How many of us have been reprimanded for not ‘keeping our hands low’ when we ride? It is one of the mainstays of equitation along with ‘heels down’ and ‘eyes up’. I don’t think I have ever met a person who was not taught this. I have also never had a rider be able to tell me why they must keep their hands low; they just know they simply have to keep their hands low at all times. But here’s the thing: you don’t. In fact I teach that for some aspects of horse training, and therefore as an important part of rider training, you don’t want to keep your hands low.
Okay, before I am burned as an apostate to the true religion of equitation, let me explain.
I maintain that all of these foundation principles (heels down, eyes up, hands low, elastic contact, independent seat, etc.) are ideals for a skilled rider riding a fully trained horse. Just as a rounded back, elevated forehand, relaxed poll and stepping under from the hind are all ideals of a classically trained and properly conditioned horse, ridden by a skilled rider. So what is the problem? If these are the ideal aspects of good riding, why shouldn’t we drill ourselves into maintaining them at all times? The problem is that when we do this we confuse the goals with the methods of achieving them; or worse, focus on appearance over substance.
For a horse early in its training, it is highly unlikely it will be able to both lift its back and elevate its neck at the same time. For this to be possible, the horse must be physically conditioned to strengthen and ‘round’ its back while supporting the rider before work on elevating the neck or lifting the shoulders can be attempted. To attempt to put the horse in the ‘ideal’ elevation for collection, without such conditioning, will invariably result in a tight poll, hollowed back, and loss of hind end engagement. To strengthen its back, the horse is worked in a long and low position, first on the lunge and later under saddle. This is not the ‘ideal’ classical riding position but it is ideal for the goal of strengthening and rounding the horse’s back.
A fully trained and conditioned horse should be mobile in the jaw and relaxed at the poll, through acceptance of the bit. This allows the rider’s hands to be light and connected through the reins in order to affect the legs of the horse. It coincidentally allows gravity to cause the head to hang as close to the vertical as the specific conformation of the horse naturally allows. It is the relaxation of the poll and mobility of the jaw that is the ideal, not vertical position of the head. Attempting to ‘put’ the horse’s head on the vertical by force causes the horse to brace the jaw and tighten the poll. thus preventing connection through the hand. You may get the horse’s frame to look the way you think it should look, but you lose the whole reason the vertical headset is desirable in the first place.
Heels down should mean allows your legs to relax to such a degree that your heels sink below the point where you foot rests in the stirrup. This allows the leg to fall naturally under the rider’s hips, with a light, ‘breathing’ contact on the side of the horse. This makes for precise, light leg aids and improves the independent seat, while improving the rider’s balance and making her more secure in the saddle. “Put your heels down” too often results in the rider pushing her heels down by using the stirrup as a brace for the toes. This results in the stirrup being pushed forward, thus losing the vertical alignment of the body. It also creates muscle tension in the leg and lower back that robs the rider of an independent seat and subtle connection through the leg aids.
What I am trying to say is simply this; we must be cognizant of the Why while we are working on the What. If you don’t understand why you are being told to do something, you should ask your instructor to explain it in a way that actually makes sense to you. “Because that is how it is done” is not a good answer, nor is “Because the judge will count off for it.”
So back to low hands. First let us be sure we all have the same definition of what Low Hands means. By low hands most people mean hands at or slightly above the withers. While what I ask for from my students are hands held at such a level as to form even line from elbow to bit, when riding in a snaffle, two handed. This is at or just above the withers IF the horse’s poll is relaxed and it is accepting the bit. If the horse’s head rises, the hands must rise to keep the line from elbow to bit. Force the hands to stay low and you are pulling the bit down into the tongue.
For the Classical Masters, the ultimate goal in training a horse was the most subtle, almost invisible connection with the horse; more specifically, to ride the horse in one hand on the curb, with little to no outwardly visible aids. So, bio-mechanically, why do we move our hands when the horse moves? Because to maintain the subtle connection we have through the reins we must have a consistent connection to the horse’s mouth. That means follow the movement of the head and neck. The neck moves up and down from the attachment point below the withers, so the further from that point we keep our hands the more we have to move to keep the connection. Now the head moves from side to side at the Axis and up and down at the Atlas. This movement, when riding one handed on a curb, is taken up first by the relaxed jaw and poll, then by the slightly slack reins, and finally by the fingers. So, on a finished horse, you ride with your left hand low to the withers and only have to move your fingers and wrist to guide the horse. For this to be successful, the horse must be flexible at the poll, relaxed in jaw, and accepting the bit. If all of these factors are present and/or the horse has developed into absolute self-carriage, the hand never has to rise.
But here is the catch (yes, there is always a catch): a horse that does not readily accept the bit will not relax the jaw or poll, and hands held rigidly low will never cause the horse to willingly accept the bit. Also, attempting to ‘bring the horse’s head down’ by forcing the hands low, will only put the bit on to the horse’s tongue and will cause the it to either fight to raise its head, in order to get the bit angle back to the corner of the mouth, or drop behind the vertical to get away from the bit that way.
Perhaps I need to clarify a few things. There is a huge difference between hands allowed to rest low and hands being kept/pushed/held low, just as there is a great difference heels being allowed to fall and the heels being pushed down. Hands lifted to apply an aid are very different from hands just being held up in the air or hands pulling the horses head up. Anytime force is being used, instead of an aid being applied, elasticity of connection is lost; not because a particular muscle is being used, but because several muscles are being used in opposition. For instance, the bicep is being used when the hands are low, elbows bent, and the line from the elbow to the bit is a proper even line. This is the only way for the hand to be supported in line with the rein. It does not have any affect on the movement of the shoulder or elbow, both of which are required for connection, as long as the rider is not clutching or gripping the reins in a closed fist. As long as the arms and hands are relaxed, lifting the hand does nothing to reduce elasticity. If the arms and/or hands are tense, the connection is going to be inflexible regardless of the position of the hands.
The horse does elevate the neck in response to greater engagement from the hind end and as the horse advances the aid request to ask them to elevate becomes less and less and eventually almost nil. However, to teach the horse Halt and Reinback, I will move the horse’s balance toward the hind legs by gently lifting the reins, elbows at my side. As the training progresses, the lifting aid is reduced more and more, until the closing of the low hand produces the same results with no lifting at all. Similarly I will ask the horse in training to turn his head at the Axis with a lifted hand to begin with, and a slight turn of the wrist in the end. Again, the slight aid from the relaxed hand, without lifting is the ideal; the aids applied though lifting is part of the process that gets us there.
Literally lifting the horse’s head with your force of your lifting hands will cause tension as the horse fights to resist. A request for elevation with a gentle lifted rein aid that retains the light, flexible connection to the horse’s mouth, does not have to.
Simply put, any aid that is applied with gentleness and focus and that does not lose the flexible connection, is a useful aid, even if it is done with a rising hand. Any aid that is applied with force, in opposition to the natural movement of the horse or which results in resistance from the horse, is wrong, even if the hand is kept low. It is not the hand position which decided if an aid is applied well or not, it is the flexibility or connection and lack of force.
What other situation are there where we do not want low hands? One of the methods I use to help the horse relax the poll is to ask for a little flexion of the neck and a turning of the head at the axis, as this prevents the horse from blocking the poll because to block the horse must use the muscles on both sides of his neck equally. To do this, I lift one rein and hold a gentle contact steadily until the horse offers to give to that side. As this is an upward action and not backward, I must lift my hand. Lifting both hands gently and maintaining contact until the horse offers to lower its head called ‘Action – Reaction’ and is used to ask for the horse to accept the bit and reach forward and lower the head into the ‘long and low’ position. To ask a horse to elevate its neck, and upward lifting of the hand, with the elbows at your side, timed to correspond the natural upward movement of the neck as it walks or canters, is used. There are other times during the training of the horse when the hand should be lifted in order to achieve a specific goal, but these should give you the idea.
What I would like riders to do is to actively consider the why when you do what you do while riding and not just follow dogmatically what you are told are the rules of equitation. I strongly believe that the only way a person can internalize and fully absorb the instruction they are getting is when they are well informed as to the reason behind the actions and the cause and effect of the work they are doing.
So yes, by all means, strive for low hands, but don’t confuse the destination for the journey.