Working In Hand

Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.

Working in hand brings up some controversy. Many German instructors disparage it because they think there is no riding without forward and the horse learns nothing standing still. German motto: forward and straight. It may be that the German motto evolved from the type of horses the Germans rode, heavier warmbloods who were already calm.

French and Iberian schools stress more the acceptance of the bit. French motto: CALM, straight and forward. The French typically rode lighter horses than the Germans; the Selle Francais is very much like the American Thoroughbred. The Spanish and the Portuguese rode smaller, hotter Andalusians, Lusitanos, and Barbs, some of them 3 hands shorter and 300 pounds lighter than the European warmbloods. These horse were more hot blooded, hence the need for "calm."

Johnson school: The young horse needs to learn to accept the bit in a quiet environment without the distraction of movement, a new rider, and many new commands. Johnson motto: educate, calm, straight and forward.

There are also several different schools of working in hand. The Spanish Riding School uses one approach, the Dutch another, and the French another. Jean Froissard, a French dressage master and author of several books including "Equitation", taught these exercises to me.


The horse has two joints in his poll, the yes joint and the no joint, the atlas and the axis. The no joint allows the horse to turn his head from side to side, as if shaking his head "no." The yes joint allows the horse to nod his head up and down, as if saying "yes." When you activate one, you activate the other. In other words, when you bend the horse's head from side to side (as we do when bending on the circle), you also stimulate the joint that allows him to flex down, on the bit. When these joints are activated, it stimulates the salivary gland and the horse starts to lick or chew the bit. He is actually swallowing the saliva. This is why a good dressage horse will always have a white line of lipstick around his lips. The more chewing and the more saliva, the looser the horse is in his joints, particularly the poll and jaw, and the better it is.

This is not to be confused with grinding the teeth or drooling or extreme foaming, which indicate tension.

Parts one and two only talk about the head and neck, and that is why the Germans object, because the horse must be ridden from back to front, and this method, at first seems to place too much emphasis on the head. If you work your horse in hand, your hands will be better educated (more clever as Klimke would say). You will have much, much better hands when riding, so it pays off in the long run. In part three, forward will be added.


Your normal snaffle bridle with the flash loose enough he can accept treats, or no flash at all. Treats. A horse can eat small nibbles like a diced carrot or sugar cubes quickly and happily. A nippy or pushy horse should not have sugar.

Part One: Getting Started

This is the rudimentary beginning. Take your horse to a quiet place, like his stall where he is comfortable and not distracted. Later, when he understands the exercises, you can do them anywhere.

The ultimate goal from the start of this lesson is that the horse stands perfectly still and on the bit, flexing his head left when asked and right when asked, and straightening in the middle without coming off the bit. He should unlock any tension in the poll and jaw.

First, he needs to understand the action of the bit. Stand on his left side, with the reins over his head. Take gently to the side on the left rein (not turning his head yet, just putting pressure on the bit.) If he licks and chews, unlocking his jaw, give him a treat. Hold the pressure until he "gives" or licks and chews. Always give the second he gives, by releasing the pressure and rewarding. You are softening his jaw and activating the joints in the poll. Take gently to the side on the right rein. Give him a treat if he gives. You will start to cut back on the treats as he gets the idea.

Once he responds to an opening rein, take gently down on the left rein. Stroke him and say "good boy" if he licks and chews, softening his jaw. Take gently down on the right. To everything to both sides, but wean him from the treats to a word and a pat, later just a kind word. In the beginning, the treats will moisten his mouth and encourage him to chew--remember the salivary gland?

When he gives to the down action of the rein, take gently up on the left rein. Go to the other side of the horse and repeat the entire sequence. Right from the beginning, it is paramount for the horse to accept the handler on the right side. This will pay off not only in better work in hand, but the horse will become more even sided under saddle.

Now he gives to the rein when it is taken sideways, down and up. Under saddle, the action of the hands are tri-dimensional, outward and inward, up and down, and forward and back. Once he gives to the reins sideways, down and up, cross the reins under his jaw and take gently until he chews.


The horse backs up. An uneducated horse has no concept of going forward to the bit if his first instinct is to back away from it. You have found the first hole in his education. If he backs up, release and lead him forward a step or two. You MUST lead him forward every time. You don't have to go all the way back to where he started, just a few steps forward. Be patient, it may happen a lot at first, but this is the best way to teach the horse to go forward to the bit and not get "behind" the leg or the bit.

The horse throws his head in the air. That would have been a lot worse if you were riding. If he throws his head up, just release so he doesn't get rattled. Try again. Ignore it. Later you will release less so you don't reward him for head throwing, but for now, ignore it. You have found another gap in his education. He is telling you he does not know how to carry a bit. Your job is to educate him in hand.

The horse pulls his head down, down, down. This is not so bad. Heave a big sigh (I mean it) and physically pick his head up to the desired position with the poll as the highest point. Try again.

Your horse will learn to give in the jaw and chew the very first lesson.

Part two of in-hand work (can be done with part 1).

No doubt, the horse was licking and chewing on the bit immediately. Here's where we get to the more useful exercises. I always review the first exercise, giving to the bit with every lesson, because it relaxes the jaw and gets the juices flowing.

The short-term goal of the in hand work is to get the horse to stand still, giving through the poll and jaw, on the bit at a standstill. Recall the yes and no joints. We will work the no joint to get him to give in the yes joint and drop his head down on the bridle. When you ride your countless circles, you do the same thing: bend, straighten, bend the other way, loosening the no joint until the horse gives in the poll through the yes joint and drops his head. When you ride, you have the added benefit of engaging the inside hind leg on the circle and building the hindquarters. Remember the conflict between the riding theories. Although you arenít asking the horse to push from behind yet, you soon will be. You can transfer what you do in hand today to your riding immediately.

In the stall: same equipment as before. He's chewing and listening and your reins are looped over his head.

1. Bend right. You are standing on the left. Taking your right rein gently over his withers, flex his head to the right. You can do this by a gentle pull down over the withers. Keep your left rein short so that your left hand rests on his cheek and pushes his head right. Stretch him around as far as he will go until he chews and gives. A horse with a nice neck might stretch willingly to his girth area. Let the left rein go with his cheek as he stretches, but donít abandon all contact with it.

If he backs up or looks fearful, give immediately, walk him forward a few steps, and try again. Use the evasion corrections from part1.

2. Straighten. Using the left rein, gently take until he brings his head through the center. Keep light contact with the right rein. Don't stay there long the first time or two. 99% of all horses will "dive down" at this point. Using the evasion exercises from lesson 1, pick his head up. 3. Bend left. Using the left rein, gently take until he brings his head left, toward you. Give him a cookie (they like this part). Then take him back to the middle.

4. Go to the right side of the horse and repeat the exercise. This is important for two reasons: A. it helps the horse become even sided and give evenly to the bit. B. It prepares him for further work in hand where you will actually be walking on his right. When he goes through the middle, if he will stand perfectly still, with the poll as the highest part and flexed so his nose is just in front of the vertical, praise him extravagantly. He will look like a different horse, indeed, a second level horse and that is good. He will look very proud, and you must help him feel pride in this new frame. Over the days, encourage him to stand there longer and longer as he sucks down his sugar cubes. Use these exercises before every ride.

End on a good note, with the exercise he likes best. As you are standing on his left side preparing to mount, reach over the right side of his neck. Take all the twists out of his right rein, then all the twists out of your left rein. Then hold both reins evenly in your left hand. Ask the horse to straighten through the middle and give in the poll. He should be standing on the bridle, softly mouthing the bit AS you mount. Itís a posture of submission and will help the horse stand still during mounting. Furthermore, the horse is on the bit the first step of your ride. However, you will soon want to ask him to stretch down because his neck muscles might be a bit sore. Continue your normal warm-up, but keep a steadier contact with the reins, and feel for the licking and chewing that are a sign the horse is giving in the poll, jaw and neck. Then, ride the hindquarters.

Part 3: Going Forward

If the horse is accepting these exercises easily and is no longer backing up, diving down, or throwing his head, he is showing you his acceptance of the bit. It is time to add the whip. A long dressage whip is good, but a stiffer slightly longer "in hand" whip is better. A flexible whip is too "fast" and whippy. It speeds things up too much at first. A stiffer whip without a lash slows the action down, which is what we want in the beginning. The whip will act like your legs in the "in hand" work, just as it does in longeing.

Before you add the whip to your in hand work, take the time to desensitize your horse to it. After grooming, run the whip over every part of his body. If he lifts a leg, stroke it until he will keep the foot down when you stroke his leg with the whip. Although you will soon be asking him to pick up his leg from the whip, it must be a voluntary response and not a lashing out. So, first the horse must accept the whip all over his body, and he must keep his feet down when you stroke his cannon bones, front and back, with the whip. If the horse kicks out at the whip, you should tell him "NO" sharply and yank the halter. Until he has accepted the whip totally and does not react to it, even over his head and on his ears, donít add it to your in hand work. It can be dangerous if the horse kicks at the whip when you have him in hand.

Now you teach the horse to walk and halt on the bridle while in hand. The goal is that he will walk forward, staying relaxed in the poll and jaw, and stop from a squeeze of your fingers, still on the bridle. But, first the horse must learn to "walk on" while you are walking backward between his head and shoulders. It seems simple, but many willing horses see you facing backward, and immediately want to back up. So, leave your reins over his neck, but loose the first time. Give a verbal command to "walk," start walking backward, and if the horse still doesnít move, tap him on the hip with your whip. Then, go to the other side, and make sure he will walk forward while you are on the right.

If the horse simply doesnít understand how he can walk forward when you are facing backwards, start at the beginning. Keep your reins loose. While you stand facing forward, ask him to "walk" from your voice command. Do it from both sides, once or twice. Then face backwards again.

Once he is moving freely forward on command, then it is time to take contact. Do your jaw and poll softening exercises until he is standing squarely at halt. This time hold you reins in your left hand, as shown in the photo. The left rein goes under your little finger. The right rein goes between the middle and ring finger. A simple flex of the wrist will distribute pressure evenly to halt. A squeeze with the little finger will turn one way, with the first two fingers will turn the other way.

Keep him on contact, and ask him to walk. If he stays round and through and walks right off, go on a little, then stop and praise him. Be sure that he halts on the bit as well. Then give him a loose rein and some pats. I start by the arena walls so they can help keep him straight.

Be sure to walk both directions along the wall, then try it with you walking on the right. If he gets confused when you change sides, go back to an easier exercise.


In the next few lessons, you should walk with him in hand all over the arena. First, be sure you can walk through corners with a slight flexion to the inside. Then try a change of rein across the diagonal. Then try large circles and half circles to reverse. Introduce the school figures in the same order as you would ride them under saddle. Bigger figures are always easier than smaller ones. Be sure to change sides so your horse becomes comfortable with either against the wall or on the inside track. Walking is enough until the horse can change rein quietly.

On the Longe Line: Adding engagement

Once the horse is comfortable in all of the school figures and can halt and walk beside you on the bit without hesitation, once he is comfortable with the whip and will not kick at it, then itís time to add engagement.

It is best to introduce this exercise on the longe line, before trying it in hand. The horse should be working nicely at all three gaits in sidereins, on the longe line before you do this. If he is not, it is not time to add engagement anyway.

At the walk, ask the horse to spiral in from the 20-meter circle to the 10-meter circle. When he is within touching range, be sure he is bent to the inside. The 10meter circle is the same bend and flexion as the shoulder in. In fact, this is a great place to introduce shoulder in. The horse should bend around a little more than he was on the 20-meter circle, simply with a few vibrations of the longe line, in rhythm with his walk.

Only do one or two 10-meter circles in the beginning. There is too much stress on the joints of the green horse to keep him there long, so as soon as he gives you what he wants, ask him to spiral out immediately.

I like using the in hand whip at this point, but a longe whip will do. As the horse steps around on the 10-meter circle, watch his inside hind leg. As it steps forward, touch him just below the hock on the back of the cannon bone with your whip. Ask him to step up and under more with his inside hind leg. Cluck at the same time. If the horse reaches more toward the middle of his front legs with his inside hind, if he goes on two tracks, reward him by immediately letting him spiral out. Keep the bend and flexion to the inside.

Turn the horse around and do the same thing in the other direction. If he ignores your cluck and the touch of the whip, you can tap him harder with the whip. I never lash the horse with the whip, because it will him kick. Sometimes, on a dull horse, I will use the handle end of the whip to touch. Remember one circle only. If he gets it immediately, spiral out. Soon he will learn to engage with the sound of your cluck.

Once he has mastered the exercise at walk, try it in slow trot. An athletic horse may grasp it the first time. A stiffer horse may take a few weeks. If the horse comes behind the vertical, lift his head with tiny lifts of the longe line, and engage his hind leg at the same time, then spiral out and send him well forward, even into canter. You should begin to see a few steps of collected work and a difference in your horseís way of going almost immediately.

When the horse can engage on the 10-meter circle on the longe line at walk and collected trot, itís time to try it in hand.

In Hand: Beginning Shoulder In

Now your horse understands the concept of shoulder in on the 10-meter circle. He can walk and turn and circle anywhere in the arena with you beside him. Take him in hand again, using just your bridle again and youíre in hand whip. Facing backward, walk him straight along the arena wall. Flex him to the inside, as if you are going to turn. As he steps forward with his inside leg, touch him below the hock on the back of the cannon bone and cluck each step. If he brings the hind leg toward the middle of the inside front legs and continues straight along the wall, reward him greatly. No matter what, be happy with just a few correct steps, then give him a break.

Some horses will turn off the track. If he does, continue in the 10-meter circle without touching or clucking. As he returns to the wall, ask his shoulders to come one or two steps in, as if you are going to do another circle. Use your little finger to half halt firmly so that his outside shoulder does not turn. You can use the handle of the whip where your leg would be to push him into shoulder in. Push and release, and cluck in the rhythm of the inside hind leg. A few steps is enough, then praise. Once he understands what you want, go back to touching the inside hind with the whip. Soon, you wonít need the whip, and your position and your cluck will be enough to get some steps of shoulder in down the long side.

A young horse who is worked in hand will have no problem when learning piaffe in hand down the road. An older horse with bitting problems (head-throwing, boring down, inverting) will benefit greatly from being worked in hand. In most cases, the horse never learned how to accept a snaffle. For even the most advanced pair, the handler has the chance to see his horse in action and the horse has a chance to bond with his rider on HIS level rather than being the underling, the submissive partner. Working in hand rewards both horse and rider with visible results of their work.