Look Ma, No Hands!: A Lesson Recap

Pictured here: 3/4 of the Circle of Death
Since the weather hasn't made our footing at home unrideable quite yet, we decided to take advantage  of it and have a lesson in our jump field this weekend! It was the first time my trainer had been to our place, and it was fun to show off The Fanciest Shedrow Barn In Bucks County and give her an idea of what our daily schooling looks like.

I'd been telling my trainer about how well Dino has been going in his halter, and she was really supportive of trying him bitless and getting him into some sort of side pull or bitless bridle and seeing how it went, and had a Dr. Cook's she said that I could try. With all the craziness of the holiday week, she had forgotten to bring it with her, so I started tacking up with Dino's regular snaffle bridle.

"Why don't you ride him in the halter?" she said.

So I did.

Dino thought this was great, because he could more easily eat grass while I was adjusting my stirrups.

I thought it was great because, hello, who gets to have a lesson on their pony with a halter instead of a bridle!? I love that my trainer is always up for trying out a wacky idea.

Our warm up was very very simple - just walk/trot around the outside of the ring, working on pushing Dino forward from behind and keeping him from getting too heavy in front. While he does go "on the bit" really well in the halter, it's also a LOT easier for him to fall on the forehand without an actual bit, especially when we aren't forward enough, so minimal rein aids and lots of push from the hind end was the name of the game. It was good for me to feel that strong push from his hind legs, and feel that if I were to take up more contact, Dino would be right there on the aids. I also received lots of reminders to push my hands forward when riding down the hill to allow Dino to tuck his butt under and lift his shoulders instead of succumbing to gravity and leaning into the halter.

Little did I know where all of this focus on not using my hands was leading.

Once we were trotting around in a good balance, my trainer directed me to get into two-point and press my hands into my pony's neck. And then trot back and forth across the diagonal over some poles, making kind of a giant figure-8 around the field without moving my fists from Dino's neck.

Alrighty then.

It was eye-opening to realize how badly I wanted to use my hands when they were taken away from me! From keeping Dino out on the rail to guiding him around the turns to the poles, I wanted to use my hands for EVERYTHING.

But I also realized that I didn't need reins, a bit, or my hands to do any of those things. It was wonderfully empowering. I was making very nice, balanced, square turns, riding straight to the poles,  riding straight after them, keeping Dino on the rail where I wanted him, and generally having no problems at all with steering or control even though I couldn't use my hands. Seeing all that I could accomplish without fussing with the reins (which is pretty much my favorite thing to do) was enlightening.

Then we took things up a notch.

My trainer started setting up a vague sort of Circle of Death with poles, kind-of-sort-of measuring it out, but really just plunking the poles down about two-ish strides away from each other. On a hill.

She sure knows how to make my little heart race in panic about the fact that there is NO MEASURED DISTANCE. *cue screeching violins*

But she's also not a monster, so we started off trotting and I got to use my reins.

A furry donut to break up the text wall. 
Having the reins was pretty much a complete joke, though, because when they're attached to a floppy leather halter, pulling on them does essentially absolutely nothing.

The first few attempts were pretty ugly, because I was trying really hard to steer with my reins and thinking, "OHMYGOSHPOLES MUST DO STUFF!! ADJUST!! STEER!! BEND!" But the thing is, when you pull on reins that aren't attached to a bit or to any sort of stable location on your horse's head, your horse keeps going in the direction he was going in the first place.

I actually had to, you know, use other aids like my legs and seat to turn.

Once I figured it out (the secret was LOTS of outside turning aids - duh) the trot pole Circle of Death was super, super easy, and it felt great to realize that I didn't need my reins to ride over poles in a small circle.

Then, of course, we had to canter the poles and then make some of them into actual jumps, which was bound to be interesting with my Good-As-Useless reins.

We started with two small fences on either end of the circle with the pole between them pulled in a bit to give me a visual aid for the turn without being in my path, sort of a Semi-Circle of Death.

As you can probably guess, we totally failed at this exercise at the canter the first several times; breaking to trot, totally missing the poles, and pulling wildly on reins that did nothing. But once I started using my legs and seat instead of my hands, magical things happened. I started hitting the center of the fences, turning smoothly, and keeping a steady rhythm. Even though the distances between the jumps weren't measured out properly, I was letting the exercise dictate the distance and getting a consistent number of strides every time. When we added in the middle pole, I had a couple of flailing moments, but quickly figured it out and was able to smoothly go through 3/4 of a Circle of Death on both leads, on a hill, in a halter with reins clipped to it, getting exactly two strides between every element.

This felt like SUCH an accomplishment, and I was really tickled to have done it at the end of the lesson! If we can ride a very small Circle of Death in a HALTER, I can make any turn, any time, anywhere. My trainer was also really excited about riding this exercise in the halter to help me eliminate all of the bad habits I have when it comes to my hands. At the slightest sign of "not perfect," I tend to go straight to the reins, which only ever makes my pony crooked, or shuts down the impulsion, or both. In the halter, when I pull on the reins NOTHING. HAPPENS. I can't use my hands to do anything except maybe reinforce the idea that Dino should probably think about possibly slowing down, or maybe tuck his nose in a bit. That's it. All meaningful aids HAVE to come from my legs and seat when I don't have a bit, and this is a good, good thing for me! It means I CAN'T fuss with the canter, mess with my pony's frame, pull him behind the vertical, or make his neck crooked. I'm forced to ride with my body and it is a beautiful thing!

My trainer encouraged me to keep riding in the halter, to investigate bitless bridle options, and to go for the goal of riding totally bridleless. While it may not directly relate to the show ring or the hunt field, learning to ride with "no hands" makes me a better rider, and it's fun! What's there to lose!?

As a treat for reading this post, head on over and check out EquinPilot's RW gift card giveaway! http://equinpilot.blogspot.com/2016/11/500th-post-giving-thanks-riding.html



  1. omg that's intense haha.... and super impressive! sounds like a great ride!

  2. Sounds like a really interesting lesson! Awesome that your trainer let you lesson in a halter. I may need to try some of those exercises because I always feel the need to use hands heaps.

  3. Wow that all sounds so very interesting. I don't think that I'm quite brave enough to do this- yet.

  4. I am exhausted reading all that LOL (WOW what an indepth post) but love that you fixed the hands issue (raising hand here I have the same meddling intuition with my reins LOL OMG I MUST FIX). However, we are not riding in a halter anytime soon (I have visions of me being run away with to a field full of grass yes i have NO control and am proud to admit it). Great post thanks for sharing. LOVE THE FURRY DOUGHNUT TOO! :) Keep on riding (and writing:))

  5. Every once in a while (usually when I'm cooling down) I practice circles and turning with just my legs and body... always good to remind myself that I don't need to use my hands for EVERYTHING

  6. Circle of death in a halter is epic!!

  7. Hands are such a terrible crutch!

  8. So many wonderful take aways from this lesson it sounds like. That's awesome that you've got a trainer willing to let you do some different-from-normal stuff re: halter.


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