Equitation/Chapter 14

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CHAPTER XIV
THE HANDLING OF THE REINS

BEFORE proceeding to the further training of the horse with the rider mounted, it is necessary to consider more fully than under the instinctive equitation, the position of the rider's hands and the manipulation of the reins.

No fixed position of the hands is correct for all occasions. What it should be in each special case depends on the degree of education of the horse, on its action, sensitiveness, temper, conduct. It varies with the surroundings, the gait at which the animal is traveling, the character of the road, the state of submission or disobedience. It is modified also by the ability of the rider. It alters from moment to moment with the change of circumstances. All that one can do, therefore, is to give the general principles involved, and the standard position from which variants are taken as conditions change.

Let us, then, suppose a horse, well conformed, properly trained, and quiet, ridden at the promenade trot, by a good ordinary rider with a good seat, in street, road, bridle path, or manege, but without all the paraphernalia and impedimenta generally met with in such conditions. In such a case, the hand will be carried six inches above the pommel, the little finger down and slightly nearer the body than the thumb. The thumb is up and closed upon the four reins, which fall forward of the hand and to the left, when, as is usual, the reins are in the left hand. The fingers touch the palm at the nails, pressing with just enough force to prevent slipping. The hand is exactly opposite the middle of the body, and exactly in line with the horse's neck. The elbow touches the side without stiffness or pressure.

When, for any reason, the hand is moved from this position, one inch upward, downward, or sidewise, is in general sufficient for the full effect of the change. If for any reason, some other position has to be taken for the sake of conduct or control, what this new position shall be is decided by practice and experience according to the particular circumstance. If, for example, the horse rears, the hand should be dropped as low as possible, the rider leaning forward. If, on the other hand, the horse kicks, then the hand is lifted as high as possible, while the rider leans back and lifts the animal's head.

For the rider on a side-saddle, the position is the same, except that the hand is two or three inches above the right thigh.

During the process of training a horse, the position of the hand varies so greatly that no rules can be given. The master will, therefore, vary his position to meet special problems of mouth or neck or of the two together, and all the various contractions and defenses of the horse, as his experience suggests.

In ordinary civilian equitation, in the case of men and occasionally even in the case of amazons, there is really no particular reason why the reins should be held with the left hand rather than with the right. But the army man, the hunter, the polo player, and the woman who uses her whip to produce the effects of a right leg, are obliged, naturally, to keep the right hand free for saber, pistol, mallet, or whip, and to use the left hand only for the reins.

For beginners, for all riders mounted on animals not properly bitted, and oftentimes with hunters and park hacks, it is an advantage to hold the reins in both hands. Both in the hunting field and on the promenade, it is sometimes difficult to keep the horse straight at an obstacle or straight on the road. Evidently, in these cases, the rider has better control, and easier, if he does not have the complication of four reins in one hand.

When both hands hold the reins, each taking those on its own side, the snaffle rein passes under the little finger, and that from the bit lies between the little finger and the third finger. Both then pass upward and forward, above the forefinger, held against it by the thumb. When both reins of the bit are held in the same hand, together with one snaffle rein, the other snaffle rein being held alone in the other hand, the tvwo hands should be kept at exactly the same height, and never more than three inches apart. To make an effect to either side, the hand is carried three inches horizontally, without any tilting of the hand upward or downward.

The reins of the bridle, whether held in one hand or both, are pressed by the fingers only just hard enough to prevent slipping. If the pressure is too strong, the tension will be communicated to the arms, and from them to the whole upper portion of the body. At first sight, nothing seems easier. But in practice, the reins will slip, and unequally. The result is that, when the rider has occasion to draw on the reins, the one which at the moment happens to be shortest, has the most effect.

It becomes necessary, therefore, from time to time, to readjust the reins in the hand.

Suppose that all four reins are held in the left hand. To adjust, let us say, the curb reins, which are those without the buckle, the rider, with his right hand behind the left, takes the free ends with his thumb and first finger, and carries the right hand upward, while at the same instant he relaxes the grip of the left hand on these two. Meanwhile the left hand is kept precisely in line with the horse's neck. As soon as the rider feels with the right hand the equal contact against the mouth, he closes once more the fingers of the left hand and lets go with the right. For the snafHe reins, those with the buckle, the process is exactly the same.

With the reins held in both hands, to adjust the left reins the rider brings the right hand up to the left, takes with the thumb and first finger as before the reins which have slipped too long, relaxes the grip of the left hand, and draws the reins upward to the proper length. If the reins are too short, they are taken in the same way, but in front of the left hand, and drawn forward. For the right rein, the process is exactly reversed.

It is difficult, usually, to teach a beginner properly to close his fingers on the reins; particularly women, who handle the leather as if it were fine lace, and never really grip it firmly nor have the correct length. Yet grip and length are even more important for women than for men, since the latter have the better control by way of legs and saddle. With both men and women, the fault commonly begins during the early lessons in the ring. If not corrected then, it persists as a bad and dangerous habit, so that one often sees even good riders who have always to be adjusting their reins.

Sometimes, for control or for safety, it becomes necessary to shorten promptly some or all of the reins. Beginners carelessly let them slip through the fingers. Many older riders abandon control of their horses or think it proof of a good hand to have the reins too long. The result is that in sudden emergency — as, for example, when the animal by a sudden jump disturbs the seat — the rider can do nothing until he has taken time to shorten his reins. Then it may be too late. While, therefore, even the beginner ought to learn to keep his reins always at the correct length, he should be practiced also in shortening them instantly.

The method is much the same as for adjustment. If the rider is holding all four reins in the left hand, he simply seizes them all with all the fingers of the right hand, or certain ones with thumb and forefinger, and draws them upward to the needed length.

I often tell my pupils that the beginner has always two enemies of his safety — his eyes and his fingers. The eyes never look far enough ahead to see where the horse is going; therefore they tilt the head forward and displace the body. The fingers let slip the reins; therefore are these not ready when needed to control the horse.

I have already noted that the determining factor in handling the reins is the need of holding the horse straight, the backbone acting, so to say, as a sort of keel; and that, on the whole, it is easier to accomplish this end when both hands are employed. Nevertheless, there are conditions which make it at least convenient for the time being to change from two hands to one or from one to two. If, for example, the rider regularly uses the left hand for all four reins, in order to have the right hand free for whip or mallet, he may often need to use both hands to control a case of excitement or refusal.

To separate the reins, changing from the left hand to both hands, the little finger of the right goes over the right snaffle rein, with one finger, or better two fingers, between this and the right rein of the bit. The bit rein is slightly the looser of the two.

It is impossible to give the precise detail of this movement. It has to vary somewhat with the way the reins are carried in the left hand. For much the same reason, it is not possible to dictate the relative length of the two reins, since this is affected by skill of the rider, the speed of the horse, and its education, temper, and surroundings. With certain horses, in certain conditions, at various speeds and gaits, certain ways of holding the reins are better than others. I have experimented widely, and I am convinced that virtually all the methods of the various masters are good in an "intelligent" hand. It is not any fixed position of the reins which gives control over the forehead of the mount, but the effects of hand and fingers on the bits. An able esquire will produce the same total effect with the snaffle or with the bit, with left hand or right hand or both. It is all a matter of equestrian tact.

One cannot, then, dictate the precise method of separating the reins until he knows how they are held all together. But whatever the method, the pupil should be frequently practiced in changing from one hand to both and back again. These manipulations are to be executed, first standing, and later at all three gaits, without changing the regularity of gaits and speed. Then is the beginner prepared for emergencies.

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There are three principal methods of crossing the four reins in one hand.

According to the first of these, the rider, as soon as mounted, takes the extremities of the snaffle reins in his right hand and places them upon the middle of the horse's neck. He next takes in his right hand the two reins of the bit, also by their ends, and, lifting his hand, gives these a moderate tension. He now places his left hand over these two reins, his little finger between them, and grips them with all four fingers. The free ends pass out between the forefinger and the thumb, which closes on them, and fall to the left side of the hand. Finally, the rider picks up the snaffle reins with his right hand and raises them in front of the left. His left hand thereupon looses its grip with the three upper fingers, but, still holding with the fourth, passes the middle finger between the two snaffle reins, and shuts the thumb against the free ends of both pairs.

For the second method, the rider, as before, lays the snaffle reins on the horse's neck, lifts the bit reins with his right hand, and grasps them with his left. In this case, however, both the third and the fourth finger separate the two bit reins. He next takes the two snaffle reins in his right hand, and passes them between the first finger and the thumb of his left hand, bringing them out below the little finger. The thumb, as before, shuts upon all four reins.

According to the third method, the left rein of either the bit or the snaffle is placed below the little finger, and the left rein of either the snaffle or the bit passes between the fourth finger and the third. The right rein of the snaffle or of the bit is between the third finger and the second, and the right rein of bit or snaffle is between the second finger and the first. Thus a finger separates each two adjacent reins.

One last manipulation of the reins remains to be considered—the ancient practice of jerking the bit.

The old school of equitation recognized this action as a means of controlling a disobedient, restive, or vicious animal. At that epoch only stallions were ridden; and the character of the riders had to match their mounts. Pluvinel, de la Broue, and Grisons recommend that, in case a horse refuses to turn to the right or left, to change from gallop to trot, or from trot to walk, or to stop, the rider should "give him several sharp jerks against the mouth; and in the mean time call him with a strong voice, 'Pig!' 'Cow!' 'Scoundrel!' 'Coward!' 'Felon!'" a complete vocabulary of epithets not understood by three quarters of humankind.

Of course these excellent masters did really produce the effects they desired; but it was by the sound of the voice, not by the epithets. Moreover, the jerk on the bit cannot have any other result than to destroy the animal's understanding of the effects of the bit by making him fear the pain.

Jerking the bit is, then, a proof of lack of both kindness and competence on the rider's part. For after several repetitions, the horse, remembering the pain, expects still another jerk whenever the rider does anything with the reins; and in order to protect itself, it raises the head very high. In this position, the jerk cannot be operated. If the rider tries it, the horse will get away at high speed and become unmanageable.

The horse's mouth is extremely sensitive, and needs, more than any other part, the study of the rider and the practice of the principle of strength of effects rather than effects of strength. Strength of effects means intelligence. Effects of strength mean jerk and saccade. Brutality belongs to the nature of an animal; but intelligence is the great gift of man. It is not by making the horse afraid of the bit that we make it understand the meaning of its effects. Only by the agreeable contact of the bit upon the bars, and by the sensitive repetition of this contact, does the horse come to understand, without fear, the fingering, the equestrian tact of its rider.

The first action of any animal, man included, on feeling pain in the mouth, is to shut it. But when a horse shuts its mouth forcibly on the bit, no mere two hundred pounds of human rider can pull it open by any effect of strength alone. But strength of effects, the taking and giving of the rider's hand, will release the tension and open the mouth, not because of any pain, but by a pleasant relaxing of the jaw. If along with this, the rider, by the effects of his legs, concentrates the animal's forces so as to bring the center of gravity under his seat, he establishes a control from which the animal cannot escape. But it is not by jerks and saccades that the horse comes to understand the effects of bits and legs.

Nevertheless, if the horse, taking contact with the bits, hesitates to yield the lower jaw, some vibration of the snaffle rein may be needed to relax the mouth. But vibrations and jerks are two different matters. The one is beneficial; the other is useless and dangerous.