One of the first things many people look at when they are watching riders is their contact, how soft it is, how quiet it is and we can understand why, in most cases the contact is in connection with one of the most sensitive parts or the horse.
But the thing with only looking there is we become obsessed with that area, and don't always fully join the dots as to why a certain contact is the way it is. Just shouting keep your hands still in most cases won't work, riders aren't trying to have a contact that is heavy, tight or fidgety, so why is it happening?
Our hands as humans are a huge part of our way of being, our way of moving, finding balance, communicating with others. This in it self feels like it would lend them to be one of the aids for our riding, but unfortunately so many of our hand movements for life are involuntary, plus we use them for things like lifting and holding onto things with a strong grip. This makes the hands a confusing aid for many to master.
So first things first where do we need to start when it comes to creating a quality contact
This may surprise you but the seat, the riders seat and quality of the riders seat will always affect on a good or bad way their contact. Why? We use our hands to balance, try standing on a balance board and notice the first thing you do is put your hands out to help you balance. If you stumble you'll reach for the nearest thing to grab to catch your balance. This automatic action is hard wired into our brain, so if your seat is not secure, strong or balanced your brain is going to pick up on this and automatically use you hands as another source of holding you on. Mastering a quality seat in most cases results in a much better connection through the hands and reins.
Core strength, your ability to stabilise and stay balanced is also intrinsically linked to your deep core strength, if you have a weak core, you will again use your limbs to hold you in place. Not ideal for your horse. Building a strong supple core is key to having a soft contact, but also being aware that engaging your core is part of your rein aid, you can't apply a rein aid with a soft centre, your rein aid will end up being twice as strong as it needs to be.
Upper body balance, once you've mastered the previous two points this one will naturally improve, but just to bring our focus to it anyway, if you upper body gets left behind, or is tilting to far forward again your brain is going to sense being out of balance and boom, you hold a bit tighter on your reins.
Shoulders and tension, the final place to look is in the shoulders, the reason we look here last rather than first is a lot of peoples shoulder tension is caused by being unstable and out of balance, your brain isn't going to relax your shoulders whilst it still senses you're abut to fall off. So releasing the final elements of tension that you carry in your shoulders comes once you know the rest is all aligned and working.
Only once these areas are covered does the contact become a pleasant one for your horse, even if you ride it bites your contact still has a huge effect on your horses face nerves so it is key we take it equally as seriously.
How? So now we know what we need to look at we need to know how, the obvious is unmounted exercises, building your stability and suppleness through things like Equistretch which is rider focussed movement or even pilates and yoga.
Working on your balance without using your hands or arms! In the recent balance board series I put yup in the academy I take you through exercises that focus your hands into doing less, whilst your body is finding balance. If we don't rewire the brains mental patterning of loss of balance equals hands and arms we will always tug, grab, pull at our horse when we do loose even the slightest of balance. Re-teaching ourselves how to balance without this reliance is key to quality riding.
No rein work or long rein work, reading this you may now see why I don't shout about no stirrups, I feel lots of no stirrups work without the understanding of how balance is connected to our arms and hands just causes the rider to hold on more to the reins and doesn't always create a better seat. BUT, no reins does, by removing the reins you are focussing the mind on all the other body parts it needs to use to balance with, you can also be very playful, try holding something that jingles when you hands move or some cups of water, your aim is to keep your hands still whilst everything else is moving, this detaches the brains need for hands and arms as a balance mechanism and automatically draws the brains need for security towards the seat and legs.
If you can't do no rein work, riding on the buckle will also do this to some extent. And only then try no stirrups work, but do it without reins, if you need to hold on then hold the saddle and don't do no stirrups with reins until you can hold those cups of water without spilling them whilst not having any stirrups.
As you can see, to create a soft quiet contact there's a lot of work that needs to be done, but only once the rest of you is organised can the hands fully release. So coaches, no more shouting "keep your hands still" more thinking about where the imbalance and weakness is stemming from that's creating the hand issue, and for you as a rider, when you watch your videos back and think, urgh, my hands were.... don't stop there, what happens on each rein, what are your legs doing, how is your seat? Find the weakness and you'll find the quietness you dream of.