In hand work (also known as ‘hand work’) is a fantastically useful technique to allow you to work your horse without being on his back.
Reasons to use hand work might be:
- you are unable to ride, for whatever reason (physical issues – you or your horse, saddle issues, or Covid 19 restrictions!)
- you have a young horse, and his fitness limits the amount of time you ride him each week.
- you want to increase your horse’s strength, especially his hind quarters
- you want to improve your horse’s understanding of reactions to your aids
- you want to develop a closer, trusting relationship with your horse
- you want to do something different some days, rather than drill the same ridden work
The end result of this work is to teach your horse to piaffe in hand, but as in riding, where not every combination will make it to Grand Prix, it is the journey – education and relationship benefits – that should be your goal.
The starting point sounds – and is – very simple: teach your horse to start and stop.
Doing this correctly, however, takes far more understanding than you might at first appreciate.
- A bridle – do not attempt this in a headcollar or cavesson (unless your horse is very respectful of half halts on the cavesson – this will be covered in later posts)
- Sturdy footwear – not trainers. You may get trodden on.
- A long whip – a hand work whip should be around 5′ / 155cm long, and with a small tassel on the end. If you do not have access to one, an old lunge whip, preferably without the lash, can be used. Only use a schooling whip if it is VERY long – you don’t want to be in reach of the hind legs, and remember, your horse can kick forward and sideways, as well as backward. We don’t plan on irritating him into kicking, but some sensitive horses will do so anyway.
Understand body language
A large part of successful in hand training depends on your body language.
- HAVE PATIENCE – this close-up work will either build or destroy trust, depending on how you approach it. A horse needs time to learn, and a frightened horse (if you rush things) will not learn – he might do what you ask out of fear, but it will never become a trusting response.
- you need to learn to walk backwards with confidence and balance
- stand up tall, with an open chest to indicate confidence and control
- you must stand close to your horse, beside and just behind his head, or very near.
- to invite him forward, you should step slightly back away from him, with a slight forward indication on the reins
- to stop him, you will stop moving forward and allow his head to pass you slightly, so you will be alongside his neck, just in front of his shoulder. Keep facing the tail, and make small half halts (vibrations) on the reins
Holding the reins
Hold the reins like this, separated by a finger or two, and with the heel of your hand closer to the bit. This is an appropriate length of rein for this basic work.
Using the whip
- the whip is only there to be used as an aid, never as a punishment.
- to ask your horse to move forward, keep the whip level with the ground, and touch your horse lightly on the flank
- when you ask him to stop, DROP the whip down so it points towards the ground
Start and Stop
These are the basics of all hand work – think about how you teach this to a foal or young horse when leading. You need your horse to move when you ask, and stop when you ask, otherwise you have no relationship, and any handling can become dangerous, so this is lesson #1.
- start with your horse alongside a fence – this makes the controls easier as your horse cannot swing his bottom away from you
- position yourself as described above, standing beside his head, facing his tail. You need to be quite close, hence the necessity for decent footwear
- raise the whip until it is horizontal with the ground, and pointed towards the rear of his flank
- take half a step backward, or incline your body in that direction, to invite him to step towards you
- at the same time, touch him gently on the flank with the whip
- use a voice command if necessary (say ‘walk on’), although this will quickly become unnecessary as he starts to pick up on your inviting body language
- allow him to walk forward a few steps, keep walking backward yourself, and keep the whip horizontal. There is no need to touch him again unless he tries to stop
- drop the point of the whip until it is touching the ground
- stop walking, and/or incline your body slightly forward towards his rear end
- use small half halts (repeated vibrations) on the reins
- use a voice command (whoa, stop, halt, trill) at first, until he understands
- he may walk slightly past you, just make sure you are no further back than around the mid-point of his neck when he halts
- if he doesn’t stop immediately, keep repeating the aids until he does
Once he has stopped, make much of him. Stroke his neck, pat him, and get him to make eye contact with you. This last will help with confidence and trust. Take time – do not move again until he is totally calm and relaxed.
Thank you to Kirsty and Beam for this little demonstration.
Kirsty was learning this work for the first time, and should have dropped the point of the whip down before asking for halt.
I would advise not stroking the horse with the whip in your hand unless they are confident about it, like Beam.
Coming next: step #2 – Turn on the Forehand
If you have any questions or observations, please use the post comments.