I used this exercise a couple of times last week with various clients. It’s a bit of a brain teaser, but helps to improve the arm position.
We all know that there should be a straight line from the horse’s bit, through the wrist, to the elbow, which hangs below the shoulder. Easier said than done and many people ride with too straight an elbow.
The first client I introduced this concept to has very tense arms, and her go-to position is to lock her arms when she’s nervous. So we’ve done a lot of work on keeping the wrists soft and not braced, working on the lunge without reins, building her confidence so that she’s not as inclined to “hold on” with her hands.
So the overall picture is getting better, but because this rider has a tendency to lock and stiffen her arms, the elbows don’t act as shock absorbers and subsequently her rein contact and hand position isn’t very consistent.
Still looking hands are the ideal, but the only way to create the illusion of having still hands is to have them so that they follow every movement of the horse. In order to do this, the elbows need to absorb any movement. After all, holding something rigidly still gives the impression of a stream flowing around a large rock.
As we all know, jumping and landing with our knees straight causes a jarring feeling through our body, and the only way to avoid jarring yourself is to land with your knees bent slightly. Knees are hinge joints, the same as elbows, so in order for the elbows to be shock absorbers they must also have a bend to them.
For riders who struggle with carrying tension in their arms, it is important to introduce some movement to the arms. But obviously it needs to be controlled movement and to go with the movement of the horse and rider.
Take rising trot, beginning with the arms in the classically correct position. As you stand up out your stirrups, push your hands down; as you sit down, raise them up. It’s a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head but once you get it it’s fairly straightforward.
Initially the movement wants to be quite exaggerated, especially as it feels quite alien to the rider. But after riding it for a few circuits you will find that when the rider thinks of another exercise or movement they will stop actively opening and closing the elbow, but because the arm is relaxed and movement has been introduced the elbow will open and close slightly, thus acting as a shock absorber and giving the illusion that the hands are perfectly still. Then because the hands and arms are moving perfectly with the horse, the contact will remain consistent.
My client with tense arms understood the concept well and it was good to see the elbows starting to work properly after moving them as she rose, but we need more practice in getting her to move her arms so that she doesn’t rapidly adopt the locked arm look.
I find this exercise is also useful for anyone who struggles to hold a consistent contact as it improves their feel and awareness of their hands and arms; and it’s also very good at relaxing riders who maybe need their brains focused on something rather than their environment.