How to teach soft hands to children
I'm new to teaching children how to ride. I enjoy it but am at a loss on how to get my 8 year old student to keep her hands still, in front of her and not pulling on the reins.
I have a true sweetheart of a horse that is patient but I'm starting to feel badly for him. The little girl is easily distracted (understandable since she's 8) and as soon as her mind goes off somewhere, she has the reins TIGHT and her hands can be anywhere ie near chest, near ears, near shoulders. She has had probably 15 lessons. I have asked her to put her hands in the mane, on the front of the saddle and nothing is working. I am patient and sweetly reminding her to reposition her hands. Today my gelding had a little fit and snatched the reins from her repeatedly. (Not typical) I stopped her and explained gently to her that her hands need to stay put...blah, blah, blah.
I'm ready to tape her hands lol! Can anyone make any suggestions? Thanks!
I think of a person trying a bit in their own mouth to see how it feels.
It sounds like she's using the reins as a crutch for her own balance and security. Kids feel more secure when they can really hold on to something. I would remove the crutch. I'd put the horse on a lead for a while and not even put a bridle on him. Force her to ride "handless" for a while to break her of the habit of using the reins to hang on.
Play games while she's up there like making her make shapes with her arms or do the Itsy Bitsy Spider hand motions again to break her of the habit of holding on.
Once she feels more secure in the saddle without the seat belt of hanging on to the reins, then you can start playing games where you can, say put marbles in a cup and every time her hands come up she loses one. Then give her a little piece of candy like a gummi bear at the end for every marble she can keep in the cup.
But first, she has to be secure in her seat instead of hanging on for dear life.
Can I ask if it's western or english? I was taught western originally and one of my instructors actually did tape my hands loosely to the saddle horn. Another made me put my hand on the withers and keep it there, then I raised it up to keep it steady and still. I really didn't have much of a problem with my hands so that one or two times cured me! Maybe others can suggest more helpful things! :)
What kind of bit/bridle set-up are you using on your horse for these lessons?
I just ask because I like to keep my mare/lesson pony in the absolute gentlest thing she'll respond to for the first few lessons, while the kids figure out reins. In her case, it's one of those "riding halters" - the rope kind with rings at the nose. Her response time is a littttle "gross" in it compared to a bit but, imo, for new riders, it's ok if the horse is a little sticky. In the beginning, while the horse's patience is being tested to the max, horse comfort is #1.
Later, once the child becomes more proficient, I switch them to a bit but we go back to bitless for new things, like trotting/cantering, where the horse's mouth might get accidentally popped. Eventually they do everything with a bit but to start, everybody goes bitless and as gentle as possible.
The other thing I've found, with kids who always seem to end up with their hands up near their heads - either the reins themselves are too long for the child/horse combo [I keep a variety of rein lengths and sizes to accommodate for different kids - the first reins all "my" kids use have knots in them at the proper place to hold for plain riding and knots at where they should hold for turning] or the kid isn't being challenged enough. If I keep them engaged, via games and other exercises, I can usually get an entire lesson where hands stay down+are correctly placed.
In your kid's case, I might stick her on the lunge line and really drill her hands for a lesson - if she wants to ride on her own, she needs to do x, x, and x while keeping her hands correctly placed [like change directions on the lunge line, stop the horse, change directions again, whatever "gets" her]. Basically classical conditioning. She goes back on the line if she starts getting her hands up too much.
You don't want to be mean or anything about it but correct hand placement = riding by herself, incorrect hand placement = lunge line. She's in complete control of the "reward" [off line] and in complete control of the "less fun".
You can make the lunge line fun by having her stand in her stirrups while turning/cuing the horse [I find this REALLY helps a lot of kids -I like to start all my lessons with at least 5 minutes of standing in the stirrups for 10 steps, 15 steps, etc], play red light/green light - it's not "punishment", it's just a more controlled environment for you to get her attention.
And try just changing the reins you're using. I've noticed some dramatic changes in my kids just from a simple change of rein length/size. One girl in particular does just fine with a pair of 9ft roping reins that are about 2/3in in diameter, but switch her to 7ft barrel reins that are 1/3in and watch her suddenly start to ride REALLY WELL! :lol: The first time I just accidentally switched it up and I couldn't hardly believe what I was seeing! haha
Ohh there are so many fun things for this!
First I completely agree with everything Chessie said - it most likely is a crutch. I typically put a grab strap on English saddles for the first while and do lunging lessons. They learn to walk and trot on the lunge-line at first with the grab strap, then without. Practicing sitting, half seat and posting at both gaits.
Games are the best way to do this! Air plane games, wings, holding two pool rings, making circles in the air with their hands.
I like to do things like riding to a barrel and picking something up and carrying it over to another barrel.
But mostly it's time in the saddle that will build those leg muscles and muscle memory they need to be able to ride without their hands.
If you're trying to help them be gentler with steering (not hauling the horse around) you can practice the two finger game, where they're only allowed to hold the reins between two fingers (best done on a lead line so there's someone in control). Practice this until they see how little of a cue is needed to make the horse listen and practice steering gently.
when I first started riding I had the lady tell me to imagine I had an egg in my hand with the reins. I couldn't pull to hard, squeeze to hard, yank to quick or anything or I would break that egg. It worked for me when I was 8 or so. I guess.
Omg so many great ideas! I see I need to be more clear.
Since day one she has been on the leadline or lungeline. I do let her off the walking the horse. I have played so many games...Simon says, red light/ green light, spoon and egg, magazines under her arms to keep elbows in. Carrying balls and placing them in buckets, etc. She is very trusting while playing games and will do anything I ask without the reins.
She can be a bit on the nervous side but for the most part I think she spaces out. She will look at the other horses grazing while we are playing a game. I change up games a lot to keep her interested.
I have her in an English saddle. Tucker had a French link bit. He does neck rein but I want to teach English.
I also have used a grab strap and make her hold that. Sigh.....
I will shorten the reins and see if that works. I like the knot idea.
I like all the suggestions made. I will try the marbles and candy move.
I don't think mom would approve me putting the bit in her mouth but that comment gave me a chuckle.
Today I actually had a more "serious" conversation with her. It didn't help.
I will get a rope halter with rings and get rope reins. I'm desperate.
She's been riding weekly since May. Shouldn't all these tactics have worked by now?
She's 8 and she may have some attention issues. If too much input goes in, thinking about more than one element of riding at a time can go waaaaaay out. The trick is to get hands down into her muscle memory. That way when she spaces out or something distracts her, her body remembers the right spot to be. Right now when she spaces out, her muscle memory is following what it does naturally when her vestibular system is kicked in, it grips tightly and pulls arms up to protect her face. Forcing her to focus by hinging a reward on it, and getting the bit off your horse so he's comfortable in the mean time will help a lot, I think.
My daughter started riding at 8...it's only recently (she's almost 11) that she's truly gained "soft" hands. What helped her the most was riding bareback and bit less. She HAD to use her legs, she HAD to keep her balance. She wasn't relying on stirrups or a bit to control her horse. Now, when we do bit up, she's much more confident in her ability to control her horse without using her hands.
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