How Your Hands And Legs Work Together In Horseback Riding

Horseback riding is a lot of coordination, when you think about it. Independently, our hands and legs do a lot of work to keep our horses balanced, straight, and moving at the correct pace–and even tempo! To effectively use our hands and legs independently, we must be able to utilize them together in harmony. While it’s not always easy to do, using our hands and legs together in horseback riding can easily be achieved with practice and focus.

So, where do we start when it comes to orchestrating our limbs in harmony? We start first by understanding how our hands and legs are to function on their own.

What To Do With Your Hands When Horseback Riding

how to keep hands steady when riding

What’s the correct hand position for horse riding? Since our hands are simply an extension of our shoulders and arms, it is crucial to start from this source. Starting with your back, sit up straight, drawing your shoulders back by pulling your shoulder blades closer together and lifting up your chin.

Relax your shoulders, letting your upper arm hang loosely. When you grab the reins, reach for them by pivoting from your seat. Take care to sit all the way back up, not allowing your body to remain hunched over or at an incline.

Keeping your elbows loose and flexible, adjust the reins in your hands so that your knuckles form a vertical line. The reins should feed in between your ring finger and pinky finger, and feed out of the top your hand through a slight gap between your thumb and forefinger.

The most important step in maintaining correct upper body position is to measure your reins correctly in relation to the horse’s mouth. That’s how to keep hands steady when riding.

You should have just enough contact to where you can feel their head move, but they should not be so tight that you are holding his head up with the reins. When you have the correct contact, make sure your elbows still have plenty of bend in them, as they will help you remain elastic in your upper body as the horse moves.

What To Do With Your Feet When Horseback Riding

What To Do With Your Feet When Horseback Riding

Much like our arms and hands rely on our shoulders for proper position, so do our legs and feet need hips that are relaxed and positioned properly. Your pelvis should sit squarely in the seat of your saddle, not cocked forward, so as to hollow out your back, or tilted backward, so as to hunch your back. Both incorrect positions will inhibit your legs’ position and range of motion, not to mention cause extra pinching for your horse.

With your upper legs wrapping around your horse’s belly, bend your knees slightly, so that your lower legs rest just behind the girth. To keep your ankles loose and supple, you can rotate them clockwise and counter-clockwise a few times before placing them into the stirrups. Loose ankles will allow your heels to sink below your toes, creating a straight line between your heels, hips, shoulders, and head.

How To Bring Your Hands And Legs To Work Together

How To Bring Your Hands And Legs To Work Together

Developing muscle memory around proper upper and lower body positions is a the first step towards riding correctly. A common challenge for the new or returning rider is the next step: coordinating these two hemispheres. Here are a few starting tips for bringing your hands and legs together in horseback riding:

Let Your Lower Body Do Most Of The “Talking”

A common misunderstanding among new riders is that the hands do most of the steering and halting, while the legs just cue the horse to go faster.

In reality, your legs and your seat should be your first avenue of communicating anything to your horse. Ask for forward motion by applying equal pressure to your horse’s sides with your legs, meanwhile rocking your pelvis just a bit to cue motion. To ask for bend, apply pressure on the inside of the intended curve, while also shifting your weight to our inside seat bones.

Are you ready for a curve ball? Slowing your horse down–even to a stop–comes from your lower body first. In order to slow your horse down, start by moving your hips with the horse’s stride, while also tightening your abdominal muscles. Sink deep into the saddle, and make our legs really quiet. When you begin every cue with your lower body, you will teach your horse to be more responsive overall, because you’re not constantly pulling on his mouth.

Let Your Hands Play The Supporting Role

An effective rider uses their hands to support and guide their horse, not to steer their horse. Your hands should maintain soft contact with the horse’s mouth at all times. Depending on the horse’s training, some horses favor more or less contact. But the lighter you can get in the bit over time, the better.

Instead of starting with your reins to cause your horse to bend, shift your seat and apply proper leg pressure first. If you need further reinforcement, gently pull and release your inside rein to help your horse give in to the turn. Your outside rein is there to support him as his neck “fills” the rein. Your horse will naturally do this as he moves off the pressure of your leg. As described above, your reins should also be the last resort for a halt cue, after you have initiated the halt with your seat and core muscles.

Don’t Forget Your Seat And Back

Sometimes when we focus solely on coordinating one muscle group in our body, we can easily neglect another. In order for your hands and legs to stay in the correct position when horseback riding, you will need to make sure your back and seat stay in the correct position. Watch out for hunched shoulders or a hollow back, and adjust your seat as needed. Remember to keep breathing deeply, which will allow your whole body to sink deep into the saddle.

It’s All In Your Head

What To Do With Your Hands When Horseback Riding

Horseback riding requires a lot of coordination between multiple parts of your body at once. As a rider, you must harmonize the movements between independent limbs, core muscles, back and pelvis, all while responding to the nuances of a large, intuitive animal.

Even though it seems like a lot to keep track of, you can make it really simple. Understanding how the different parts of our bodies function independently and together helps illustrate the ideal outcome in your mind. Using these illustrations, paint a picture in your mind of your entire ideal riding posture. That picture will help you identify what exactly is in place and out of place as you practice and progress. From there, the muscle memory will follow, and soon this will become second-nature.

Lindsey Rains
Lindsey Rains is an equestrian blogger and creator of Alta Mira Horsemanship. She focuses on communication between horse and rider and kind training tactics. She resides in Liberty Lake, WA, USA, with her husband. Visit her blog. You can also follow her on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube.


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