Classical Riding Tips: Quiet Hands

by Nancy O'Neill (aka M'Lady Violante d'Osteriche)

SSSSHHHHH...The Secret to Quiet Hands and Quiet Legs

“...for the knight who betrayed through the action of his hands or legs what his next move might be would leave himself open to being struck or even unseated by a quick and clever opponent.”(1)

Sounds like the picture perfect Grand Prix rider in modern day, doesn’t it? Have you ever watched Dr. Reiner Klimke ride? This  6-time gold and 2-time bronze Olympic medal winner in dressage was the archetype for no noticeable movement while riding.

Have you ever wondered why horses seem to want to jerk and balk while you’re trying to get them to go? Nine-times-out-of ten it is because you are asking them to go and halt at the same time. Watch yourself next time you ride, if you ask a horse to go and they start moving briskly, do your hands go up as if yanking them to a halt?! The horse is confused at the commands you are giving.

This series of exercises will help you achieve that independent seat so that you can ask your horse without giving conflicting commands. And, it will help you to achieve that quiet seat that makes it look like you are doing *nothing* at all!!

Achieving quiet hands

So how does anyone get to that point? Perfect practice makes perfect. Let’s start. First thing to work on is your independent seat, which is, being able to separate your lower half of your body from the upper half. The halfway point is your waist. (practice how-to’s at the bottom of article). While attaining this independent seat, always remember to keep shoulders, hips, and heels in line with each other, and the weight of your body into your heels. Check your hands, they should be a pinky above the saddle’s rivet on English-type saddles and just in front of the saddle horn for Western types (or just slightly above and in front of horn depending on bits). If you are riding with snaffle type bits, there should be a nice easy, gentle tension on the reins, no slack. If you are riding with curb type bits, there should be a very slight tension on the reins, akin to picking up the reins and getting all the slack out. If your port is high on the curb, there should be a gentle slack in the reins (I do NOT recommend riding with curb bits until quiet hands are achieved. )

How to practice quiet hands

How to practice this independent seat with the quiet hands and legs. You can have someone put your horse on the lounge line while you practice the first three steps.

Step 1: RELAX (and breathe!) Start by sitting at a halt. While your seat stays in the saddle, your heels are down, and toes are forward, bend forward at the waist and touch your horse’s ears - first both hands, then one at a time. Now reach back towards the tail, same exercise. (This exercise is great to use when you have to duck branches on trails!!) Then put both hands straight over your head and bring the arms down to horizontal with the ground. Rotate just your upper body and twist right, then left. If your horse moved at all, self-check and see if you started clenching with your thighs or knees...or, if your horse started moving left or right, check and make sure you didn’t rotate your whole body when doing the ears, or horizontal windmill moves.

Step 2: Move onto the trot and do the same maneuvers.

Step 3: Yep, same maneuvers at canter. Keep self-checking to make sure your heels are down, straight.

Step 4: Now, pick up the reins (Make sure the lounge line is attached properly to not interfere with the reins - through the bit ring on near side, up over the head and attached to outside ring on bit). At the halt, take your legs out of the stirrups and move them forward and back as if in a walking motion. (If it helps, cross the stirrups in front of you on the saddle) Make sure your upper body stays still and the hands are still. Next take your legs and try to get them out, like a straddle, as far as you can and then bring down to riding position *gently*.

Step 5 : Same thing at trot. Notice, I won’t ask to do this at a canter because depending on how much movement you’re doing with the “leg walking” move, you might be asking your horse to do flying lead changes. Check your hands and have the lounge line attendant watching you too. It’s nice to have that feedback, sometimes we get to thinking so much that the other items that we’re supposed to be maintaining (heel, foot position) get neglected.

Step 6: Now practice your halts by “breathing down”...which means, breathe out and think that you’re pushing that air from your toes out. This will feel like you are breathing your body *down* into your saddle and all the way to your heels. Then at the same time, close your hand(s). Don’t yank or pull. Close your hands and cease movement.

I can attest to this method, this is what my instructor did for me for 4 months, 5 days a week, 2 hours at a time. I also had a horse that if you got off balance, would buck like a bronc!


(1.) Horses and Horsemanship Through the Ages by Luigi Gianoli. Read the book review.

Inspiration for this article was due to an incident I saw while driving by a paddock that houses these really nice Belgian draft geldings. While going by at 35mph, I saw a rider flailing away with her feet as if to ask the horse to go, yet, her hands were yanking upwards (almost nose height) every time that poor horse tried to go forward. The rider was visibly frustrated and the horse was visibly frustrated (tail wringing like mad). This was a sad sight! Drafts by nature are the easiest going horses and have all heart when it comes to doing what the rider asks. Let’s make this sight a thing of the past!!