Soft hand. Sounds like such a simple thing to have, doesn’t it? All you have to do is not pull on the horse’s mouth, right?
Wrong, obviously. (That would make it easy!) All you have to do to have a perfectly soft hand is be perfectly balanced in your posture, perfectly supple in your body, perfectly strong in your core and perfectly relaxed in your mind. The latter is the hardest for me, because I know I can sit up there on a horse and follow it supply with my body, core holding me up, balance keeping me steady, and have a hand so soft on the reins that the twitch of my finger is only a tiny vibration dancing on the tips of its nerves. Unfortunately, “can” and “will” and “do” are totally different. I do have moments when I can sit like that (and the horses thank me for it), but whenever I get a little nervous/distracted/uncertain, stuff locks up and the next thing I know I have what feels like a steam train in my hands and a pretty upset horse.
Praise the Lord for horses and for His timing; the Mutterer is excellent, and horses even better, but nobody can teach riding quite as well as my Lord Jesus. He always knows which horse (or horse problem, or person problem) to send along that will help me with my riding next. Just as He carefully orchestrates my most important life lessons, He teaches me how to work with these amazing creatures day by day.
The horses I’m currently being schooled by are a big stallion with a soft mouth and of course Magic (who teaches me something new every time I sit on him). Both of these are very uphill, very compact horses who don’t need a lot of hand anyway, and both are very sensitive and make their discomfort known when they have a problem. Now, I school baby horses, so I know you can’t always sit there with a pretty soft hand. If the wheels fall off and I get bolted with, I’m pulling as hard as I need to. And with newly-backed horses you usually need to be pretty obtuse to get the first halt or turn or whatever out of them. But you always work and work for refinement, both in your riding and in your horse’s schooling, and my hands are desperate for refinement.
The stallion is an interesting one. His mouth is extremely sensitive, and he likes to curl up behind the bit once he’s warm, but he’s also so strong that he can put his head almost in rollkur position (not on my agenda, just saying) and plough off as quick as he wants. And pull as you might, he just nails his head to his chest and does whatever he likes; there’s no way my little hands can do anything to that ginormous head of his. It does mean he can carry himself perfectly when he wants to, but I have to hardly touch his mouth at all to keep him that way. Not even to turn, not even to stop, and definitely not to pull his head up when he bucks. I am lucky enough to have fairly independent hands – I just need to use them. So when I ride him I have to keep almost no contact at all and depend 100% on my legs for steering and seat for slowing down.
That brings us to Magic. Wow, Magic. He is such an awesome but different dude. The other horses I ride all need such a strong ride to the base of a jump; Arwen used to need big fat Pony Club kicks, but now she still needs both legs ON and a firm rein to keep her straight and serious. Even the aforementioned stallion, who lacks confidence, needs a strong leg aid to give him a little guts. But the more I jump Magic, the more I figure out that less is generally more with this guy.
Maybe it’s because Magic has a natural eye for the distances and the ability to jump well enough, and willingness to try hard enough, that he knows he can do it himself and then thinks he’s getting it wrong when you meddle with him. Or maybe he’s just so, so sensitive, because he sure is. On Arwen, I usually sit down and speed up the last three strides, then she jumps better. With Magic, the key is to stay soft, soft, soft. And not only with the hands – legs and seat as well. In fact it’s best to totally take the seat out of the equation, go into forward seat and just barely touch him. Magic doesn’t need to be taken to the jumps, he takes you to the jumps. Just a hint of inside leg and rein and a tickle with the outside leg for turns, a feathery contact, and that’s all he wants. The slower he approaches, the better he jumps. He can’t be rushed. It’s so weird, but it’s actually wonderful.
All I do is perch up there breathing with his motion and following him nice and softly with my hands, and if he feels a bit hesitant a quick grip with my lower legs, and that’s it. The moment I start to pull him around corners, kick him into the jumps or (heaven forbid) hold him in he rushes, overjumps and panics. When I give him that very quiet soft ride, he stays in his happy place. Yesterday I had him rollin’ in the most amazing rhythmic canter with a nice big snorty breath in each stride, taking the jumps effortlessly, soft and gentle. He was in the kind of frame of mind that even if we had a little slip-up and made a mistake, and I got left a bit behind and pulled his mouth accidentally, he could shrug it off and ignore it by the next jump because we both put it behind us so quickly.
All my riding career I’ve needed a firm hand, to ask clearly for what I want, to not be afraid to be pushy when I didn’t get what I knew I could, and to wait for a horse to realise the value of generosity. More has always been more. But with him? No. All I gotta do is stay out of his face and let him give.
This is one special horse.