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I ride every fortnight and I can't ever seem to be able to keep my hands still when I am trotting and cantering. Please help. I ride English and I am 14 years old. Please help!

H. J.


Although I own -- and ride -- an English saddle and an Australian Stock saddle, I do most of my riding on a Western saddle. Therefore, you'll have to take my comments as coming from someone who is a little out of his element. Having said that, my guess is that the problem is not in your hands, but your legs. The stirrups on an English saddle move around a lot more than those on a Western saddle, so they require a lot more muscle strength in the legs and an even better sense of balance.

For starters, let's eliminate the horse and saddle from the equation. Stand on one leg on a flat, solid floor -- with your eyes closed -- and count to 30. If you made it all the way to 30, you probably moved your arms around a lot, right? If you did that several times a day for a month, you'd accomplish the task more often and with less arm movement.

Now, apply that to your riding. If I haven't been riding for several days, I find that it may take an hour or two in the saddle before I feel like I'm starting to really ride well again. One outing every two weeks won't give you enough exercise and practice to keep your leg strength and sense of balance as strong as they need to be. Assuming that you don't have the option of riding more often, you'll need to find a substitute activity. You can start with the exercises in Cowboy Bob's Cowboy Calisthenics -- especially the Standing Leg Lifts. You may also want to add some deep knee bends -- but only after checking with your doctor. (I don't include them in the regular exercise program because with some people's knees they may do more harm than good.)

Next, let's work on the balance factor. If you have a sturdy saddle rack (one that will easily support your weight) that is high enough to keep the stirrup irons off the floor, sit on the saddle with the balls of your feet on the stirrup irons. (Lacking a saddle rack, you might try attaching stirrup irons to a leather strap that you drape over a narrow bench or a horizontal post.) Now stand on the stirrups with your knees slightly bent and try to balance yourself without using your hands for support. Hard, isn't it? If you do that as often as possible, I think you'll find that you don't move your hands around as much -- and that your riding greatly improves.

Even with a Western saddle, I'll often have my students balance like that while I longe the horse in a circle. It's a difficult, but very helpful, exercise.

Give these suggestions a try, and let me know if you find them helpful.

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