Hand position in Dressage

I’ve been riding dressage for a while now and I have to say that I am confused on what hand position is biomechanically correct.

Admittedly, I’ve been out of the game for a few years, so maybe some things have changed; however, I’m seeing a number of dressage coaches advocate for low hands (by the wither) and sometimes wide.

I recently did a clinic with a dressage coach. I have done clinics with this coach in the past on my own horse and because of my horse’s particularities, the low/wide hands didn’t work great for him…he ended up taking better to a classical french method, but maybe that was a one off? I never liked how this coaches horses appeared behind the bit, BUT this coach does have a really great eye and is a judge themselves. This coach was saying that new information is coming forward that lower hands are better because it helps the hind end connect more?

This particular coach wants low hands and the rider to sit further back (on pockets, rather than seat bones). Now, I can adapt and ride this way, but it is a bit unnatural to me to use my core in this position. In this case, I’m riding a green horse and because of some things, the horse was wanting to be quick. I DO think this position helped in this case to help set her back.

But, on the general, low hands? Is this biomechanically correct? Sitting on the pockets and a bit behind the seat bones? A case by case scenario? The availability of dressage instruction is fairly limited in my area and we don’t really have any classically based instructors around, so I’m curious if the notion of hand position is changing or if this is a competition-based habit that has come forth.

The day this is all worked out and fully understood is the day each and everyone of us will be winning Olympic gold. I began riding as a child with hands low, now unfashionably low and only seen in the showing ring, then I was taught for years to have high hands, sit on ones pockets, get that correct line mouth to hand, then I moved yard to where I am told low hands and widen the reins don’t ever pull. Each method worked fine on the horses trained that way. On the other hand, what my horse is happy with is a daily negotiation between the two of us.


I work with a person who is well versed in bio mechanics for horse and rider…depending on what you are working on the hands are high medium or low. Once the horse is through and working over the back your hands are pretty much in neutral until you need to lift the shoulder , soften the jaw or the poll etc… I also have some students who take the low hands too far and they stop a following seat…some because they have short arms and some because they need more body awareness. For them I have them put their knuckles together for a trip around then separate the hands and put them down a bit, this helps them let go and ride the motion better.

anyway, I think the answers will be different based on the horse and rider but the biggest thing is that they don’t block horse or rider.


Are you riding a trained horse or a learning horse?

Low hands very definitely act more like sidereins that the learning horse cannot avoid. However, as such, they are more restrictive and not classically correct. Lower hands can result in a horse that hangs on the contact or drops the contact and goes behind the bit. Classically, the rider “presents the bit” and the horse takes up the contact. The horse’s poll should be the highest point.

In order to be correct, the rider’s elbows should be at her sides on or just above the top of the pelvic bone. The forearm should come straight out from there in a 90 degree angle, and the wrist should be straight out from there.

That being said, when riding a learning horse, the hands may sometimes need to be a lower to prevent the horse from avoiding the action of the rein aids until the horse masters the movement that you are trying to teach.


The answer in dressage is almost always “it depends.” It depends on the conformation and characteristics of your horse. It depends on the level training of your horse. It depends what you are trying to correct or achieve. Sometimes it depends on the day. In some cases a low hand might be exactly what you need; at other times it might make an issue worse. Best advice is to ask the clinician / instructor why they want to see that change and how will it influence the horse for the better.


Regarding the height of hands, I’ve always felt that there should be a straight line from the elbow to the bit. As long as the hands have lightly, not tightly,but closed fingers, with thumbs up, and softly curving wrists, along with following elbows’ the height will sort itself out.

Regarding sitting on one’s pockets, I can’t see how one can with out being in chair seat which is detrimental to giving appropriate leg, and body aids.


Yes, this. There should be a straight line and the “give” to the bit should be coming from the elbow, not the hand. I am trying to come up with an example of someone riding with low hands and still having a giving elbow and not riding with a backward hand. I am not seeing it. The only time I go low hands is when I’m encouraging the horse to stretch FDO, or specifically choosing to ride a little deeper in the warmup. Then it makes sense for the hands to lower to keep the line from the elbow to the bit. However, the goal each ride is to then come back up and shorten the reins.

My thought is if you want your horse to be moving uphill and forward to the contact, riding them with a low, backward-taking contact is not going to get you there. The lower hand acts more on the bars, and the horse is not likely to respond to that with the lively, very forward-thinking contact that you want (like a fish tugging on a line).


YUCK. As described this sounds terrible. Watch a bunch of videos of I
Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel and Ingrid Klimke riding. This is not what you will see.

People often start young horses with a low wide hand, and in a lighter seat. This is of short duration and for specific reasons in the beginning. There should still be a straight line through the reminder from bit to elbow.

What you were describing sounds counterproductive at the very least, a fast track to creating problems in the basics. It will put you behind the motion and it will put the horse behind the bit.


Yeah, I thought of another thing. I kind of think of the reins acting as a “funnel” for the energy coming from the hind legs into the contact. If a horse is crooked and wiggly, it can help to take the hands a little wider to make a wider funnel to capture the energy. Then once the hindquarters are tracking straight, the hands can go back to being more narrow. So I’ll ride a little wider (like hands maybe 6" apart) on a less educated horse, and narrow the funnel as they progress. Wide hands also seems to be coupled with puppy paws most of the time, and rotating the hand causes a whole chain reaction of counter-productive biomechanics all the way up through the shoulder and upper back.


The traditional position is bent elbows, elbows at your sides, straight line bit to elbow, which puts your hands in neutral around your belly button. I have seen no information to suggest that this is not the best position biomechanically and for training correctly in dressage. Likewise s balanced seat on your sitting bones.

Yes I see people back on their pockets with their hands at the withers and Pinocchio arms but their horses also tend to be rolled under and on the forehand. I would say that this is what low level backyard trainers have evolved from watching competition at a level higher than they actually regularly train and compete in.

So honestly I would not lesson with this person.


For me this brings to mind Willi Schultheis / Kyra Kyrklund / Rudolf Zeilinger. I think the pockets instruction perhaps would be better expressed as to use your back more to engage the horse.

Picture is of Rosemarie Springer training with Willi:

Whilst the picture shows the hands / elbows in the ideal classical position, it has to be emphasised that even in this position the elbows are not fixed, they should breathe with the horse, taking or giving as required but never pulling.

I think that the real key is to ride the horse into a forward reaching hand, and if this means taking your elbows forward then do so.

Low hands is dependent on the horse, too low and the bit acts on the bars of the mouth instead of the corners, too high may (?) cause the horse to curl. It would be safer to say that the hands of the rider should be carried appropriate to the training of the horse.


I was always taught that your hands should be wherever they need to be to keep the bit in the corners of the mouth with soft contact and elbows by the side so upper arms could hang down relaxed.

I do get told to sit on my back pockets but I have a tendency to perch when I get tired. Those words work for me, but the trainer doesn’t “mean” actually sit on my back pockets, it just connects in my mind.


Yes! Often when trying to retrain a h/j rider the coach will say lean way back. Rider feels like they are cantilevered out behind the saddle. In the mirror they are just nicely upright. Context is important and the cues given developing riders are often pragmatic not statements of basic theory and pricinciple.


I am riding a green horse that was just broken in over the summer. I agree lower hands may help a bit in this case, but I rode with this instructor in 2015 with my own horse, who was much further along. All riders of this instructor have the low hands and further backed position.

I will definitely ask her next time she is down for further clarification. She said in the lesson that it helps better connect the hind end and allow it to come through. Though, this has been a go-to for her riders since 2015 and beforehand. I have never seen her riders with higher hands, even in competition.

I LOVE Ingrid Klimke! Always admired her style!

This is why I like coming here to ask questions. Always lots of diverse discussion and I always come away further enlightened.

I don’t love the lower hands personally, but I’m not riding my own horse and this instructor is well known in the area. Admittedly though, she was never my first choice for my own horse, who was quite mouth sensitive and did not work well with low hands nor that type of position. She does have a great eye though and is kind of an old sage! So I don’t really know the scope of this instructor. I know she has horses who have ridden FEI, but I don’t think any Grand Prix and I typically rode with Grand prix instructors. Unfortunately, the owner of this horse accidently burnt one of those bridges and the other instructors I trained with are either taking a hiatus or are abroad at the moment.

That is what I was curious about. This instructor judges and was saying that new information was coming forward in Europe that was discounting the higher hands in favor for lower hands. I was curious if anyone here had heard of such a thing since I know there are more people around Europe on these forums.

I unfortunately don’t have much of a choice in the matter via my other reply. Not my horse and I need someone on the ground with an experienced eye. I can certainly adapt and ride the way they want me too in lessons, while riding more classically outside of lessons. It won’t be the easiest thing, but it is something I have done before.

There is one instructor I’m holding out for. She’s abroad right now and I haven’t done much with her aside from clinics. Unfortunately not on my own horse, but on a older mare that was quite stiff and therefore not the easiest to ride. I was VERY impressed though and she seems more up my style. In our area, I’ve found the majority of instructors have this low hand, more modern/ german-esque style of riding.

The “sitting on pockets” position does confuse me because I don’t have a tendency to perch. I actually rode an extremely bouncy horse for some time (even my grand prix coach struggled) and he allowed for NO position defaults. If I sat too far behind and lost my seat bones, I’d legitimately start bouncing all over the place. I had to do a lot of position reworking while riding him and did so under a coaches eye, who emphasized finding and plugging in those seat bones. I really can’t imagine doing a sitting trot with that horse sitting this far back because it would have been far too easy to get behind the motion.

Higher and lower is all relative.

A lot of competition dressage is so far away from traditional principles that it’s effectively a different discipline with different goals (flashy trot more priority than passage piaffe for instance). And what you can ride like on a 17 hand WB is not always possible on another type of horse like an Iberian or even a TB who might explode from the pressure.

I would ask the coach for reference to the research. I have not seen any and I do follow this stuff. Of course there remains a strong undercurrent of rolkur like stuff in training.

There is a lot of leeway in citing “new information” or research. It could just be one coach or it could be the slow filtration through of ideas from the Anky period. And a judge isn’t necessarily the highest pinnacle if they are just judging around Western Canada (I think that’s where you are?) where there aren’t a lot of high level riders competing.

Bottom line, if you are being told by one clinician to ride in a way that is both against your carefully acquired pre existing seat and skills, and against what you understand to be biomechanically correct, don’t lesson with them again.


Good point. The lower hands were around the pommel area in the lesson. Not sure if she wanted them lower than that, but that is as low as I’d go.

Yes, I am in Canada. Not western Canada, but our area may actually have less availability, so good point there! It is really difficult to find someone around my area that competes high level and from my eye… has their horses looking good and slightly in front of the vertical. I don’t ride that high of a level, so take things with a grain of salt, but I do closely read into the information across these forums and try to understand the science behind why things work. I see a lot of horses running behind the vertical here and it seems to be praised in competition. Seen a few horses btb with a dip at the wither and not much engagement in the hind end, but flashy movement win.

I really wish I had more choice in the matter, but again, we don’t have that many dressage coaches in the area and the owner already burnt a bridge. There is only really 3 high level dressage coaches to choose from around here and one of those isn’t an option. I don’t want to come across as a know it all and speak against this coach because really, they know FAR more than I ever will. The owner is really enthusiastic about this coach and there is another rider involved coaching the owner (WHOLE other story, but basically my time is very limited so the owner pulled this other person in over week days), who likes this coach a lot. They are not a dressage rider though and don’t understand the different methods out there. I will have a further talk with the owner about my thoughts without outright saying it’s a no-go. I’m going to continue to encourage a lesson with the other coach. I think it is a good sign this coach is training abroad, so is keeping up to date on things with other coaches who are actively competing.