Thoroughbred Logic: Hands & Dumb (But Effective) Metaphors

“Stability coupled with soft, educated movements help the horse go best and understand the ask. But how do we create stable contact if we’re trying to be light?”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey discusses the Goldilocks-esque just right hand tension.

How one holds the reins is a bit of a Goldilocks process. Each horse has their own desired form of contact. Each rider has been trained to grip and guide in particular ways. Too tight and a horse is going to root, pull, backoff, curl under, or run from the pressure. Too loose and they might go nice and soft, or wiggly and inverted, you never know… just hope they don’t bolt.

My casual (read: incorrect) hand position and loose feel is nonetheless fine for warming up/cooling down assuming you trust the horse (and your seat). Photo of Curry (Curlin Lane) by Alanah Giltmier.

When trying to teach students how to find that happy medium with one’s hands, I end up spending a lot of time talking about elbows (and concocting new, ridiculous metaphors like the one below). Yes, there is an article on how to keep elbows bungee here and another on making steadier hands here. However, focusing on the very end of the line — the point connecting to the reins — there’s a space to improve the feel of one’s fingers even if we’re working on mid-arm elasticity.

Heading out of the start box in a recent Training Level XC run, a huge limb crashed down, spooking Rhodie (Western Ridge) about 10 strides out from his first fence. I was sure glad I had a decent feel on my reins. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Let’s walk through a usual ride (completely invented) on one of my Thoroughbreds. Knowing horses are sensitive and need a soft form of contact, most riders hop on and keep a bit of a loop in the reins. This is okay for a warmup period, assuming the horse is not exploding off the rails (which would definitely be weird here). It is when I request that they get contact that things often get iffy-er — only because the riders are usually trying to be soft and commonly try to achieve that by opening their fingers.

Tetris (Not A Game) warming up at the walk with a loopy rein and a heavy dose of side-eye. Photo by Alanah Giltmier.

The trying-to-be-soft-by-keeping-fingers-open manifests in reins that slip longer. This often shows up as riders make the walk-to-trot or trot-to-canter transition and then immediately having to shorten their reins (again). It is the constant commentary from trainers (I’m no exception) that say, “Your reins are too long.” Hell, one of my students hears this so often, she’s about to print “shorter reins” on a shirt, or in plain sight on the back of a set of fly bonnet ears.

On the other hand, soft-by-open-fingers sometimes only lasts as long as the horse is behaving. As soon as one gets strong at the canter or accelerates after a fence, one’s fingers often close into an inflexible grip. With most horses, this doesn’t go over well. Hell, with the off-track kids, this often provides another good reason to go faster. They are regularly trained to gallop into the pressure, so tight hands generally get the opposite of the desired effect. Another way to think about this: A death grip on the reins is unlikely to slow these kids down (stretching tall, dropping one’s tail bone, half halting through one’s whole body, and remaining soft usually does the trick).

Hudson (Primetime Spy) is a total talent-factory, powerhouse who rides amazing with that middle-ground, steady Goldilocks contact. Photo by Kimberwick Visuals.

There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship between hands and elbows. If one is steady, the other has to be giving. And here’s the reason we want hands steady — they’re the last point of contact to the bit. Stability coupled with soft, educated movements help the horse go best and understand the ask. But how do we create stable contact if we’re trying to be light? How do the reins not keep getting long when trying to gentle? Or conversely, how do we remain forgiving when having to take a steadier feel? Here’s the key: The hands can be closed, quiet and stable only the elbows take up the slack and become elastic and giving. Yes, yes, I have said that before.

Louis (Unbridled Bayou) up and over the Novice course at Chatt Hills with a closed but giving hand (to the best of my ability). Photo by Amanda Woomer.

So if we’re focusing on that perfect goldilocks feel (too light and good luck on control; a death grip and just good luck) with one’s hands and getting one’s elbows to literally pick up the slack, here’s a ridiculous but very helpful metaphor: hold baby (fledgling aged) birds. Stay with me, I promise it works.

For anyone who has spent time on a farm or even those who haven’t, there’s a good chance that you have had to hold or contain a wild thing at some point. If it was small enough to hold in your hands — a small farm rodent, even a childhood hamster maybe, tiny kitten, or young/baby bird — there is a particular feel there that is useful. To contain a wild thing — one intent on escaping, but also one you don’t want to kill by crushing — you need this perfect, Goldilocks feel. And the nice thing about holding onto wild things (besides hopefully moving them to safer situations) is that there is immediate feedback. Too loose? That critter is off and away. Too tight and it might not make it to the “this is a better place for you” spot alive.

Hudson getting ready to kick off a very dressage soggy dressage test and settling into that Goldilocks (don’t kill the birds) feel. Photo by Audrey Mecklenburg.

Specifically, I like to use birds for this one: They are wiggly enough to want out of your hand, we usually hold captured birds with their head poking out of the space between one’s thumb and one’s index finger (meaning our thumbs are correctly up),  and they are also fragile enough that any intense squeezing or mashing (of the reins) might spell their immediate metaphoric demise.


So when trying to get my students (and myself) to focus on my hands and a steady, but soft feel, I go with the idea of holding a winged-thing. This means occasionally you can find me in the middle of my arena yelling, “Don’t kill the baby birds!” This usually works great and students soften their grip as horses accelerate. On the flip side, shouting about the birds getting loose makes one close one’s fingers. Mind you, I work with adults, not kids, but this ridiculousness still works great to craft soft stable contact and then be able to focus on the harder work of figuring out how to get the elbows to pitch in and do their (bungee) job.

Finding the perfect containing-wild-things feel can foster flow, confidence and a hell of a lot of fun. Photo of Prada (On the Move) at Chatt Hills by Greta Colley.

So go ride, folks. Stay soft but steady, don’t kill or release the birds and have a blast.