In my many years of coaching amateurs and youths, I’ve found feel to be the hardest thing to teach a rider. To communicate effectively through the reins, you must ride with soft hands that have a lot of feel. No one can describe that feel to you, however—you must experience it for yourself. Yet riders can go for years without realizing what their hands must do make that sense of feel possible.
Gather some gear you may need for this exercise; split reins, polo wraps, and bell boots.
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[READ: Sensitive Hands for Better Results With Your Horse]
The simple exercises I’ll describe to you here will help. They’ll set you up to follow the movement of your horse’s head and neck with your hands and arms, a basic building block of feel. Riders are often told to keep their hands “quiet,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean still. It all depends on your horse’s movement.
These exercises will clarify for you the different roles your hands must play at the walk, trot, and lope. You’ll become much more aware of both your own and your horse’s movements. As you ride these exercises and follow the motion with attentive hands, you’ll begin to understand what feel in your hands is all about.
First, I’ll discuss why feel, as elusive as it is, is well worth pursuing.
Why Fuss Over Feel?
Horsemanship is all about an ongoing, two-way communication between you and your horse. Many riders never establish this kind of dialogue because they are, in essence, just a disconnected object on their horse’s back. When it comes to their hands, they may be misapplying the “keep ’em quiet” directive by holding their hands as still as possible at all times.
With light contact, this means their horse will be hitting the bit uncomfortably with each stride at the walk and lope. At the trot, simply trying to keep the hands still can cause rigidity through the arms and hands, which makes feel impossible.
When, by contrast, you ride with light contact and feel in your hands while following your horse’s movement, it protects your horse’s mouth and allows clarity in your rein cues.
Your goal at all gaits is to keep your hands and arms relaxed, your fingers open and sensitive, and your mind engaged to assess and follow your horse’s movement through each stride.
Let’s consider each gait in turn.
At the Walk
The walk is a four-beat gait where each foot hits the ground independently. The footfall sequence is, for example, right hind, right front, left hind, left front. Your horse bobs his head and neck in rhythm with the walk, which means your hands must move forward and back to maintain the same rein contact.
A large-strided or fast-walking horse will bob his head more than will a short-strided or slow-walking one, and your arms and hands must accommodate that movement. Because the saddle horn moves in rhythm with your horse’s walking stride, you can use it as a guide to know when and how much to move your hands. The horn moves in the opposite way of the horse’s movement at the walk; in other words, it moves back when your horse’s head is bobbing down, the moment when your arms and hands should “give” forward a fraction to allow that bob.
[READ: Invisible Riding Cues]
The exercise: At a walk, place one hand on the saddle horn and notice its movement forward and back. It’s a subtle movement, so give yourself time to concentrate and work it out. Then, each time the horn comes back a bit, allow the hand holding the reins to move forward a little to accommodate your horse’s downward head-bob. Similarly, as his head comes up and the horn moves forward, bring the rein hand back to where it was before. Again, keep in mind that the horn is moving in opposition to the way your horse’s head and neck are moving.
Repeat this exercise over time, until you don’t need the horn to feel when to move your hands forward and back in rhythm with your horse’s walk. Keep your arms, hands, and fingers relaxed at all times.
At the Trot
The trot (or jog) is a two-beat gait with diagonal pairs of legs hitting the ground at the same time—for example, left hind and right fore, then right hind and left fore. During this gait, your horse’s head remains steady—no bobbing to accommodate with your hands. And yet, the up-and-down bounce of the trot is the gait that puts the most motion into your body, causing your hands to want to bounce, too.
If you try to keep your hands still by immobilizing your arms, things just get worse—all of the trot’s motion is transmitted directly into your hands…the opposite of what you want. Keeping your hands quiet during a trot requires you to separate the up-and-down motion of the gait from your arms and hands, and this takes concentration and practice.
The exercise: Fill a plastic cup three-quarters full of water, then try to keep the water from sloshing out as you ride at a trot. (This works on the same basis as the old egg-and-spoon contest, but water is easier to replace than a broken egg!) →
Don’t worry if succeeding at this exercise takes time and practice. This is normal! You’ll spill a lot of water until you figure out and internalize how to separate your arms and hands from the motion put into your body by your horse’s movement.
It may help to start at a walk, then advance to a trot. (You can also ride this exercise at a lope.)
At the Lope
The lope is a three-beat gait. If you’re traveling to the left on the left lead, then your horse’s right hind leg hits the ground first, followed by his left hind and right fore simultaneously, then his left (leading) foreleg. All this is followed by a moment of suspension while his hindquarters come forward again.
Meanwhile, his head and neck move forward and back as he completes each stride. If you’re riding with even light contact and your hands don’t follow this movement, your horse gets an unpleasant bump from the bit with each stride. In this situation, some horses resist by tossing their head in the air, while others learn to compensate by tucking their noses toward their chest every stride. Riders might switch bits or think their horse is being resistant when their hands are the problem all along.
To avoid this scenario, learn to stay in sync with your horse by rhythmically moving your arms with each lope stride, bending and unbending at your elbows much the way a jockey does. (And remember—the longer-strided your horse, the more you’ll need to move your arms to stay with him.)
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The exercise: At a lope, place your hands in contact with your horse’s neck, grabbing a bit of mane if need be to keep the connection consistent. As you do this, you’ll find that your elbows must open and close in order to keep your hands positioned on the neck as it moves forward and back. (If need be, move your hands farther up the neck where the movement is more pronounced.)
Repeat over time, until your hands and arms have learned to naturally and consistently follow your horse’s motion at a lope.
Note: You can also use the saddle-horn-holding exercise at the lope. At this gait, the horn also moves forward and back, but opposite of the way it does at the walk. In other words, at a lope the horn moves forward with each forward thrust of your horse’s head and neck. So your rein hand should move forward and back in sync with—not opposition to—the hand on the horn.
Robin Gollehon is an AQHA Professional Horseman with judge’s cards for multiple organizations. She has over 200 world and national titles to her credit in various events, and is currently in the top 2 percent of winning ranch riders in the nation. Creator of the Yearling Head Start and Get Ready To Ride programs, Gollehon has provided clinics at all major expo venues. She offers training and instruction at her farm in Versailles, Kentucky, and is owner of the National Snaffle Bit Association Horse of the Year stallion Good Cowboy Margarita (robingollehon.com).