keep a tight hold on the bowl with your hands. If you try to keep the bowl still by tightening your hands, the ball will roll around rapidly. Instead, balance your pelvis by softening your hip joints and dropping your sacrum. Ground yourself, use soft eyes, breathe easily, center yourself, and lengthen your spine up and down. You will discover that your hands become very sensitive in the way they carry the bowl, and the ball will be surprisingly quiet inside it. This is the quality of hands that you want when communicating with your horse through the reins. (Photo from CENTERED RIDING 2.)



CenteredRiding2PB-300For more enlightening exercises for better all-around riding, read Sally Swift’s CENTERED RIDING 2, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

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Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont. 


With This Ring Finger, I Thee Ride Better

Closing the ring finger on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit.

Closing the ring finger on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit.

In her book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, expert riding instructor Wendy Murdoch explains the “Ring Finger Connection” when you hold the reins while riding. According to Murdoch, when you hold the reins and activate your thumb and index finger, there is a pinching action. This action causes the front of your body to flex forward; you round your shoulders and drop your chest. Plus, you are vulnerable to being pulled out of the saddle due to the tension created in your biceps and shoulders.

The muscles attached to the ring finger, however, connect closer to the point of the elbow, so when they activate, they in turn initiate a line along the back of the arm rather than the front. Using the ring finger, you can resist a a pull from your horse with your triceps rather than your biceps. You sit wide and open in the chest and allow the horse to pull you into rather than out of the saddle.

Closing your ring finger (or middle finger when your ring finger is too short to manage the reins) on the reins is like completing an electrical circuit that runs from your horse’s mouth through the rein to your hand, along the underside of your arm to your back, down to your seat (which deepens in the saddle), and cycles through the horse from back to front and to the mouth once again. An “open” hand, in contrast, does not complete the circuit; the horse can easily pull the rein from your hand.


Try this simple exercise from 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES to better understand the actions of your fingers on the reins:

1  Hold your right hand in riding position and pinch your right thumb and index finger together. Now, use the fingers of your left hand to feel how this pinching tightens the muscles on your right forearm. Pull on your pinched fingers with your left hand. Feel how you resist by tensing your biceps and chest. Notice the tendency to round your shoulders as you resist.

2  Now close your right middle and ring fingers firmly against the palm of your right hand and slowly “pulse” the pressure. Feel the lower part of your right forearm with your left hand. Notice how the muscles contract and relax.

3  Wrap your right ring finger around the index finger of your left hand, keeping all the other fingers slightly flexed. Pull against the ring finger with your left hand. Feel how you pull back with your elbow to resist rather than tensing your shoulders. Notice how your collarbones widen and your chest expands.


Now think how these minute movements translate through the reins to your horse, and how your hands affect your position and performance when you ride.




Wendy Murdoch’s 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, as well as her bestselling first book and companion DVDs, are available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.


When Rein Contact Is Like “Handcuffs” on Your Horse: An Easy Exercise to See What It Feels Like to Be Ridden with Your Neck “Held” in a Shortened Position

In her new book RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW, Ulrike Thiel explains why it is important that the horse be able to use his neck as a “balancing rod.” She says the horse’s ability to use his “balancing rod” neck defines his balance and instills confidence in his movement.

“The comfort of the connection between horse and rider depends directly on the availability of the ‘balancing rod’ neck,” says Thiel. “And remember, contact should come from the horse—he should stretch elastically into the reins rather than yielding to the rider’s hands. In several modern schools of riding, correct contact is replaced with the horse yielding at the poll and going behind the vertical in response to pressure from the rider’s hands.”

Try this easy exercise to see how important it is for the horse to be able to use his “balancing rod” when being ridden:

First, walk the length of a narrow piece of wood with your arms free and out to the sides.

First, walk the length of a narrow piece of wood with your arms free and out to the sides.

1  With your arms free and held out to your sides, tread the length of a narrow surface, such as a balance beam or even a long strip of wood flat on the ground, such as that shown in the image above. Most will find that this neither causes insecurity nor is difficult to accomplish—you can rely on your “balancing rod” arms as necessary.

Next, repeat the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but not fastened together.

Next, repeat the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but not fastened together.

2  Now try the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but unfastened so you can use them if you need to. While you may fall out of balance and your muscles may cramp momentarily, you know you can put your hands out to the sides to catch yourself and relieve your muscles if you need to. Therefore, again, the exercise is neither particularly anxiety-inducing nor difficult.

Finally, try again but this time with your hands tied or handcuffed together in front of or behind your body.

Finally, try again but this time with your hands tied or handcuffed together in front of or behind your body.

3  Finally, tie or handcuff your hands in front of or behind your body and try again to tread the length of the beam. You will discover you fall out of balance more often and your muscles are more likely to cramp—plus, the knowledge that you cannot catch yourself from falling even if you want to, or relieve your cramping muscles, causes anxiety.

“When the horse is in the ‘classical contact’ (in front of the vertical and with sufficient neck length), he is able to use his ‘balancing rod’ (his neck) whenever he needs to catch his balance,” says Thiel.

This is like treading the beam in Step 2, with your hands unfastened but folded behind your back.

“However, when a horse is held in a shortened neck position by the rider’s hands, he doesn’t have that ability,” she goes on. “This is comparable to us having our hands tied behind our back [Step 3 of the exercise]. Think about it: Police bind prisoners’ hands behind their back with handcuffs so they can’t run away—their feet are free, but their balance is compromised. When the reins act as ‘handcuffs’ on the horse, they not only prevent him from balancing himself, they also cause instinctive fear in a flight animal, since he feels he can’t run away if necessary.”

Click image to order.

Click image to order.

RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW is available from the TSB online bookstore.