Rider Sin #2: Thumbs Up

The One Place where Thumbs Up are Unwanted!

Growing up in a classically correct training environment it never occurred to me that any rider would stick their thumb tips up or hold their entire thumbs flat while grabbing the reins with their whole hand or fist.

But that is exactly what I see more and more riders do in dressage and jumping. And it is so wrong on many levels.

My biggest shock came when I looked for online stock photos to elucidate my point. Not one, I repeat, not one single rider hand did I find with the thumb in the correct position. Oh no, ladies’ long finger nails can’t be an explanation; the male models didn’t fair any better.

Wrong thumbs up in both cases – left at least with correct hand angle – right pure biceps pull.

There is only one conclusion I can draw from that fact, namely, no wonder people are hanging on their poor horses’ mouths with their entire arm and even upper body weight. No wonder either that we are seeing more horses ridden “on their head” and with mechanical front-to-back riding as in Rollkur or LDR.

How can we use proper arm and body positions if we haven’t even understood the complexities and purpose of the thumb position for our hand-rein connection (without which there will never be a proper and trusting contact with the horse’s mouth)?!

Thumbs are No Afterthought

Our rider thumbs fulfill several ultimately important tasks.

1)            The reins are held firmly with the thumb tip and the knuckle of the thumb forming an A-shape. The knuckle of the thumb is and remains the highest point while the tip of the thumb presses down firmly on the rein loop which rests on the lateral edge of our index finger around its middle link and distal joint. Call this the A-Thumb-Index Lock.

2)            The remaining fingers – middle finger to pinkie – are folded back flat along the palm with the nails completely visible, not by digging the nails into the fist-like palms.

Right – Proper Position: The A-shape thumb presses against the side of the index finger. A rein held in between the two will not slip. The remaining long fingers act as elastic shock absorbers and communicate with the mouth.
Left – Wrong Idea: Gripping fist with the rein able to slip through and no communication ability.

3)            Minor rein adjustments, shortening or lengthening (the give) are done by rolling in or letting out of the middle finger, ring finger, and pinkie.
These long fingers serve as shock absorber and cushioning indicators for rhythm, half-halts, softening, direction changes, etc.

Moreover, the mobile long fingers can allow temporary lengthening of a rein by one to two inches without the A-Thumb-Index Lock on the reins needing to let the rein slip. 

Putting it Together

The ability to use the individual fingers like the directors in charge of the strings of a marionette puppet doesn’t come by itself. It must become a conscious act, and must be schooled and practiced.

Think of thumb tip and edge of index fingers as securely holding the bar on which the puppet hangs; with the remaining fingers pulling its strings in order to influence the fine-motor movements of the puppet.

In addition, the rider’s arms, shoulders, elbows, and lastly wrists make sure that the puppet is able to get anywhere she needs to without blocking her. 

A-thumb to Index hold allows for “pulling the strings” with the long fingers.

Moreover, from A-Thumb-Index Lock to the rider’s shoulder every part of the arm must become an independent “dancer” willing to move with the horse’s ipsilateral foreleg.

This will make for the hand we call a still or quiet hand: a hand that always remains at the same distance from the horse’s mouth, not one blocked in equidistance to the rider’s body, neither one that forces a rhythmical nod onto the horse’s atlas-cranium connection.

Only a synchronized moving shoulder-arm-elbow connection can produce the praised quiet hand.

In jumping, the A-Thumb-Index Lock becomes particularly useful. Without needing to change the length of the reins extending the three long fingers allows for the reins to be let out by as much as 6″ to 8″ over an obstacle in order to enable an optimal bascule, and without the rider running out of effective arm length for the give.

Maximum freedom without loss of contact.

Biomechanical Reason for A-Thumb-Index Lock

By now you likely have tried all sorts of contortions with your thumb. As you use your old bad habit thumb tip up or simply a flat thumb pressure note the firmness this causes in your biceps muscle and around your elbow. You may even catch yourself drawing up your shoulders.

Now repeat this with your thumbs in proper A-Thumb-Index Lock position, and you will notice your biceps muscle softening.

Dos and don’t dos.

Do you remember our discussion about the pulled back elbow in “Rider Sin #1?” No backwards elbows with a proper A-Thumb-Index Lock! – You may want to read #1 segment again or go here: https://coachmetoo.com/2019/11/17/rider-sin-1-pulling-back-an-elbow/

Tight biceps muscles belong on the other end of a pitchfork, not on the horse’s mouth!

Biceps muscles will always act against the horse. The old saying, “pressure creates counter-pressure” always holds true.

Therefore, do everything you need to never engage your biceps while mounted. In short, to avoid that biceps pressure, press the very tip of your thumb down onto the rein and your index finger!

Added Benefits

If you or your students ever have battled sliding reins, you now know that the A-thumb will effectively put an end to this bad habit too.

Fix your thumb position not the fact that the reins slide through your hands!  

If you are advanced enough to school in double-bridle you will learn to appreciate the A-Thumb-Index Lock even more.

In order to fine tune your aides even more you have the option to hold the reins as follows in 2:2 position:
1)            snaffle rein bottom-to-top through the entire palm – and firmly held between A-thumb and edge of index finger…
2)            curb rein in between pinkie and ring finger and out either together with the snaffle as above or – in my preferred position for highly responsive horses – out between middle finger and index finger.

This latter position allows for the most independent yielding of the curb rein while firming the snaffle rein. This is particularly useful in pirouettes where your snaffles want to give the horse security but your curb pressure must be lightened to allow for the necessary forward and upward jumping of each individual stride.

Alternatively, if using the classical 3:1 rein position, the above arrangement in the left hand offers the option of adding the right curb either between left ring finger and middle finger (also bottom-up) or top-down between index and middle finger and out between ring finger and pinkie. A finger separates each rein.

The most classical double bridle position with left snaffle and both curb reins in left hand and the right snaffle in the right hand.

The right hand then may chose to take up the right snaffle rein between pinkie and ring finger, instead of like in the left hand through the entire palm.  

The Lesson

The rein is effectively held (and with quite some strong pressure) between A-shape thumb and edge of index finger, not by the hand, the A-Thumb-Index Lock. The hand therefore can fulfill its purpose as a well-controlled and independent shock absorber between horse’s mouth and back via an elastically sitting rider.

In order to learn how to properly position your hands and arms look for our upcoming articles including, Rider Sins – Arm & Hand Position.

copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM

Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on five continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).