Pushing hands is a training routine in the Chinese martial arts as a way to teach students, among other things, the concepts of sensitivity, timing, coordination and energy. Pushing hands teaches a student to allow her body to yield to- and redirect force rather than resisting it with strength. Our natural instinct is to resist force with force. When somebody pushes against us, we often stiffen to resist the force. When we stiffen, we loose balance. When we are centered and relaxed, we can yield while remaining stable and grounded. The metaphor of bamboo in the wind is often used to describe this concept. The bamboo is strong yet flexible. It moves with the wind instead of resisting the wind, and because of these qualities, it doesn’t break.
The pushing hands training from tai chi can teach us some valuable lessons which we can apply to horse riding.
We all know horses that fall on the shoulders, ‘grab the bit’, and put weight on the reins. It feels like the horse is pulling on the riders hands. The rider’s reflex can be to hold or even pull back. This tenses up the rider and requires a lot of strength in the arms. There are even some ‘rider fitness’ training programs that recommend riders to work out their arms just to be able to ‘hold’ this pull on the reins. With a rider pulling on the reins in a response to an out-of-balance horse, the horse stiffens also, and puts even more weight on the bit. This results in an even more out of balanced horse, which requires even more strength in the riders arms, and so on.
With a rider who simply lets the reins slide through the hands when the horse pulls on the bit, taking no contact, the end result could be a horse getting more and more out of balance also. I have seen horses who are so unbalanced that they would just continue to go faster and faster. Like an object that rolls down a flight of stairs. Once it starts to fall, it will continue to do so and accelerate on its way down.
Biomechanically, we can very simple explain the tendency of some horses to put weight on the bit. It starts with a backwards push in the hind legs, which unbalances the horse and pushes the horse’s weight forward. Before a horse puts weight in the rider’s hands, he has already put his weight on his shoulders. And it is already there that the horizontal balance of the horse is lost. The solution is not to hold against with the reins, or to take no contact at all. The solution is rebalancing the horse and rider together.
Rather than having a horse and rider pull on each other on both ends of a rein or a rider dropping the rein and losing all contact, we can use the basics of pushing hands to increase both horse and rider’s sensitivity and improve the rider’s timing and coordination in giving half-halts through the reins in order to rebalance the horse and move his weight from the shoulders to the hind quarter. This brings the horse back into horizontal balance. And a horizontally balanced horse is light in the contact on the rein.
The basic idea is simple: just like in the tai chi version of pushing hands, it is all about the connection of your arms and hands to your center. The energy from your center flows through your arms and out of your hands through the reins towards your horse’s head. This constant flow of energy is what lengthens his neck and helps him come over his back. The principle only works when your seat is correct: when your pelvis is vertical, your psoas muscles engaged and your spine aligned. In other words, without a balanced center, there is no energetic push in the arms.
When the horse has a tendency to ‘dive down’ and put weight in the hands of the rider, the rider should think of bringing her pubic bone slightly up towards her nose and at the same time send her energetic push of her arms forward and up towards her horses ears. This is a subtle thing, the elbows do not even come away from the body, it is just a slight bending in the elbows coming from the center. So instead of resisting the pull of the horse by pulling back, the rider changes the direction of energy and uses the unbalance of the horse as an opportunity to rebalance the both of them. It is a short, quick movement, and when done in the exact timing, this is the half-halt that will rebalance the horse. When the breath is used correctly, this works even better (see: Breathe into your Half-Halt).
In the pushing hands training in the martial arts, it is all about learning to find your opponents opening. That small moment where your training partner is out of balance. In that moment, you can strike and with a push or a quick pull, you make the other loose his footing. Horses know how to play this game too. In a moment that you are somewhere else in your mind, where you stiffen up or have no rein-connection, they have the opening to do something unexpected. The connection from your center through your arms and through the reins to the horses head is the best way for the horse to feel if you are ‘there’ or not. By pushing energy from your center to his head, you leave him no openings he can take advantage of. By pulling, because it unbalances and tenses you, you basically give him an opening all the time, and instead of a game of sensitivity, it becomes a war in which force is met with force. And what is reached by force will always be less elegant, less pleasant and less harmonious for both.
By pushing, you maintain an energetic connection. You feel the other and the other feels you. You can extend the horse’s upper line allowing the hind legs to come forward. Just imagine lengthening your own ‘upper line’, which is your spine. With your tail dropping down and your head flowing forward and up, your pushing hands energy will be easy to find.
Want to practice it by yourself? Use a wall or a partner. Place your feet on hip-with with one foot in front of the other. Knees slightly bend, upper body relaxed. Center en ground yourself. Make loose fists as if you are holding reins and place them agains the wall or against your partners palms. Let the energy from your center come through your arms and out your fists. Can you push into the wall or partner from your center? When you increase the energy flow, can you feel how this grounds and centers you even more? Can you maintain breathing and relaxation? Then you have find your pushing hands!
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.