Teaching good hands and arms to our students is a challenging task as “feel” can be a difficult concept for many to understand and attain but is essential for a good rider to develop.
As instructors, we constantly strive for responsive hands and soft following arms that can communicate well with the horse. This isn’t always easy. We all have students well past the beginner level with tight hands and locked elbows that don’t properly give and take. Without this proper give and take that tells the horse when to go forward, a locked arm or stiff hand always says “stop” when the legs may be saying “go forward”. This creates what we call a “hard mouth” that is insensitive to what the rider is trying to tell their horse. It can be confusing and frustrating to the horse resulting in bad behavior and vices. The first step in correcting this problem is always to have the riders position correct so they aren’t trying to balance off their hands. When the position is correct and balanced, the rider can start to relax and feel what their body is doing. I have always taught my beginners to keep their hands down on the neck for support until they are steady enough to lift them off the withers and work toward the strait line between their elbow and the horse’s mouth. If they start with their hands up off the neck before they have any balance they tend to grab their horse’s mouth for support, thereby punishing their very kind mounts without realizing it. They will also fall backward easily and land heavily on their horse’s backs. I remind my young riders that their hands hold a rein that connects to a piece of metal (usually) in their horse’s mouths. (Sometimes I even put the bit in their mouths) This begins to teach them empathy and the awareness of the impact of their movements on their horses.
Riders that develop with “bad hands” create horses with hard mouths and stiff hollow top lines. You will see these horses wearing harsher and harsher bits as time goes on and they never really develop a good top line. The arm must softly follow back and forth starting with the upper arm falling relaxed just in front of the rider’s hip. When a rider locks his elbow, sometimes just raising the hand an imperceptive amount will unlock it. So often when a rider relaxes the arm you will see an immediate relaxation in the horse’s top line. Without that soft hand and arm to move into, horses cannot be relaxed and happily collect, i.e. drive under their bodies with their hind legs and carry themselves, raise their backs, soften their necks and jaws and “get round”. The following article by Wendy Murdoch is full of wonderful visuals and descriptions of the upper arm and elbow that are helpful for riders trying to understand and feel this.
Improve your riding in a Murdoch Minute By Wendy Murdoch
Do you tense your shoulders drawing them upward? Do you force your hands down onto the horse’s withers to keep your hands “low” and “quiet”? Does your horse go above the bit? Do you try to pull his head down? Riding with heavy elbows and floating hands will allow your horse to lower his head without force and enable you to keep your weight back and shoulders relaxed while following the horse’s mouth.
Next time you ride notice what you do with your hands. Do you push your hands down onto the withers? Does this cause you to lean forward? Perhaps you widen your hands and attempt to pull your horse’s head down when he goes above the bit. Maybe you straighten your elbows and raise your shoulders upward. Does your horse constantly jerk the reins out of your hands and pull you out of the saddle? These can be signs that he doesn’t like you pulling on him!
Attempting to pull your horse’s head down is generally ineffective because, not only is your horse stronger than you, but pulling down also puts your weight on the horse’s forehand which makes it even more difficult for him to lower his head. Often riders tense the shoulders in addition to pushing the hands down. This shoulder tension raises your center of gravity, which makes you unstable and your contact harsh and puts your weight forward onto the horse’s forehand no matter how hard you try to lean back. This rider position can cause your horse to raise his head even more!
To solve this problem we need to return to the time honored adage, “maintain a straight line from elbow to bit”. This means that your hands and forearms follow the line to the horse’s mouth regardless of where your horse puts his head. Following that line keeps the bit in the same place without the undue pressure created when pulling or pushing downward. In order to maintain this line you need to let your hands float upward when your horse raises his head. Floating your hands also has the benefit of keeping you from pitching forward onto your horse’s forehand. As your horse relaxes, his head will lower, at which point you lower your hands to maintain the straight line from elbow to bit. Following the line this way neutralizes any unpleasant effects of the bit, keeps you safe and allows you to drop your shoulders.
To change your position, use a pair of ankle weights. Strap them around your upper arm just above your elbow (add a Velcro strap if they are too short to go around). Ride with the weights to remind yourself to let your shoulders rest on your ribcage and your upper arm hang straight down with heavy elbows. Float your hands upward like corks on water so that they can follow your horse’s mouth, wherever it is. Your floating hands will be able to go up and down with your horse’s head easily if your elbows stay heavy. If one hand drops more than the other, place a short stick under your thumbs. This will prevent your hands from going below the level of your horse’s withers.
Use this Murdoch Minute to enable your hands to follow your horse’s mouth by keeping your elbows heavy. Heavy elbows and following hands let you stay back in the saddle so that you don’t put him more on the forehand. Give him the time to find his balance and he will no longer need to raise his head to keep from falling. And always remember to enjoy the ride!
#108 Heavy Elbows/Floating Hands Copyright© 2014. All rights reserved.
This article gives wonderful illustrations for the whole arm to remain relaxed and following. The forearm needs to follow and the wrist remain unlocked. Sometimes just putting a slight bend in the wrist so that the back of the wrist is flat is enough to unlock it. The hand should hold the rein firmly but not clutching, the horse can feel the tension in the hand through the rein. I have always used the Sally Swift analogy from her book Centered Riding, of holding the rein like a baby bird, just tight enough so that it doesn’t get away but not so tight that you throttle him! Once the hands remain quiet and can softly hold contact on the rein, communication can be as subtle as opening and closing the fingers. When the hand is connected and responsive a rider can then help their horse start to balance and “get round”. As riders we strive to be invisible in these communications with our horse.
As riders become more aware of what their bodies are doing, they start to realize the unintentional cues they have been giving their mounts and can more effectively communicate what they mean, the hand and arm is integral to this process of becoming a quiet, effective rider. As always, it is a journey not a destination.