I've listed these four quadrants below, and have placed them in the order that I believe they are best learned -- meaning that you're going to have a really hard time finding quiet hands if your butt is bouncing all over the place... and as such, you will be most successful to focus on these areas individually (as much as one is able) in this order, at least to start.
1) Seat (pelvis) and Thigh
3) Lower Leg and Feet
4) Shoulders, Elbows and Hands
We covered the first two - Seat and Spine last week, now we'll move on to your elements of communication: Lower Legs and Arms.
Lower Leg/ Feet: It may be a surprise to some, but the main (and sometimes only) function of this part of your body is for communication. We must use the stirrups (and our alignment over them) for balance only when riding in half seat or two-point, when our seat is not making contact with the saddle; the rest of the time, our seat and thigh are dedicated to balance us, SUCH THAT our lower legs can move and communicate with the horse. Your lower leg should be "anchored" -- the ball of your foot weighted, but not pushed or forced onto the stirrup, and the heel should be allowed to 'sink' lower than the toe (depending on the length of your stirrup/ the type of riding you're doing). you should feel that your calves rest gently on the horses' sides, in a neutral state. If you aren't able to lower your heels without pulling your legs off the horse, then your stirrups are likely too long, and your leg will be nearly ineffective for communication AND support together.
How to develop awareness: In the same exercise we used in developing the seat, close your knees on the horse - what happens to your ability to adjust your leg position to, say, yield the hindquarter? Similarly, pick up a trot or lope and practice a half-seat/standing in your stirrups (some of you may need to shorten your stirrups a hole or two for this exercise). From this position, If you're properly aligned, you should be able to steer with 'some' accuracy, AND ride without holding on -- notice certain qualities in how your lower leg must operate for that to happen: your knee must be mobile, opening and closing to absorb the horses' movement, AND your lower leg must be anchored and aligned under your hip, resting close to the horse without gripping. If you adjust any of these details, standing and riding at the same time are nearly impossible.
Shoulders, Arms and Hands: And finally, we've arrived at the last piece to this "feel" puzzle. There are many things to pay attention to here; first off, notice I didn't just title this "hands?" Well, contrary to what we interpret from most trainers, soft hands are not what the horse needs -- soft ARMS are. The horse can feel every little bit of tension and vibration from your shoulder blades down to the tips of your fingers; you could have the softest hands in the world, but if your shoulders are tight and restrictive, your horse will tell you -- try it: ask your horse to be on the bit (in as much as you might be working on that - a short-ish connected rein is sufficient), and feel your shoulders and upper arms tense. what does your horse do? Does he stop? Toss his head? Chances are, he just did something different to say, "hey, what gives?"
How to develop awareness: For this exercise, work a simple circle, figure 8 or serpentine - anything where you are using your rein aids to change shape/direction with the horse in fluid motion. This is where I wax poetically about "show hands" versus "training hands" - my students know this one well, and it's probably best saved for another article. Suffice to say, your elbows and shoulders NEED TO MOVE! if only subtly, they must have mobility for you to cue your horse effectively. So - utilizing this information, work your pattern WITHOUT changing the length of your reins. Notice the feel of your arms moving, the opening of one elbow, and the closing of another as you arc into the turn; notice what you feel at the end of your reins - is your horse in contact with you? Is his mouth quiet, and steady with a soft jaw? Does it feel as though your arms move in the exact timing of your horses' head and neck? Then you're well on your way, my friend!
I hope these posts are helping you understand what the heck you're doing up there. I'd love to answer questions if you have any -- comment here, or send me an email. I can't wait to hear from you!