The Dressage Fist: No Jazz Hands Allowed!

Close your hand! Thumbs up! CLOSE YOUR HANDS! The words are still ringing through my ears. The truth is… I hear this A LOT. And when I can remember to do it I can’t believe what a difference it makes! One time I even forgot so much that I ended up with a wine cork in each palm… you know wine has many purposes. And it turns out one is to help me keep my fist close when I ride. So as a continuation to the Arms and Hands post today’s confession is how I’m learning to fix to my hands.

I feel like no one ever talks about these kinds of position details but maybe I’m the only one with this problem? So much time is spent reminding us to keep our heels down, proper leg position, improving your seat –which is all important but there is more to the story.

My recent lesson learned is that your hand should become a part of your rein. This means that all fingers are tightly closed on your rein in a way that it cannot be pulled out by your horse (I am so guilty of letting my reins get gradually longer). To Rheirattack a loose hand means very little to him, in fact I think it almost confuses him. In fact at the recent Robert Dover Horsemanship Program in Wellington Robert went as far to say that “Elasticity comes from the elbow. An open finger is not kind, it allows the contact to be inconsistent and unfair.” Professionally trained to the Grand Prix Rheirattack is used to a constant contact and slight variations mean something to him –unfortunately for his amateur rider of the day (i.e. me) they didn’t mean anything to me until now. So this poor horse is going around constantly trying to figure out what I mean.

So while my mind is going:

“Sit straight, close your fingers, oh don’t forget to sit straight, more cadence in the trot, oh shit close your fingers again!”

His is going:

“She’s light and straight I can go forward but on the forehand, oh she closed her fingers… I should balance on my hind end, ahhh she wants more trot but I can lean on the forehand, oh no back on the hind end…”

It’s really striking how positively he reacts to a closed hand. It’s like your hands control the forehand of the horse. I can push him forward but a loose hand provides an open door and no support as to where to position his forehand. With a closed fist he understands what to do and can balance himself. Have you ever tried to balance yourself with someone pushing you from behind and nothing to stop you in front? Yeah it’s not easy to do is it?

In Susanne’s words “A closed hand does not mean a tense or pulling hand. It is to help the horse balance, when pushed forward from the seat and legs. The giving and softening comes through the elbows which should be carried by the core of the body and can be moved forward and back as needed.”

My beautiful hand model, Yanina Woywitka, demonstrates a perfect dressage fist - fingers closed and thumb on the rein. (Photo Credit: Susanne Dutt-Roth)
My beautiful hand model, Yanina Woywitka, demonstrates a perfect dressage fist – fingers closed and thumb on the rein. (Photo Credit: Susanne Dutt-Roth)

“Soft hands” does not mean “loose fingers” it means a hand that has a light but consistent feel with your horse’s mouth. Loosen your fingers and you’ve changed the feel of your connection with your horse’s mouth. So keep the feel consistent by always keeping your fingers closed.

After my lesson Susanne sent me this video of Robert Dover from to help me understand the concept.

PS: CLOSE your hands!

Susanne Dutt-Roth is an international dressage trainer based out of Rideauwood Farm outside of Ottawa, Canada. She has graciously offered to teach me on her Grand Prix Canadian Sport Horse stallion Rheirattack. For more information please visit

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