While I prefer to keep the height of my hands so that I have a straight line from elbow to bit, I am confused about how far apart they should be. Some instructors recommend riding with hands as wide as the horse's shoulders. Others say to keep them closer together. What are the pros and cons of these different widths? What is the best distance?
The best width of your hands is what works best for your horse at the level you're riding. Each horse is different as is everyone's body type. Ideally, the hands should be upright with wrists that are straight and supple. They need to be approximately the width of the horse's withers. The closer together they are, the more the horse has learned to depend on the leg and seat and not on the hands for guidance. Remember the preferred sequence of the aids: legs, seat, and last of all, the hands. All the aids must work independently, but the leg must be used in conjunction with the hands. Your leg drives the horse gently into your hand. In addition, the elbows need to be carried at, or a little in front of, your side, which will help prevent pulling on the horse's mouth--sometimes called backward riding.
There is nothing wrong with using low, wide hands, especially when riding a horse that is young, unbalanced or a little fussy. The low, wide hands help to lower the horse's head and neck in a positive way. In addition, the width of the hand helps the rider feel which way the horse is leaning or drifting. It also helps to establish a clearer connection to the horse's mouth. When riding with a low, wide hand, the rider must use a "giving" hand-a hand that is sensitively following the horse's movement. There are times when riders must widen their hands briefly. For example, if a horse comes above the bit or if a disobedience occurs. Widening your hands also must be accompanied by leg and seat aids.
You are correct in saying that you need a straight line from the elbow to the bit. Have your elbows slightly bent and relaxed. This prevents your hands from being held too high. A high hand carriage can result in tension in the rider's neck or cause her to depend too much on the hand for security in the saddle instead of depending on the seat and leg.
Jo Moran is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medalist who apprenticed for 10 years under Olympic bronze medalist Steffen Peters. She has developed horses to Grand Prix and was a member of the U.S. Equestrian Team's developing rider program in 2000. She teaches and trains in San Diego, California.
This article originally appeared in the July 2000 issue of Dressage Today magazine.