Two years ago I decided it was time to work on my classical riding skills. Having done some research, I decided to book 10 lessons with Nuno. Coming from South Africa, I decided that I would concentrate on ridden lessons. After all, I did not want to fly all the way to Europe to walk after a horse on foot.
Luckily my curiosity got the better of me and I traded my final lesson in for an hour of “in hand”. I’m not sure who was more confused, the horse or myself.
Every mistake I made was amplified and I felt as though I was trying to steer an uncoordinated worm instead of a horse. Much to my surprise, Nuno was able to patiently guide me, so that by the end of the lesson I was walking in more or less the direction I intended.
A year later I returned, this time I only booked in hand lessons.
I had come to realise that it was, some how, the missing link in my training as a rider. Lessons on the lunge can improve ones seat. However: the only way to get a feel for what contact is, is to take away the influence of the riders legs.
When riding it is so easy to get into a habit of allowing the hands and legs some how work in opposition to each other. A too strong hand aid will cause a horse worked ”in hand” to halt, or even go back. Riders will simply squeeze or kick the horse on, to compensate for this. In the riders mind, he/she is keeping the horse between hand and leg. The term inside leg to outside rein is another term that is open to endless interpretations (or should I say misinterpretations). The leg should not be used to correct mistakes made by the hand. By training in hand one learns how to be soft without being ineffective.
Just like work on the lunge improves the riders’ seat, posture, and legs, so “in hand” improves the hands, upper body and shoulders.
The two are a team and can only achieve true harmony when they are coordinated in a way that serves to promote freedom of movement in the horse.
To cut a long story short, it’s a year later. I’ve been practicing what I learnt, with the help of my trainer at home. To her and my surprise, my previously unsound mare has gone from strength to strength. She now works in walk and trot on both reins evenly without hesitation. Working in hand has improved my contact when riding and I have a far more sensitive feel. Pendragon my extremely talented but lazy warmblood, has suddenly become easier off the leg. For the first time in ten years he has truly started lifting his back and carrying himself properly. This has resulted in the improvement of his top line, as well as his straightness and balance. He now shows great freedom of movement and truly pushes from behind. If you ask me, its because he knows the energy won’t be blocked in front.
In hand is not exactly easy and at times it’s quite confusing. Nuno is wonderful at breaking up a concept and teaching it in tiny steps until one ‘feels’ the correct way of applying it. If a certain explanation does not sink in, he finds another, until the penny drops.
Now that I look back, I realise just how many riding mistakes could have been avoided, if I had embraced working horses in hand years ago.
No trainer can explain correct feel and contact as well as a horse can show you himself, when you allow him to, when you work with him in hand.