By Jennifer Klitzke
How much does a horse sense from a rider? Can my insecurities get transmitted to my horse through my reins? Can this really affect how my horse moves? These questions were raised at a recent gaited dressage clinic with Larry Whitesell and Jennifer Bauer. I spent five full days taking in new perspectives and training techniques—as much as my brain could hold. Among the many “ah-huh” moments was an exercise we did that showed the difference between “taking hands” versus “giving hands.”
Jennifer led us through a dismounted exercise. She held one end of the reins as the rider and each of us took turns holding the other end of the reins as the horse. When it was my turn, I closed my eyes, held the other end of the reins, and followed the rhythm of gait she established on a light connection. When Jennifer changed something like clenching her jaw, tensing her shoulders, holding her breath, or looking down vs. ahead, each of us immediately felt heaviness through the light rein contact. Amazing! If I can feel these changes through light rein contact, just what would it transmit to the horse?
Then Jennifer let each of us experience the effects of “taking hands” versus “giving hands.” Taking hands follow the horse’s rhythm in a non-pulling backward motion while riding with giving hands follow the horse’s rhythm forward. When Jennifer’s motion with the reins demonstrated giving hands, it gave each of us the feeling of freedom to move in lightness. Then when she demonstrated taking hands, it felt constrained. If I can feel the difference between taking and giving hands through light rein contact, imagine how much more is communicated to my horse through my seat and weight aids?
Up until this point, I had not been conscious of whether or not I rode with taking or giving hands. For years I had battled with riding fear and had unknowingly developed a “taking hands” riding mindset as a reaction to stay safe and in control. Then I began to think about the mixed messages I had been sending my horse whenever I unconsciously rode with taking hands and at the same time squeezing my horse to go forward. Or the times I had anticipated a spook, tensed my body, held my breath, and rode with taking hands instead of riding my horse forward into balance and relaxation.
Experiencing the difference between taking hands and giving hands has given me new awareness to ride my horse with a forward hand and body position and mindset. I am already noticing a difference this is making with my horse—more willingness to more freely forward with less leg on my part.
What a powerful exercise. Why not find a friend and try this exercise for yourself? You’ll be amazed with how much of an impact a riding mindset and position can have on your horse’s way of going, and just how much can be communicated through a light rein contact.