On the Position of the Rider Hand

(Not) for Debate – and not just for DQs: “Close your hand!”

An edited and updated version of an article initially posted on January 16, 2015 on my Equiopathy Facebook page and prompted by an paper linked to in that original post’s comments.

Equiopathy questioned: exactly, how?… and why? There is a lot more to closing a hand than simply a broad-statement request.

1) The “HOW”

Close an ‘A-Frame-Roof shaped Thumb’ firmly on the rein end that is draped over the side of the index finger.

This firm thumb/index hold allows for an independent ‘kneading/flexing/softening’ (inside hand!) pinky and, for instance over a jump, allows that extra 10cm release that may make the difference between a dropped front rail and a clear round.

In dressage, the above also allows for independent handling of the curb bit with reins threaded around ring and middle fingers (the most sensitive option) or ring to index fingers (the less sensitive option). This way the snaffle reins can be tightened by the pinkie while the curb reins can be simultaneously released by ring + middle fingers.

Granted, this takes practice. Lots of it, …and, most of all, a thinking rider! Practice with double reins and a buddy playing horse until you become more adept at this!

2) The “WHY”

Here are the biomechanical reasons for a closed hand vs. a jazz hand (as described in the original article that prompted these further details):

The A-Frame-Roof shaped thumb pressure on the index finger keeps the fingers soft and eliminates the biceps muscle. In turn, this relaxes the rider’s shoulder and neck musculature and results in a steady contact with a happily chewing horse, willing to step into the hand from behind and engage its swinging back muscles.

Compare this with an ‘open thumb’ clenched fist that makes for a rigid biceps. Latter results in unsteady contact, head tossing, open mouth, grinding and tongue problems, nose behind the vertical, resistance, blocked hocks, etc. and disengages the horse’s back. Read more on this specific point here .

3) Proper Arm Position Makes for Good Hands

Turn your lower arms 90 degrees from the elbows in order to bring the little fingers closer together and the lower arms (ulna) forming a V-funnel (left arm/wrist counter-clockwise, right arm/wrist clockwise).
=> The rider will see her/his fingernails.
=> To the ground person this hand will appear as upright.

And yet, a good hand is always the one able to elastically follow the horse’s mouth while gently, and independently from the rider’s seat, straining out negative behaviour. It is the horse that seeks the connection; it is the rider who seeks not to disturb it.

4) No Mirrored Hands

Hands are rarely positioned as mirror images of each other, i.e. equidistant to the horse’s midline, as we so often see them carried.

The outside pinkie is positioned close to the wither midline of the horse and close to the saddle.
The inside hand is elastically positioned about an inch to the inside of the wither midline and slightly closer to the horse’s mouth (inside of the bend!), which explains the call for a shorter inside rein.


=> The inside hand NEVER is raised above the outside (vector line / centrifugal force twist).
=> The V-funnel correct arm position allows for light and effectively engaging aids that bring the horse from behind and increase suspension.
=> A “covered” hand (i.e. the fingers are not visible to the rider) and A-funnel arms again would falsely engage the biceps and flatten/block the horse.

A rider who does not master and fine-tune his/her hands is like a sculptor who has been given nothing but an axe! Not likely that you will create a master piece of delicate precision.

Last but not least…

5) On the Position of the Whip

It stands to reason that the whip is easier to be carried in the steadier (less busy) outside hand. For instance, Klaus Balkenhol always advised the whip in the outside hand in order to increasingly activate the legs that need to cover more ground (outside travels further in the bend).

There are training reasons when the whip simply needs to be carried in the inside hand. This must be achieved in a way that allows precise touches to either shoulder or near and behind the rider’s leg.

In order to allow precise use the whip is always carried with a couple of inches reaching out above the rider’s fist – as seen in this picture of Rivkah Roth on the then 3yr. old Hanoverian “Davis Cup” (1987).

In Summary

The way the rider connects his body to the reins matters. But no problems can be solved by the reins or the hands alone.

For instance, a horse’s head must never be raised or lowered or bent by a rein alone. Anyone who so advises or teaches is ill advised and clearly lacks understanding and schooling himself.

Always think of the seat and legs representing the body of a letter i, while the hand adds the dot on the i, and so turns it into a complete letter. — The interpretation of the I is always clear as an i. If however you write a dot without the body of the i there is room for other interpretations (full stop, part of a colon or semi-colon, etc.).

Therefore, remember, any aide, request, or correction must be introduced from seat and legs, yet received or finished by a most sensitive and aware rein/hand.

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).