Sign Language

Sign Language – what are your hands really telling your horse?

“She had lost the art of conversation, but not unfortunately the power of speech” – George Bernard Shaw

NB: Disclaimer – this article has been sitting waiting to be published online for months, and is a result of watching numerous people at a show. Therefore it DOES NOT refer to any one individual in particular (i.e. don’t waste energy getting offended), but to all of us riders as a whole.

Why are the hands so important?
We use a bit or bitless bridle to communicate with our horse by sending signals down the reins to its mouth or nose. The horse can also send signals back along the reins to the rider, so together the horse and rider can have a discussion.
* At its best, this is refined to a detailed conversation that is very subtle and involved, making the partnership appear almost telepathic.
* At its worst it is a crude argument, involving a lot of shouting and screeching (i.e. yanking and jabbing on the reins), which causes pain and the risk of physical damage to the horse’s mouth.

What sort of conversationalist are you?
Every time you move your hand, whether you intend to or not, you are sending a signal to the horse and having a conversation. Which one or more of the following describes you:

  • You ‘talk’ politely and ‘speak’ clearly, so that the horse has no problem understanding you. You also ‘listen’ to the horse’s side of the conversation, particularly if the horse says that he doesn’t understand what you are saying, or that you are talking too fast or too loudly.
  • You are generally easy to talk to, but you sometimes ‘yell’ at your horse (your aids are too rough) or your ‘words’ are unclear and can be misunderstood (e.g. your hands move when you don’t want them to).
  • You never stop talking, so your words have no meaning to the horse – it stops ‘listening’ to you i.e. your hands move and send signals without you meaning to (e.g. you might pull on the reins every time you lose your balance, even though you don’t want the horse to stop; or your hands might go up and down every time you rise to the trot).
  • You don’t really listen to the horse’s side of the conversation, either because you cannot clearly feel the horse’s movements through the reins (or saddle), or because you are so busy giving constant signals that the horse’s responses are not getting through.
  • You speak in a completely foreign language that your horse does not understand at all, because you have learnt different signals (aids) or because the horse hasn’t been taught any signals at all.
  • You only speak in words of very long syllables, which is fine if the horse you are talking to is very well educated but otherwise you are often misunderstood and are puzzled because the horse doesn’t understand you.

The good, the bad, and the ugly:

The aim:














What often happens:












What can you do?

  • Check that you know the correct aids for what you want to ask. The aids are different depending on whether you want to
    • decrease or increase speed
    • change from one pace to another
    • perform a half-halt
    • ask for stretch
    • or to do lateral work (e.g. shoulder-in/leg-yield)
  • Check that you can follow the horse’s mouth at the three different paces with a steady even contact in BOTH reins. The rider MUST be able to keep an even pressure regardless of what the horse is doing.
  • Check the level of training of the horse. If he has never been taught the correct responses then they will not happen by magic and the rider will result to force.
  • ‘Listen’ to what the horse is telling you. If it is pulling at the reins then maybe your hands are too strong, or the horse is unbalanced. If the horse won’t take up a contact or is tossing its head then maybe your hands are too rough or inconsistent.
  • Get someone to take a video of your riding at all three paces, including transitions.
    • Correct hand position: there should be a straight line from the rider’s elbow to the horse’s bit
      • Wrong: the hands are too high, lifting the bit in the horse’s mouth and causing discomfort (or pain)
      • Wrong: the hands are too low, blocking the horse’s forward movement and making it resist the contact
    • Correct Walk: your hands follow the horse’s mouth as he swings along
      • Wrong: rigid hands that cause discomfort every time the horse takes a stride
      • Wrong: slack reins, or reins going slack then tight then slack again as the horse moves
    • Correct Trot: your hands stay still in relation to the horse’s mouth, in the correct position
      • Wrong: your hands bounce up and down as the horse trots, causing the horse discomfort (or pain)
      • There is too much contact on the bit, or the reins keep going slack
    • Correct Canter: your hands move enough to allow the canter stride, but without the reins going slack
      • Wrong: the hands are fixed and rigid, causing the horse discomfort or pain with every stride
      • The reins are slack, or go slack then tight, meaning the connection with the horse is lost
      • Wrong: the rider is scared of the horse taking off in canter and hangs on to its mouth
    • Correct Transitions: the connection is maintained throughout each transition, with the pressure only increasing if a signal is given
      • Wrong: the connection is dropped as the horse goes through the transition
      • Wrong: the hands give a signal but don’t release afterward, meaning the horse has to suffer ongoing discomfort
      • Wrong: the rider loses their balance through the transition and jabs the horse in the mouth (unintentionally)

You can get an indication of whether your hands are in the correct position by pointing your index finger like a pistol – it should point towards the horse’s bit. In the first photo below the finger would be pointing toward the ground, in the second photo it would be pointing toward the horse’s ears, and in the third photo it would be pointing along the reins to the horse’s bit.


The hands are a little low, which will block the horses forward movement

The hands are a little high. The rider is jumping and is resting the hands on the neck instead of following the movement.

The hands have a more direct line to the bit than in the previous two photos, so will be able to give clearer signals









How can you improve the conversation between you and your horse?

Walk: At the walk the hands should move softly to accommodate the nodding of the horse’s head. If this is not happening, then check that you are not stiff in the shoulders or elbows, or in the lower back area.

Exercises to help:

  • Shrug your shoulders as high as you can, then relax them down again
  • Rotate each shoulder, one at a time, both forward and backward
  • Tense all your arm muscles as hard as you can, then relax them again
  • Dangle one hand at a time down by your side and waggle your fingers, making sure you can keep doing this as the horse walks forward. If you find your hand lifting each time the horse moves into walk or speeds up then you have stiffness somewhere
  • Practice riding with the reins in one hand (but make sure you practice this with both the left hand and the right hand), as this will show up any unevenness in the contact

Trot: At trot the hands should be still in relation to the horse’s mouth. This means that in rising trot the hands must not go up and down when the rider’s body does. In sitting trot the rider’s hands must not bounce up and down, or pull back, to help the rider keep their balance.

Exercises to help:

  • Repeat the exercises performed at walk
  • Rest the hands lightly on the withers as the horse trots. Concentrate on the amount of movement that occurs in the elbows as you rise, then lift the hands up a few inches and make sure you still have the same amount of movement in your elbows. This will help your hands to stay still as the horse’s movement (check this using a video).
  • Hook the fingers of the outside hand into a neck strap. This will stop you accidentally pulling too much on the rein if you can’t keep an even contact for some reason. It is particularly useful for horses that don’t keep an even rhythm, or if you are doing lots of transitions
  • Practice both rising and sitting trot without stirrups to help develop an independent seat. Only do this for short periods to start with, so that you don’t strain any muscles. Get someone to lunge you if you are not comfortable riding without stirrups and controlling your horse at the same time.

Canter: At canter the horses head moves both up and down as well as back and forward in relation to the saddle, and the rider needs an independent seat to follow this correctly with their hands i.e. the rider must not be so stiff that their legs and hands move unintentionally just because the body is moving. Most problems with the hands at canter are due to the rider’s body moving.

Exercises to help:

  • Repeat the exercises performed at walk and trot
  • Watch video clips of good riders at the canter. Good riders look like their backsides are glued to the saddle. Notice how much their seat and lower body needs to move in order to keep their head still. It might be more than you think!
  • When riding, hold onto the front of the saddle to ‘glue’ your jodhpurs to the saddle and focus on how much movement is needed in your lower back to keep doing this. Try letting go and keeping the same amount of movement. NOTE: some horses are much easier to sit to than others, do don’t be discouraged if your best friend makes it look easy but you are still struggling!
  • Double check your legs aren’t too far forward or too far back, as this will make it harder to keep your position
  • Sit on a stool (or the edge of a chair) with your feet touching the ground. Tip the stool slightly, so the back legs are off the ground, and rock it gently backwards and forwards. While doing this, focus on the amount of movement in your lower back and how much muscle control you need to move. Make sure you do NOT tip the stool or chair over too far and hurt yourself (hold on to the edge of a table or bench if you need to)
  • If you are bumping the saddle with every canter stride then you need to work more on your suppleness and position. Try to get someone to lunge you at canter so that you can concentrate just on yourself, rather than having to worry about holding the reins. Start by holding onto the saddle until you have a supple secure seat, then hold your hands in the correct position without the reins (to make sure they stay relatively still), then take the rein contact back.

Even experienced riders constantly work on their positions and do exercises to maintain suppleness, so NEVER be embarrassed about doing exercises or holding a neck strap. If you think of top level sports people and artists they don’t just prepare for competitions by doing their sport or routine. For example, athletes and gymnasts are always doing exercises such as stretches and flexion to train their body to respond with the refinement they need. Top pianists and singers warm-up by doing scales, to check that they have the basics right, not by playing their most complicated pieces over and over.

And finally, listen to your horse! If you develop sensitive hands then you will be able to feel the horse’s side of the conversation. All though they are not deliberately sending you signals, you will be able to feel through the reins every loss of balance; when the horse’s attention is directed elsewhere; the early stages of an evasion; an even a loss of confidence by the horse if it is approaching a jump or something that it is unsure of. It is the two-way conversation you have with your partner that makes riding delightful and takes it to the next level.

If you want to have a delightful conversation with your horse then speak clearly, listen carefully,
and make the conversation pleasurable for both of you