From The Bottom Up

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Keep your hands still.

You hear this constantly from your coach, your friends and most especially the judges. You buy a pair of black gloves in the hope that your busy hands won’t be so noticeable. You whisper “quiet hands“ to yourself as you ride. But the constant reminders (and the black gloves) don’t do any good.

The problem may not be your hands, or at least it may not start there. Hands usually move around too much because the rider does not have an independent seat. He uses his hands for balance because he’s tilting forward or sitting back on the cantle. Every joint in his body becomes rigid, so his hands bounce up and down with each step the horse takes. If you see a horse with an unsteady head, look at the rider first before you make assumptions about the horse’s training and demeanor.

But the source of the problem may be even farther south. It could start with a lack of stability in the ankles that causes an unsteady seat, which in turn leads to excess hand motion. From toe to body to hands, it’s all connected. A problem in your base of support leads to problems higher up, right into your hands.

You may be telling yourself to keep your head up or your shoulders back or your hands level, but none of those things can happen if you’re bracing down with your toes and rotating over your knees onto the horse’s withers. It’s also not enough to tell yourself to get your heels down if your stirrups are too long or the stirrup is shoved into the arch of your boot.

As frustration mounts, riders turn to the tack shop to solve equitation problems. After the black gloves come hinged stirrups, back braces, heel inserts, elastic rein inserts, grab straps, thigh blocks, no-bounce pads, full-seat breeches, saddle-grip wax and more. All those products may have their uses, but they won’t do much good if the rider needs to raise her stirrups a couple of holes so her heels can stretch down below her toes.

We’d like to suggest that your New Year’s Resolution be to sort out your position flaws and make a new start toward better equitation in 2004. Working on the longe line without stirrups is the best place to start, but when you take up your stirrups you add a dynamic that affects the rest of your position for better or worse.

This month we start a three-part series on how to keep your hands still. But we’re going to start at the ankle, with the base of support for the rider’s entire position. (See page 20.) Next month, we’ll discuss issues from the waist to the head that affect the hands. The final month, we’ll get to the arms themselves.

If you can’t fix your ankles, you can’t fix your hands.

-Margaret Freeman