It’s a basic tenet of good horsemanship to keep your thumbs up and the bottom of your hands flat.
While beginner riders struggle with this concept, even experienced horsemen violate this principle. It’s just very easy to fall into the poor habits of letting the wrists flex down or to turn the hands flat, into a position often called ”puppy paws” or ”piano hands.”
Often, a poor hand position is caused simply by letting the reins get a bit too long so that the rider takes up slack by cocking the wrist down or turning the hand over.
There are several reasons why the recommended thumbs-up hand position is ideal:
• It’s the only way to maintain a straight line from elbow to bit.
• When the hand is out of position, the entire arm stiffens and causes the elbows to brace against the bit.
• The correct position allows the rider more subtle play with the bit. Otherwise, the rider has to move more of the whole arm or to open the fingers to ”talk” with the bit. This can cause the reins to slip even more.
• When the thumb is on top, it’s easier for the upper arm to separate from the body when necessary. This allows the horse’s neck to drop and stretch and for the rider to perform a release more easily when jumping.
• Conversely, when flat hands make the upper arms rigid, the horse can more easily pull the rider’s body and seat forward.
• Puppy paws cause a whip to stick out to the side so you need more hand action to use the whip.
If you break your wrist down, the whip will point back toward the saddle pad instead of behind the leg, again requiring a big hand movement to use the whip.
Properly held, the whip should angle across the thigh just behind the knee to apply it behind the leg or on the shoulder with a light tap, not a big slap.
Here’s an exercise to help remind yourself of the proper position: Adjust your rein length and then close your fingers so you can carry your hands in front of the pommel, with your elbows relaxed and your upper arm slightly ahead of your torso. Every once in awhile, bring your hands together so that the knuckles on your three middle fingers line up and touch each other. Then relax your hands slightly back to the proper position with one hand just on each side of the withers.
If you have the advantage of riding in an arena with mirrors, be sure to watch yourself ride. Check the line from bit to elbow, just as you check the straight line from your ear, through your hip and down to your ankle.