How I coach to avoid bad habits in my riders

Developing correct basics in your riding is essential. Avoiding the development of bad habits early can save you time and more expended effort, trying to fix the little things.

So what are the ‘little things’ that I believe make a big difference in the long run when you first start riding?

Learn to ‘carry your hands’

You’ll often hear me saying to a beginner rider, ‘carry your hands, your horse is already carrying you!’ Of course, at that point I have explained how I want them carried. 

So what does correctly carrying your hands look like? That can be tricky, as each instructor may prefer slightly higher or slightly lower hands. As a baseline, it’s important that you create a line from elbow to wrist to the horse’s bit.

So in my opinion, carrying your hands too high can undermine this, and too low can pull the rider’s upper body forward, especially in a beginner. I like to see my riders carrying their hands no more than 10cm above the saddles D-Ring.

A great article to read that explores this further is this one on Dressage Today:

Learning early in your riding to carry the weight of your forearms and hands, rather than leaning on the saddle, can help you avoid leaning on the horse’s mouth.  Coupled with the correct rein length (which I talk about later), this will also help you make your rein aids more effective, and in turn your horse more responsive. This all contributed to another concept we learn later in the riding journey, where we seek effective communication with our horses.


Thumb on the rein!

Admittedly, I have a few bugbears, however this is way up there on the list.  As a coach I spend a lot of time correcting rider position faults, and more importantly, hand problems.  So as I develop a rider from beginner level through to advanced, I always focus on ensuring they start with the correct hand position. Then, as any good dressage rider/coach would, I spend a lot of time reinforcing the correct placement of their hands to avoid any bad habits forming.

What do I mean when I say ‘thumb on top?’ Put simply, this is more about your forearm placement

than your hands. Your fingers should be lightly closed around the reins, with your thumbs on top of the rein (pictured left) and little finger underneath.

Each thumb should point slightly at the horses opposite ear. To start with I try to get my riders to simply carry their hands and point each thumb at the horse’s ears (e.g. left thumb to left ear), then I prompt with thumbs to opposite ears.

So far I have talked a bit about hands and arms – before you protest, yes of course RIDING is most definitely not all about hands and reins!  However, ‘good hands are constantly aware of the power they put into the horse’s mouth, and work hard to avoid being abrupt.’  And if we can balance them, and first place them correctly, then we start to develop good hands!


Crop across thigh!

Any artificial riding aid should be used by a beginner with caution, as it’s all too easy for a beginner rider to use the crop too quickly before using a proper leg aid.  Crops are usually purchased with a wrist strap, which should also NEVER be used, as it can create a hazard if in an accident, if the crop can not be dropped easily.

Why should the crop always be carried across the thigh? When we carry our crop down our horse’s shoulder (try it at home), we start to twist our wrist and have now broken the very important line from wrist, rein, to elbow – but more importantly we are holding our hands incorrectly.

Later, as we develop in our riding and if we decide to pick up a dressage whip, we will already have the correct positioning to be able to effectively use the whip.


Changing our crop/whip carrying hands – when we change direction!

Everyone has a weaker and stronger side this includes us and our horses, however as we develop as riders we want to be able to be as balanced as we can be to help our horses, as a balanced load is an easily load to carry.

With this in mind, as my beginners start to progress I always them to carry their crop on their inside hand. This is also when they change direction – therefore as they change direction, they change their crop hands and start their balance and themselves to be ambidextrous on their horses.


Correct rein length!

This is not really a little thing, but so often I see that this is taught incorrectly.  It’s instinctive for us to want to use our hands and arms to balance us and to steer, and this often leaves the beginner rider’s reins way too long, and then the rider has no control and is left feeling unbalanced, insecure and frankly out of control.

I totally understand that as a coach, it is a really tricky thing and takes plenty of practice for you to encourage the rider to take the right rein length, ensuring the rider is not pulling on the horse’s mouth or balancing on the horse’s mouth.

Firstly, I always give beginners a neck strap and request them to hold the reins and neck strap together, as this offers the rider balance which in turn helps the rider’s confidence. Then the cycle of more balance, greater confidence continues to grow.

The correct rein length is vital when holding a neck strap, and the length must be guided by an experienced coach as the beginner rider is not ready to make this decision.

I want my beginner riders to be able to carry their hands, hold their hands correctly and use their reins to communicate effectively without losing balance or pulling arms around.

I always start the conversation around rein length, and liken it to elastic topped pants – every child or adult has worn a pair of elastic topped pants, you don’t want the pants to be too tight as this hurts, you don’t want your pants to be too loose as your pants will fall down and we always have a little giggle around this one.  You want your pants to be just right – you can slide your elbow back and feel a little bit of weight but you’re not pulling your arm to the side or too far behind your body.

These ‘little things’ might start as little, but feed into so much more as the rider develops. These are just my bugbears – certainly as a rider develops we work through so much in each stage.








Happy Riding – Danielle Ffrench