I often get asked about light hands when referring to the rein control of horses.  This has to the most confused subject in the Horse Industry, the one subject that is largely kept back from pupils imho and the one that causes the most failed training scenarios of all.

Video, Trainers, Coaches and experts everywhere, are most often very politically correct these days and will rarely let the plebs’ see what happens in the ‘real world’, how they themselves ride (behind closed doors) and why those at the top have so much success.



Mouths range from an ounce to 100kg

Did You know that Racehorses operate with around 85kg against their Mouths?
whilst World ‘Guru’s’ are often saying things like……” an ounce of pressure’

The other problem is that a lot of Coaches do not know the correct rein control techniques and therefore cannot pass it on and of course, no article would be complete without saying the Pony Club System completely fails in this area. So there has to be confusion. This article hopes to clear that, for the horses.

There are varying reasons but the predominant one is found in the much confused comment. quote,   “People have commented that I have light hands, so what would be causing my horse to be ignorant?” “As soon as my horse gave, I gave”

Put simply, the ‘light hands’ must only be evident when a horse is ‘being light’. Yes, we are all looking to ride with ‘light hands’ and a ‘light contact’ but only in return for a ‘light horse’. When a horse gets ‘resistant or ignorant‘ our hands become likewise,


John O’Leary

backed up with an increased amount of ‘leg on’ commensurate to the increase in the hand. The moment the horse gives to the increased hand which has gone to .1% above the increased ignorance, we lighten leg and hand, thus rewarding the horse for lightening.

Horses are Born resisters. They are always searching for ways to be ignorant (to use a Human expression) and they do it from the very first Mount up during the starting process

If I start a Horse with a 10/10 Mouth and send it to an Amateur Owner Home, it’s Mouth will be a 6 or less within a Week.

Therefore, this confused state of “I have light hands all of the time” will always be exploited by horses and is the one thing that actually causes ‘ignorance and resistance’, ever increasing as time goes on and with a progressive deterioration of the quality of the mouth of the horse and more importantly, an increased heaviness in the mind, which transfers to the mouth.

Those with Truly ‘Light Hands‘ are those who keep Horses within the Rules……they are ‘Light when the Horse is Light and meet the resistance when the Horse isn’t listening…….BUT…….are always looking to give ‘Light’ in return.



Resistance is a state of mind, transferred to the mouth. To train the mind will see the training of the mouth. Train a light mind and you will get a lighter mouth.

Horses do not want to travel with arched necks. They don’t do that in the wild except briefly during sexual games, fighting and so on but normally, they go around with their heads stuck out in a most relaxed manner. Not suitable for us humans.



It is therefore true then that there are many other things that influence the mouth. Keeping a good mouth on a horse is a ‘package deal’ and without all things operating at 100% of the time, you cannot maintain perfection. Here are some of them.

Ground Manners reflect directly on attitude and attitude transfers to the mouth. What you get on the ground you inherit under saddle.

This is ruining the mouth of the horse.

  • The manner of leading a horse is highly connected to the retention of a good mouth. If you lead Pony Club/Racing Industry style, you cannot have a top mouth.
  • The manner that a rider operates during all other times other than proper training is also crucial and continual mouth damage is common place with most riders’ in Australia.

Both the rider on the left and right are ruining the mouths of their horses. That dis-pleases me as I broke them both in. lol This is a pleasure ride, not flat work. Besides that, it has other implications regarding happiness of the horse.

  • Mouth damage can be caused whilst a horse is stationary and I see this happening also with at least 80% of Australian Riders’….and

The mouth on this horse is being diminished. Contact for no sake….whereas this horse is not being ruined…

  • The ridden training techniques that are common place, ensure that a horse can never improve and only deteriorate. By this, I mean this.

This style of riding is normal in Australia and sees people going around with a contact on the mouth of horses but never achieving ’roundness’ or ‘lightness’. Some are attempting to achieve it but have never been taught how and others are swinging off the mouth for balance. What you see here is the complete destruction of a mouth. Then you progress to building an upside down neck, like this and with that comes the deterioration of the longitudinal muscles and the development of the under muscles. Ever building a more resistant and hollow horse. Working the under muscles, like this:

Protecting itself from a Coach

Same horse a day later: was Bridle lame the Day before


The instillation of a ‘led in bridle’ or a ‘anti rearing bit’, immediately begins to diminish any possible quality mouth of the future. Lead a youngster in a bridle, unless you are natural horsemanship trained and you will be lowering the possible ranking of the mouth when the horse gets to the Horse Breaker. You are in fact, ‘mouthing the young horse‘ by doing this. Badly!


You only get one go at attaining a good mouth on a young horse. The foundation stones can be good or bad.

So what should we be doing? Well I believe that unless a rider knows how to ride a horse in a ’round and soft outline’, if that is what they want, they are better off staying right away from the mouth until such time that they can achieve it. Otherwise, you see what is in the photos above. For further comment on this, go to this

What do we do?

  • When in training mode, train properly, correctly, demand lightness, do not accept resistance and reward for a job well done with a light and soft contact. Rewarding the horse often.
  • Looking to be riding with kindness through the hands and with consistency. That is what horses appreciate.
  • Assisting the horse with a correct riding position and a still one.
  • Not accepting ignorance or resistance and dealing with it by countering such resistance via an increased leg and hand until the horse ceases it’s resistance and then lightening back to ‘kind hands’ and a ‘soft feel’

In my opinion, riders’ must learn that it is not a crime to ‘take on’ the mouth of a horse in order to retain it’s quality. Providing however, that such rider knows how to.


Once again, it gets back to the system. Unless subjects like this are broached, unless Coaches are taught how to train horses not just position, unless Coaches stop uttering, “Lovely, nicely engaged, big improvement’ when it is clearly not and unless position Coaches get taught ‘horse training’ as well and stop hiding behind the subterfuge of their art, not much will improve across the board. You can ride with the World’s most perfect carrot up you know where but that doesn’t mean the horse will like your hands. In fact, most of the time, horses do not like the hands of perfect looking riders’. Those riders’ are often, ‘ineffective’.

Constancy is the next highly important element, for only this can gain the trust required from the horse for it to go there. Go where, I hear you ask. Go to the comfort zone. The comfortable place to be. The soft contact in return for kind hands. The more consistent the hands of a rider, the faster a horse will believe in those hands and trust that they are not going to punish the mouth.

Punishment of the mouth is why horses resist, go ‘behind the bit’, go ‘above the bit’, ‘grab the bit’, ‘reef the reins’ out of the hands of a rider. Why, because they dam well can’t trust em. Would you?


So now you know why horses go through what they do, why horses do the things that they do, what you as an amateur rider has to aim to do or learn to do, but remember, until the time that you can, please stay off their mouths.

If I were a horse, I would be very happy if my rider had kind hands but unfortunately, not a huge percentage of riders’ do. Perhaps that is why there are so many obviously unhappy horses out there.

I think the single most important attribute in being a great rider, hinges on the quality of your hands. I know that when a horse judges us, it is based upon the kindness of our hands. So hands play probably the most important part of all in differentiating us between good or not so good riders’

I think that the difference between a good rider and an excellent one is simply in the hands. The excellent rider is one that can get on any horse and improve it. One that can get a horse with obvious problems and make the horse go better. That comes from hands. It is the greatest asset a rider can have and you are blessed if you have it.

I used to think that we had to be born with good hands but over the years, thankfully, I have come to learn that we can change and learn to drastically improve our hands. I am blessed with good hands and every horse I ride tells me so. If you have a horse that is stressed, up tight, unhappy, resistant and so on, it would be good for you to go and have a quiet look in the mirror as it may be your hands.

So how can we gain good hands? Well some of us are born with them but the others have to learn the feel. Certain horses can teach or force you but most have to be taught it. This is another area where I have to be seen to be bashing Pony Club. I don’t think they teach it and in fact I see them teach the opposite, how to have hard hands.

From very early in riders’ careers, they imprint them with the ‘bigger bit‘ approach and whack the old pelham or double bridle on to jam the horse’s head into position and submission. They then often teach that the lower you hold your hands the easier it will be to put a horse’s head down into something resembling a show outline. They turn out riders’ who  ride with their hands below the wither line of the horse, totally stiff straight arms which they have to have in order to reach down that far and a stiffness of the back and hip, looking like there is a carrot up their……..posterior. All of this  teaches ‘bad hands’

There is a saying…..The Lower the Hands the higher the head carriage

This is because the lower your hands, the lower your forearms and the straighter the whole arm from Shoulder to hand.  The straighter this angle is the more locked up the elbow, shoulder and wrist joints and therein lies the problem. All finesse, softness and timing is lost and this transfers hard signals to the mouth of the horse rather than finesse. It also ensures the rider’s loss of feel and without feel, you ability as a rider is greatly diminished.


Good Dressage riders’ tell me that the correct riding position should be roughly where the forearm has the same alignment as the reins, in a direct line to the horse’s mouth. When I watch the Olympic Dressage Riders’, I see their hands above the wither in all cases.


Take it from me that the picture perfect ‘Hack Rider’ is rarely an effective one. Not only is the softness of the hands lost but also the suppleness of the hips. That is why horses beneath such riders’ often have backs that are hollow and braced against the bump. The shock wave from the motion of the rider is not eliminated via the good shock absorbers of a kind pair of hips.

This then gets perpetuated and copied as such riders’ often become the most winning rider in the Pony Club hacking events or at Hack Shows generally. This is because they are mostly judging on beauty or the head of the horse and so all the other kids think that this is how you should ride. They win because they ride with a carrot you know where and are being judged by judges who came from the same school and rarely know the difference. Judging on position. I can assure you that some of the worse going horses are ridden by the prettiest riders. They may appear to go well in the hack ring based on blue ribbons but they do not in the Dressage Arena and this is where good riding and good horses are judged properly.

A horse ridden by a rider with bad hands generally has an upside down neck, a locked jaw, a stiff hollow back, ‘sowing machine’ paces and a general over all resistance of attitude and unhappiness.

A horse ridden by  a rider with good hands is generally over it’s back, soft in the jaw, has flowing much bigger steps, more rhythm and an obvious happiness in it’s work.


So where do you learn this? From good Dressage Coaches’, not from Riding Schools, Hack Teachers’ or ‘jo Bloggs’ down the street.

If you seriously care about your horse, put in the effort to get ‘good hands’ Your horse will love you for it and your career will blossom. No matter what your discipline


I am listening….are You??

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