On his blog, William Miklem talks about the importance of what he calls the “fifth leg” for an event horse, who needs to be able to balance in order to stay safe. It’s important for a jockey’s hand to sometimes act as a “fifth leg” in order to support a horse who is running on empty and needs to make it across the finish line. The same is true of a young horse learning to balance downhill across open country.
Ultimately and if possible (which excludes fatigued horses) we want the “fifth leg” to belong exclusively to the horse, although we may use our hands initially as a “fifth leg” crutch to assist the horse in finding its own balance.
All too often, unfortunately, we see the use of the hand as a permanent “fifth leg.” The only job of that “fifth leg” is to support the rider or hold the horse in compression as a substitute for self carriage. Just as a tight flash noseband acts as a poor stand-in for a quiet mouth, “contact” (that popular synonym for pulling on the horse’s mouth) acts as a stand-in for a true, feeling and sensitive connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth.
Riders who always provide their hands as a fifth leg for the horse end up at some point like poor Laurel and Hardy — the “third leg” — in today’s picture. Carrying all the weight of the horse, when the horse should instead be carrying them. If only their horses were as content as the grey on the piano.