Good Hands and Arms

I found this fascinating article on “The Arms and the Hands” by Laura Martlock at The Mane Street. I reorganized it in a way it’s easier for me to remember. Enjoy!

Good Hands and Arms

This seems to be the order of progression:

Bad Hands

Almost everyone starts off with bad hands due to human instinct:


  • The instinct for balance
    • To balance, we first use our feet. When we can’t, we instinctively use arms and hands to balance by grabbing or throwing them out. Sometimes this powerful instinct can completely take over and our hands cannot let go.
    • If a rider can’t use their feet to balance (either because they cannot, or they’re told not to because it creates stiffness) their next resort is their hands. They grip the reins or saddle, sometimes to the extent they can’t let go.
    • When a rider uses their hands to balance, pulling or floating them in the air, it bangs the horse’s mouth, causes the horse to raise it’s head, which loosens the reins, causes the rider’s arms to draw back, and makes everything worse.
    • Using the hands to balance is usually the result of imbalance elsewhere in the body.
  • The instinct for control
    • Humans depend on their hands for life. Often forcing things works (opening lids, splitting wood, etc.)
    • Without realizing it, we naturally over-use our hands to control the horse. When the horse resists, we use our hands to force the horse even more, easily becoming too demanding and aggressive.

Good Hands


  • Below the waist, a few inches above the withers, in front of the saddle
    • Allows the rider’s best balance
      • Hands too far forward unbalances the rider to fall forward
      • Hands too close to their body unbalances the rider to fall back
      • Hands too high causes the rider to use them “as balancing poles”
    • Allows a straight line from the bit to the rider’s elbow
      • So the bit can work most effectively
      • So the rider can easily feel the horse’s mouth
      • So the rider can keep light steady contact without being put off balance
      • So the rider can use just a squeeze of the fingers
  • Thumbs on top
    • Keeps the wrists straight
      • Allows clear signals to the horse (twisting wrists moves the reins and could confuse them)
      • Allows the hands to be most sensitive to feel the horse’s mouth (bending wrists reduces the hand’s feel of the mouth)
  • Arms supple, relaxed, soft, elastic, controlled, ready to work
    • Allows a “sympathetic following” motion with the horse’s motion, so the horse’s mouth isn’t jerked
  • Correct body posture
    • heels down, soft ankles, lower spine flexible, shoulders relaxed
    • “When the rest of the rider’s body is relaxed and in tune with the horse’s movement and motion, then and only then, will the rider be able to focus on feeling the horse’s mouth and fine tuning the hands’ signals and reactions.”
    • Using the hands to balance is usually the result of imbalance elsewhere in the body.
  • Understand the hands are just part of the whole pictures, one small aid of many with your horse
    • We do not need to use only our hands to force control of our horse, we use our whole body.

Independent hands


  • “independent of the rest of the rider’s body and under the complete control of rider’s mind.”


  • “true communication with a horse…comes from a complex integration and coordination of aids involving the rider’s entire body, of which the hands are only one element. Try communicating your desires to another person using only one word. You won’t get far…”
  • “It is only when the hands are independent of the rest of the body that they can truly coordinate with the other aids used in riding.”


  • Mentally separate hands from the rest of the body
    • Help them do this by pointing out “when they’ve “set” their hands and arms and mentally forgotten about them.”
    • Encourage them to “make a conscious effort to soften the arms and keep the joints supple and flexible.”
  • Physically allow the hands to separate
    • Coordinate the seat, legs, and balance so the hands can be free.
  • Practice!
    • Takes lots of practice and experience and feeling it out!
    • Learning to be more in tune with the horse itself than your own instinctive hand habits.

Educated hands


  • Able to adjust to individual horse’s movement, attitude, mouth, carriage, discipline, and balance issues.
  • Take cues from each individual horse and moment, can adjust without jerking or loosing smoothness


  • Riding many different horses
  • Don’t let your hands become set in just one way

For some exercises to develop good hands and arms, or if you just want some entertainment, visit this funny link.

Hope that was useful! Funny thing is, I found this researching how to help my rider improve his hands, and now I think we need to work on every aspect of his body instead.


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement!

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