Thumbs Up or Down?

Posted by in Blog, hand position, help a horse to accept a contact, neck or poll, new site address and details, rein contact, relax your arm and wrist, tension in the horse's mouth, thumbs on top on Feb 25, 2012

Most riders have heard the expression“Thumbs on top” but on top of what exactly? There are two things guaranteed to have a negative effect on your horse. One is the where you put your thumb. The other is how you hold it.

All riders know they shouldn’t carry their hands as if they’re pushing a pram. Their thumbs should be on top of their fist. That’s the general position anyway. But the more you relax in the saddle and start to trust your horse the more habits you get.

Next time you ride concentrate on your hands. Where is your thumb exactly?Is it on top of your rein or your hand? It’s easy to wrap your thumb around your rein rather than clamp it on top. Don’t think it matters? Are your reins always too long? How many times do you shorten them in a session? Where does your whip point? It should be pointing diagonally back and down towards your horse’s hocks. Is it lying straight down his shoulder like a baton? Are your fingers closed around your reins or open?

A loose or intermittent contact isn’t a good one. Nor is it kind to your horse. Imagine having a bit in your mouth and not knowing when the next tug is coming. Take hold of both reins,clamp your thumb down on top of the reins and let him know exactly where you are. Then he’ll be able to relax.

If your elbows are bent and next to your body there should be a straight line from your elbow through your arm,down your rein to the bit. If your reins are too long you’ll draw your hands back to get a contact. Your elbows have to go somewhere so they stick out to the side. Instantly the line is broken and the tension in your arms goes straight down the reins to the bit. Your horse will tighten his mouth round the bit to avoid the pressure. The next time he pulls think twice before you blame him.

Your thumb should point towards the bit. It will have a huge effect on your horse. Take a look at yours. There’s every chance it points upward towards his eye or his ear. If it does your rein will be supported by your third finger. There will be a ‘kink’ in your wrist that tips your hand up and back breaking the direct line to the bit.

The pressure from this ‘kink’ creates a backward pressure on the bit. Your horse will tighten his mouth against it and tighten his jaw and poll. Tip your thumb forward and down so it’s pointing towards the bit. Your wrist will straighten up and relax which removes any tension from your arm. Your horse’s reaction will be instant. He’ll relax.

Breaking any habit is hard work but this is one that will have a dramatic effect on your horse. It will take as much effort as jumping twenty fences or practising trot to halt transitions but it’s worth it. Put yourself on this simple exercise to try it.

Ride a 20m circle at E/B in anypace. (It’s well worth spending time in walk while you get a feel for it.) As your body turns onto the line of the circle your arms should move with it. Your hands should stay directly in front of your body. Push your thumb down onto the rein and tip it slightly forward so it’s pointing to the bit. Nag at yourself to keep at it. Your horse’s response should be encouragement enough.

Go large for half a circuit and return to the circle. It’s a simple thing but it’s enough to send you back to old habits. If your wrist is in line with the rein it stays relaxed and so doesyour horse. Tip your thumb towards the bit and keep it there.

This is such a small thing to change but it’s one that affects everything in such a positive way. You’ll find your horse is more willing to accept the contact in upward and downward transitions. Instead of pulling him back to a contact you’ll be pushing him forward to it.

In walk ride large round the school and get your leg on! If your wrist is in line with your elbow, rein and bit you’ll find your horse going into your hand – not coming back at you or jogging. Instead of pulling back when he nods his head you’ll start to feel as if you’re pushing him forward.

If you’re struggling to keep your horse in a steady outline, if he resists your hand the second you take up the reins or you think getting him on the bit is physically impossible try it.You’ve got very little to lose and everything to gain.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.


  1. Feb 25, 2012

    Oh wow. What an excellent blog lesson. My teacher has taught me to flatten my wrist, but your explanation of pointing the thumb toward the bit describes it perfectly. Congratulations about the good news and thanks for another great post!

  2. Feb 25, 2012

    Thanks Val – I'm lucky to have a very tolerant (if somewhat bemused) horse that I ride round the menage working these things out! It's great to hear that it works for you and not just me. It has had some amazing results too. Hope it does the same for you.

  3. Feb 25, 2012

    "Go large for half a circuit and return to the circle. It’s a simple thing but it’s enough to send you back to old habits."

    That made me laugh – it's so true! Sticking with the changes and adjustments of position is very challenging, for me anyway.

    Pointing the thumb towards the bit is an excellent way to explain and fine tune the straight line from elbow to bit rule. Different from how I have been instructed previously. This is what I appreciate about your blog.

    Great news about the new site and offerings! Any chance of down-loadable audio bites? Then you could join me in the arena, but I could just hit play over and over, while you save your voice. 😀

  4. Feb 26, 2012

    You're not the first to mention that! I'm asking everyone to put their requests on a forum I've done called Any suggestions. The more the merrier but it looks like the podcast idea (which started as a joke!) may be a route worth taking 🙂

    Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment – it works both ways. It's such a boost to the confidence to know people are getting ideas from the posts I write. As I said to Val my long suffering horse will appreciate that his time hasn't been wasted too!

    You think going large for half a circuit is tough? Go wild and throw in a three loop serpentine!


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