I try to use as little hand as I can. The less hand I use, the more my horses give me. That's something I constantly remind myself about. If I'm too stiff in the turn or having trouble seeing the distance out of a turn, or if I find myself adding strides in lines in an effort to do an exact distance, I'm usually trying to pull too hard. So I immediately make myself let my rein get a bit longer and relax more and do less with my horse.
A lot of people try to lift their horses off the ground with their hands, then slow them down in the air because they're getting quick. Again, when I find that happening, I try to release more, use softer hands, as I'm nearing the fence-do less trying to rate the horse to a correct distance.
A great way to get away from overuse of hands is to practice lots of figure eights and turning many different ways to jumps, using so little hand that you really start thinking in terms of guiding the horse, rather than pushing or pulling your way around the turn. Here's how:
Set a pole on the ground, a crossrail or a low vertical where you'll have room to make a figure eight of two biggish circles by jumping the fence and tracking to the right, then jumping it again and tracking to the left. The greener your horse is, the bigger your circles will need to be to start. As he becomes more confident and you get the feel of guiding him, you can make the circles smaller and tighter; the more experienced he is, the tighter they can be. (This exercise will really help to soften a very stiff horse, by the way.)
Jump the fence straight, then circle to the right, looking where you want your horse to go. If he starts to cut in from your circular track, open your outside rein to invite him back (and to keep his shoulder from bulging), your inside leg pushing him onto that outside rein, and your inside rein just lying against his neck. If he's hanging on the outside rein, open your inside rein and rest the outside one on his neck. You're leading him around with a separated opening rein, not jerking him around.
When you reach the halfway point of that circle, 180 degrees away from the fence, start consciously softening your arms -- shoulders, elbows, all the way down -- to relax them as you look for and begin allowing yourself to see the distance. A lot of people start picking and holding and grabbing at this point; but I find that the less I use my hands, the more likely I am to pick up on the distance (for the very good reason that every time I use my hands, I'm changing the stride -- so I lose all sense of pace and rhythm). By the time I'm about at the ninety-degree point, hands and arms relaxed, I hope I'll be really seeing my distance and letting my eyes tell me how my body and my arms should adjust my stride to get that distance.
If your horse is heavy and lugging as you land and turn, though, you'll have to make a little more use of your hands, half-halting him to rebalance him. Again, you don't want to overdo; a lot of people make the mistake of giving little half-halts and end up having to give lots of them. Instead, briefly -- but strongly and firmly, without jerking -- lift your hands just enough to tell him to lift his forehand and shift his weight back (you don't need to add leg -- he's already pulling); then immediately soften. With practice, you'll find out just how much of a half-halt he needs.
One last point: To reinforce your understanding of good, soft, light hands, watch riders who demonstrate them. Two people I particularly like to watch are Beezie Madden and Mark Leone. Beezie is probably one of the softest, lightest riders around. Mark, although he's a much bigger person, with almost a football-player build, also demonstrates a beautifully light, following hand. Watching either of these riders will help you get a good, clear mental image of how hands should feel.
This article first appeared as part of "Ten Trainers' 'Fave' Fixes" in the April 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.