Teaching soft hands and following arms

Teaching good hands and arms to our students is a challenging task as “feel” can be a difficult concept for many to understand and attain but is essential for a good rider to develop.

As instructors, we constantly strive for responsive hands and soft following arms that can communicate well with the horse.  This isn’t always easy. We all have students well past the beginner level with tight hands and locked elbows that don’t properly give and take. Without this proper give and take that tells the horse when to go forward, a locked arm or stiff hand always says “stop” when the legs may be saying “go forward”.  This creates what we call a “hard mouth” that is insensitive to what the rider is trying to tell their horse. It can be confusing and frustrating to the horse resulting in bad behavior and vices. The first step in correcting this problem is always to have the riders position correct so they aren’t trying to balance off their hands. When the position is correct and balanced, the rider can start to relax and feel what their body is doing.  I have always taught my beginners to keep their hands down on the neck for support until they are steady enough to lift them off the withers and work toward the strait line between their elbow and the horse’s mouth.  If they start with their hands up off the neck before they have any balance they tend to grab their horse’s mouth for support, thereby punishing their very kind mounts without realizing it. They will also fall backward easily and land heavily on their horse’s backs.  I remind my young riders that their hands hold a rein that connects to a piece of metal (usually) in their horse’s mouths. (Sometimes I even put the bit in their mouths) This begins to teach them empathy and the awareness of the impact of their movements on their horses.

Riders that develop with “bad hands” create horses with hard mouths and stiff hollow top lines.  You will see these horses wearing harsher and harsher bits as time goes on and they never really develop a good top line. The arm must softly follow back and forth starting with the upper arm falling relaxed just in front of the rider’s hip. When a rider locks his elbow, sometimes just raising the hand an imperceptive amount will unlock it. So often when a rider relaxes the arm you will see an immediate relaxation in the horse’s top line. Without that soft hand and arm to move into, horses cannot be relaxed and happily collect, i.e. drive under their bodies with their hind legs and carry themselves, raise their backs, soften their necks and jaws and “get round”. The following article by Wendy Murdoch is full of wonderful visuals and descriptions of the upper arm and elbow that are helpful for riders trying to understand and feel this.


Improve your riding in a Murdoch Minute By Wendy Murdoch

Do you tense your shoulders drawing them upward? Do you force your hands down onto the horse’s withers to keep your hands “low” and “quiet”? Does your horse go above the bit? Do you try to pull his head down? Riding with heavy elbows and floating hands will allow your horse to lower his head without force and enable you to keep your weight back and shoulders relaxed while following the horse’s mouth.

Next time you ride notice what you do with your hands. Do you push your hands down onto the withers? Does this cause you to lean forward? Perhaps you widen your hands and attempt to pull your horse’s head down when he goes above the bit. Maybe you straighten your elbows and raise your shoulders upward.  Does your horse constantly jerk the reins out of your hands and pull you out of the saddle? These can be signs that he doesn’t like you pulling on him!

Attempting to pull your horse’s head down is generally ineffective because, not only is your horse stronger than you, but pulling down also puts your weight on the horse’s forehand which makes it even more difficult for him to lower his head. Often riders tense the shoulders in addition to pushing the hands down. This shoulder tension raises your center of gravity, which makes you unstable and your contact harsh and puts your weight forward onto the horse’s forehand no matter how hard you try to lean back. This rider position can cause your horse to raise his head even more!

To solve this problem we need to return to the time honored adage, “maintain a straight line from elbow to bit”. This means that your hands and forearms follow the line to the horse’s mouth regardless of where your horse puts his head. Following that line keeps the bit in the same place without the undue pressure created when pulling or pushing downward. In order to maintain this line you need to let your hands float upward when your horse raises his head. Floating your hands also has the benefit of keeping you from pitching forward onto your horse’s forehand. As your horse relaxes, his head will lower, at which point you lower your hands to maintain the straight line from elbow to bit. Following the line this way neutralizes any unpleasant effects of the bit, keeps you safe and allows you to drop your shoulders.

To change your position, use a pair of ankle weights. Strap them around your upper arm just above your elbow (add a Velcro strap if they are too short to go around). Ride with the weights to remind yourself to let your shoulders rest on your ribcage and your upper arm hang straight down with heavy elbows. Float your hands upward like corks on water so that they can follow your horse’s mouth, wherever it is. Your floating hands will be able to go up and down with your horse’s head easily if your elbows stay heavy. If one hand drops more than the other, place a short stick under your thumbs. This will prevent your hands from going below the level of your horse’s withers.

Use this Murdoch Minute to enable your hands to follow your horse’s mouth by keeping your elbows heavy. Heavy elbows and following hands let you stay back in the saddle so that you don’t put him more on the forehand. Give him the time to find his balance and he will no longer need to raise his head to keep from falling. And always remember to enjoy the ride!

#108 Heavy Elbows/Floating Hands   Copyright© 2014. All rights reserved.



This article gives wonderful illustrations for the whole arm to remain relaxed and following. The forearm needs to follow and the wrist remain unlocked. Sometimes just putting a slight bend in the wrist so that the back of the wrist is flat is enough to unlock it. The hand should hold the rein firmly but not clutching, the horse can feel the tension in the hand through the rein. I have always used the Sally Swift analogy from her book Centered Riding, of holding the rein like a baby bird, just tight enough so that it doesn’t get away but not so tight that you throttle him!  Once the hands remain quiet and can softly hold contact on the rein, communication can be as subtle as opening and closing the fingers. When the hand is connected and responsive a rider can then help their horse start to balance and “get round”.  As riders we strive to be invisible in these communications with our horse.

As riders become more aware of what their bodies are doing, they start to realize the unintentional cues they have been giving their mounts and can more effectively communicate what they mean, the hand and arm is integral to this process of becoming a quiet, effective rider.  As always, it is a journey not a destination.








Basic Horsemanship: nuts and bolts. Is my horse happy?

By Leslie Poirier

Good horsemanship is becoming scarce in the age of “hurry up and get to the show ring.”  Students often mount horses prepared by professionals and are not part of the creating process.  They can be oblivious to what and how their horses are feeling as they navigate their courses.  One doesn’t have to look far to see horses not performing to their potential.  Many owners are unaware of what that potential is or even looks like.  We talk about a “happy” horse being the most willing partner, producing the best result: horsemanship is what makes this happen.  I have spent my life as a hunt seat instructor and trainer of clients who couldn’t afford the fabulous prospect or the proven winners….  In other words, continually educating and training green horses or re-educating ruined ones. When working with a horse and rider, good trainers use a combination of instructing the rider, training the horse and smart horsemanship (the not so little things that make all the difference), to create the result. Good horsemanship creates a happy horse. Listed below are questions to ask yourself and some ideas that can get you on the path to achieving this.

Many of these questions concern the health, comfort and well being of your horse.  Your horse will not perform well at any level if he is experiencing pain or discomfort.

  1. Do my horse’s feet hurt?

The old saying “no foot no horse” developed for a reason. A good, balanced, regular shoeing by a competent farrier is essential.  Each foot needs to hit the ground evenly and angles depend and vary upon each horse’s conformation. Bad, unbalanced or infrequent shoeing causes many lameness problems, as well as horses that are unable to perform at their best.  Since every horse’s hooves grow at different rates, shoeing schedules can vary and the type of work they are doing also affects wear and tear.   Although 5 or 6 weeks may work for most horses, some need shoes every 4 weeks and others can go longer.  Each horse must be observed to set a schedule.

At times, however, even with proper and timely shoeing by a reputable farrier, horses can experience foot soreness or discomfort related to other causes.  Your veterinarian might need x-rays to determine the problem.   Navicular syndrome, or navicular disease, causes many unsoundness problems in horses and describes as an inflammation or degeneration of the navicular bone.  X-rays will show changes and loading (the angle of the foot creating pressure from the deep flexor on the navicular).  Once detected, a farrier can often make shoeing changes to relieve pain and enable your horse to be more comfortably. Although Navicular is a common problem it is far from the only one.

Another factor that might cause your horse to experience foot soreness is the ring footing on which he is working. Ring footing is an extensive topic and there are an incredible amount of footing choices available now to barn owners and equestrian venues.  However, horses that routinely work on inappropriate footing (too deep, too hard, uneven or rocky) will most likely experience lameness in the long term and discomfort in the short term.  Horses should be ridden on a variety of (good) footings to be well conditioned.



  1. Do my horse’s joints hurt?

All horse, like all humans, experience some deterioration as they age and need proper care to maintain comfort.  Many types of treatments can be recommended by veterinarians such as joint injections, joint supplements and medications.  Be aware, however, of regulations concerning medications when competing in horse shows. Many are prohibited or limited.  You need to know your rules.  Although these measures may ease discomfort, it is important to note that your horse’s training program must be realistic for his age, size, ability and condition.  Furthermore, all horses need to warm up before they work. Older horses or those returning to work after an injury usually require more time to warm up.  Longer warm-ups are also needed in colder weather or when coming right out of the stall before turnout.



  1. Does my horse’s mouth hurt?

Teeth first!  All horses’ teeth should be examined by a competent equine dentist once or twice a year. Rough, jagged or uneven teeth can be filed and problem (abscessed, broken etc.) teeth are sometimes extracted.  A good dentist balances the mouth and insures that teeth are in alignment and grind properly. If a horse resists the bit, twists his face or just hates to be bridled, dental problems could be the cause.  If a horse’s mouth and teeth are all in good condition, the second checkpoint is to determine if the bit you are using is suitable for your horse’s mouth and fits comfortably.  The bit needs to be adjusted properly neither hanging to low nor raised too high, either can cause problems.  Choosing the right bit for your horse depends on his temperament, his training and yours and the job he will be performing.  There are literally hundreds of choices and your trainer may try a number of bits before you find the best fit. Another factor is the rider’s hand which I will touch upon later.


  1. Does my horse’s belly hurt?


Ulcers seem to be more prevalent than in years past (although it may just be that we recognize and diagnose them more quickly).  If a horse has a dull coast, doesn’t put on weight well, is fussy and generally appears unhappy, ulcers might be the cause.  To determine the presence of an ulcer a veterinarian needs to scope his stomach.  Omeprazole (gastrogaurd) is the most common and widely accepted treatment, but I have also used some holistic treatments with great results.  If an ulcer is suspected, make sure your horse has access to hay at all times as horses are originally a grazing and foraging animal and divergence from this, in addition to stress, is what is believed to cause most ulcers.


  1. Does my horse’s back hurt?


If a horse flinches when you press your fingers along his spine, he is experiencing some back pain.  Start by checking the saddle fit. It should sit level, clear the withers comfortable and not rock back and forth.  Ask your trainer for advice, there are many professional saddle fitters that can evaluate and make recommendations.  There are many saddle pad options that can help fit a saddle that is not perfect.

Continuous poor riding habits can also cause back soreness in horses. Does the rider land softly in the saddle or like a cement truck?  Strive to land “ounces not pounds”.  Other contributors to a horse’s back problems could be rider suitability (size) and mounting from the ground, which pulls on the horse’s spine, instead of using a mounting block.  Care should always be taken to land softly in the saddle when mounting.


  1. Does my horse’s body hurt?


If your horse looks sore in general, fatigued and not moving the way he should, one common cause could be Lyme disease.  Lyme is a tick borne illness that can be diagnosed by a simple blood test and can be treated. It can present with a wide variety of symptoms and they can be quite vague sometimes.

Sore muscles can develop during a horse’s regular training as with any exercise.  Often all that is needed is a few days of rest in between workouts (turned out, not standing in a stall, walking around is important) to rebuild muscles.  Massage therapists are also very effective in keeping muscles loose and Chiropractors can help keep your horse aligned properly which can prevent subsequent injuries.


  1. Is my horse in a program that is suitable for his age, conformation and ability?


A trainer needs to develop a realistic and appropriate program for you and your horse.  Both horses and riders need steady, consistent work in order to be in good condition.  Too much time off followed by a period of hard work is a recipe for soreness and injuries.  An appropriate training program brings your horse along at comfortable rate that they understand.  An anxious horse is not a happy horse.  Horses experience increased anxiety when they are pushed along too fast.  They are more relaxed, willing and confident when their training is progressive and appropriate.  Conditioning takes time to develop and is essential to the results you will achieve.  Horses that are pushed too hard often break down both mentally and physically.


  1. Is my riding level appropriate to my task?


A trainer has to evaluate the rider’s position as it relates to the horses behavior.  Often it is the rider’s poor position and effectiveness that is causing the behavior.   When students are first learning to ride, good school horses are infinitely patient with their rider’s faulty communication and errors, most are saints. When a rider starts to progress to a young, less trained or more advanced horse their position becomes essential and their communication must be clear for them to progress.  Riders that haven’t mastered their basic fundamentals will have problems. We see way too many riders pushed to jump higher and higher before they have decent positions, and the horse suffers for it.



  1. Is my horse’s basic care and stabling adequate?


The basic management of the horse is an important key to his happiness.  Horses need daily, safe, appropriate turnout.  Most horses love to be out and it’s hard to have too much. The only exception to that is in the heat of the summer when the flies are a nuisance. Turnout provides not only a physical benefit (moving around) but a physiological benefit as well.   Horses need to get out of their stalls for play as well as work.  Turnout doesn’t have to be a 5 acre field but should be big enough to kick and play around in.  If turnout is not on grass horses need to have hay during the day.  Horses left in a dirt paddock all day without hay will chew on the fences. Fencing should be safe and secure.  When they are not turned out, horses need a comfortable stall with adequate bedding and hay.  They will have less belly aches if they are munching most of the time.  Water is very important in management, clean fresh water (not frozen in the winter).  Horses can be finicky creatures and they need to be encouraged to drink as much as possible so they don’t colic, especially in the hottest part of the summer and the coldest part of the winter. Pay special attention to water intake during large temperature variations.


  1. Is my attitude appropriate?


The attitude of the rider produces a profound impact on the performance of their horse.   A short tempered, easily irritated rider will never get the most out of a horse, while the rider who loves and believes in his horse will sometimes exceed all expectations.  A rider or handler that is afraid will tend to make the horse edgy and worried.  One of the most difficult issues for an instructor is a rider who is afraid and cannot admit it.  Horses are intelligent creatures and they pick up subtle signals, signals the rider doesn’t know they are sending, i.e. if you don’t like your horse, he feels it and reacts to it.  Your best rider is always quiet, confident (confidence is contagious) positive, patient, gentle and KIND! Attitude is the glue that holds it all together.


  1. How can I tell if my horse is happy?


Unhappy horses develop stable vices and vices under saddle and just “fail to thrive”.  They are labeled problem or difficult horses.   A great many, though, just suffer in silence and go about their job as best they can, so it is our responsibility to determine what they need to excel.  Too often we see horses just ridden until they are “too tired to argue”.   This will never produce the best result and eventually these horses will break.   Both riders and trainers need to understand how to read a horses signals and know when to work thru a situation and when to back off, especially with young horses or horses that aren’t up to proper condition.


  1. Is it his training program or his rider?


We often hear that a horse “likes to jump” because he rushes at every jump.  This more often means he is very anxious about his job, runs thru it as fast as he can, and is probably uncomfortable as well. Unhappy, anxious or horses experiencing discomfort or pain will misbehave under saddle.  Rushing, stopping, tail wringing, bucking and running off are all signs of mental or physical discomfort. Horses that are run at bad distances with an inexperienced rider will lose confidence and start to stop. A rider that gets left and catches his horse’s mouth over the top of the jump is going to create a horse that doesn’t want to jump. A rider that plants his hands on the withers and snatches the horse’s mouth on the landing of the jump creates the same worries. A rider that simply has rough hard hands is going to create anxiety in his horse and make his horse’s mouth hard and unfeeling.  You will see these horses bitted more and more severely as time goes on.  The examples are endless. As George Morris says “Every second, you’re either schooling or un-schooling your horse.  there’s no in-between” To be a quiet, soft, balanced, educated, effective rider should be everyone’s primary goal and it takes patience, hard work and perseverance to achieve this.


This is just a basic starting point touching on a wide variety of issues that it takes to create a “happy horse” each of these topics can be expanded upon greatly.  A good trainer knows all of this, but as they say “It takes a village”.  Veterinarians, Farriers, Dentists, Massage Therapists and Chiropractors are out there to help you create your happy willing partner.  Educate yourself and learn how to listen to your horse!