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How do you (mentally, physically, existentially?) ride with soft elbows?

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  • How do you (mentally, physically, existentially?) ride with soft elbows?

    OK, so I've been riding for pretty close to 35 years. Not great, reasonably competent, more "stickable" than stylish. Progress is slow--I'm not a fastidious note-taker or anything because it is a downer for me to make riding too "serious". And I'm OK with the fallout--I'm never going to win any awards for riding style.

    But there is one flaw that apparently DOES have more significant fallout--my horse hates my stiff elbows! I struggled for YEARS with a sloppy grip on the reins--reins would slide through my fingers ALL the time. I've pretty much gotten THAT fixed, but I still have, apparently, non-flexible elbows that make for a grumpy horse.

    When my trainer rides, she just floats on top and is soft and connected at the same time. Try as I might, I cannot seem to "get it" in my head what a consistent, elastic contact through the arms/bit should feel like.

    I know it sounds pitifully basic, and I don't mean to say I have hard or bouncy hands because I don't. But that subtle degree of "shock absorption" that I'm told only comes through the elbows is really hard for me to implement. I *get it* mentally, why it's needed, but can't seem to make the offending joints do as they're told!

    Any tips on how to make this mind-body connection?
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  • #2
    A nice moisturizer applied before bed and in the morning after a shower/bath. My elbows are baby skin soft.


    • #3
      Now for the more serious answer. It is not necessarily a "soft" elbow, but a soft wrist and fingers to start. The elbow and arm will follow. I focus on an even feel of my horse's mouth and letting my shoulder drop. That let's the elbow relax.


      • #4
        One technique is to take a big breath sit up tall with it, open your chest, then exhale out and soften all the way down your body. You can feel your arms and your elbows drop and relax.

        Or try a carry your hands feel. Like holding out and carrying two small coffee cups, you can't lock your elbows. Sometimes you exaggerate a feel until you find it. A bit of a higher reaching out with your elbows following. Use enough leg that the horse is active 'into' that forwardly held hand. It is contrary to the down at your sides elbows, but you need to search for a feel and create a memory.

        Also (I'm thinking here...) ride circles and serpentines, connect your rein into your shoulder without using your elbows and use your seat with turning your head, using your body to turn vs your arms. Ride that feel.

        Here's to more riding fun Haha RAyers
        Don't let anyone tell you that your ideas or dreams are foolish. There is a millionaire walking around who invented the pool noodle.


        • #5
          There was a visual for me that HAMMERED the idea home for me...I wonder if it's on youtube...meh, can't find it.

          Anyway, it's from the older O'Connor video set, and there is a moment when KOC is trotting around and talking about her arms and elbows and THAT moment just clicked for me. It was a visual for me that really made sense.

          The PHYSICAL step from that is really concentrating on MOVING my elbows. If I feel stiff or like I'm strong arming, I make a point to open and close my elbows in rhythm with the gait. It feels forced at first, but when you get the rhythm and feel, your hands will soften and follow and your horse SHOULD soften back. And then you'll have a very pleasant cycle of soft.

          Another tidbit that I picked up this winter (and having a sensitive, fussy horse, I probably understand what you're dealing with). While riding with Nicola Wilson, she told me to separate my arms from shoulders my elbows from my hands. When I half halt from my shoulders but try and keep the arms out of it, my sensitive little horse responds nicely. If I need more, I close my elbows more, but still try and keep my hands "out of it." This is easier done than described!

          One key thing that I've always been told is that to have still hands you can't try and keep your arms and hands still....your arms have to move with the horse...then your horse hands will stay with the horse, which will then be "still."

          That's all way more cerebral than I usually get. It makes sense to me, though.


          • #6
            I had an issue with not giving with my hands when needed and my trainer told me to "breathe through your hands"... It really helped me soften, maybe you could try to "breathe through your elbows"?
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            • #7
              For me what helped loosen my arms and give me a soft, following hand was my trainer reminding me of how much the horses head will naturally move. I was too focused on keeping my hands "still" that I was restricting my horses natural head/neck movement and that made him VERY unhappy! What really helped me to loosen up was to focus on ALLOWING his head to move. I admit it took me a while to become consistent (and there are still times I need a reminder!) but it has made a huge difference in my riding! I spent a lot of time at the walk, not asking him to go into a frame or bend, but just keeping a light, consistent, soft contact with his mouth. I was amazed at how much my elbows actually had to move!

              Another idea might be to ride with one or two of those rubber bracelets on your wrists. The Livestrong type ones. I think they have them for almost every charity/anything lately! My friend does this and the light weight/slight movement is enough to remind her to keep her elbows loose and following.


              • #8
                You have my great sympathy. I have/ had TERRIBLE elbows/ hands. Baxter HATES it. Fortunately, my new trainer is classically trained and having an elastic contact is a HUGE priority for her.

                What is working (slowly, over time) for me is:

                1. First, we made it impossible for me to hold or put my hands in my lap by wrapping the bight around the front of Baxter's neck (not a crossed loop, but putting the reins back over his head and then picking up each side). Then, if I got "stupid hands," I ended up pulling on his neck, not his mouth. Better for me, better for him. We also played with a driving hold, which got me off my biceps and let me "feel" the soft contact better.

                2. my trainer drills me on it, all the time. I tend to lock up when I start to concentrate on another body part. She brings my attention back to the elbows by frequent reminders. It's getting better. Posting trot is the worst, so she reminds me that my elbows have to open like my knees.

                3. thinking about "holding" in my rotator cuff/ armpits, not my shoulder blades. I imagine "squeezing a grape without squashing it" in my armpits. This drops my arms to my sides and lets them swing.

                4. massaging the reins with my fingers. Harder to lock my arms when I'm keeping my fingers loose (works for toes/ ankles too).

                We also added some rein-aid type elastic inserts, which at least protects Poneh's mouth when I eff up royally, and also really does give the "feel," to try to replicate it when they're off.

                Good luck. It's been a long road for me and I still have miles to go.


                • #9
                  Try this: instead of holding the reins conventionally, change to "driving reins," i.e. top of hand down, reins held with thumbs on top. You can't lock your elbows holding the reins in this fashion.


                  • Original Poster

                    Great suggestions, thank you! I've toyed with trying those rein-aid things but I hate gadgets and they aren't going to fix ME, but they may make the horse happier!

                    Interesting idea, baxter, with the reins in front of the neck! Maybe I'll try that.
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                    • #11
                      I have had success with rein aids with my students- it allows the horse to soften, which allows the kid to soften and... there you go.

                      I think I'm going to be flipping the reins over the front of Doc's neck next time I have a dressage school.
                      Big Idea Eventing


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by baxtersmom View Post
                        1. First, we made it impossible for me to hold or put my hands in my lap by wrapping the bight around the front of Baxter's neck (not a crossed loop, but putting the reins back over his head and then picking up each side). Then, if I got "stupid hands," I ended up pulling on his neck, not his mouth. Better for me, better for him. We also played with a driving hold, which got me off my biceps and let me "feel" the soft contact better.

                        3. thinking about "holding" in my rotator cuff/ armpits, not my shoulder blades. I imagine "squeezing a grape without squashing it" in my armpits. This drops my arms to my sides and lets them swing.

                        We also added some rein-aid type elastic inserts, which at least protects Poneh's mouth when I eff up royally, and also really does give the "feel," to try to replicate it when they're off.
                        I LOVE the idea of putting the reins around the neck and thus pulling on the neck - I am totally trying that! Also the visual of squeezing, but not squashing a grape in your armpits is really fantastic. Thanks for sharing!!!

                        I have always wondered about the Rein-Aids. I hesitate to try them, but I kind of want to. Here's my reasoning, someone correct me if my line of thought is out of whack:

                        For me, I have the most trouble following the head at the canter. So how I think the Rein-Aids would help there is instead of meeting hard resistance when his head moves forward because I can't follow for jack sh*t, he would meet the softer, elastic resistance of the Rein-Aids and not feel as restricted and then curl behind the bit. Then, because of the give in the elastic, there is an extra split second for the rider to follow the movement before the stretch of the Rein-Aids is spent, without a jerkiness or forming a loop in the rein, which is what often happens to me when I read the movement of the head wrong and try to correct. Does that make any sense?

                        What has helped me is having someone throw me on the lunge with my eyes closed. I start at the buckle and slowly gather more and more contact.

                        Good luck! I think this is a tough element for many, many people.


                        • #13
                          I have two suggestions. For my kids I have to get them talking (breathing out). For my younger kids I have them sing. (It's more memorable) This softens their entire upper body (including arms).

                          For myself, I have an awful habit of tightening in my left arm. (It twist my left wrist and tighten through my arm) To catch myself, I point my thumbs to the outside. Definitely not a permanent cure. After the initial few strides my hands return to normal, but it 'alleviates' the tightness.


                          • #14
                            I'm still working on it, too, but probably the biggest help for me has been to think about staying strong through my core, right up to my armpits and shoulders! If your waist isn't a joint and you can't hunch, your elbows kind of have to be the moving variable! Over the past year, I actually went from the "too stiff" extreme to "too flexible" and now I have to practice holding the saddle pad or grab strap with my outside hand so my outside elbow doesn't creep forward. I'm getting there...maybe...eventually. [Still no working return, so no paragraphs, sorry.] The other thing that helped me loosen up was to flap my arms like chicken wings whenever I felt them getting stiff. So ridiculous I have to also laugh, which can only help as my stiff elbows tend to correlate with forgetting to breathe.
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                            • #15

                              You know most of this, but I am going to start at the basics for the best chance that the idea hangs together in text. Riders' hands have to be still relative to the horse. In order to do so, riders' hands have to be moving relative to the riders' body. Because, in walk for instance, the horse moves his neck horizontally, but the rider sits largely still in a horizontal sense on his back. That means that, in order to stay connected seamlessly, there has to be a spring between the two bodies, which is the elbow.

                              (Think of a ship moored to a dock in high seas. This idea of a stable object and a moving object tied together represents a horse and rider. In walk and canter, the horse's neck moves forward and back and the rider stays largely still. In trot, the rider moves horizontally and vertically while posting, while the horse's neck does not have a significant movement relative to the rider in any direction. Therefore, the horse/rider system is like the ship and the dock. When one is moving, the other is still. Sometimes you're the ship, sometimes you're the dock. Now back to the ship. If there is a rope between the ship and the dock and the seas are high, the ship rises and falls with the waves and hits the end of the rope with a jar and things get jerked around - tough on ropes, ships and docks. If there is a sufficiently strong elastic band or spring between the ship and the dock that stretches and relaxes as the ship moves relative to the dock, things are much easier on the ship and the dock. The elastic band does most of the work and the communication between the ship and dock through the connection is fluid. Your elbow is the connection between the horse and you like the rope or the spring is the connection between the ship and the dock.)

                              The first thing I have people do is get on a lunge or bridge the reins in one hand and walk while holding on to the end of the mane at the base of the neck with the other. Try to get a long piece so that you can sit relatively normally. If you keep your hands there, they are still relative to the horse. Now walk around and see what your elbows have to do to maintain that. If you are bridging, mimic the movement of the hand holding the mane with the bridged hand. I like riders to do that for an entire ride - to just experience it and feel it. On a quiet horse in a controlled setting, it can be done at all gaits. It can be an eye opener.

                              Next, pick up the reins traditionally. In walk and canter, the horse makes a forward and backward bid with his neck in each step. In trot, the horse's head is largely still, but the rider (if posting) moves forward and back. So the elbow has work to do in all gaits. I ask riders to literally look down at their reins to notice the slack and taut that might be happening. If it is, that means that the spring is stuck - the elbow is not as elastic as it needs to be. I ask riders to ride around in walk and simply look at their reins to see what they have to do to make an elastic connection all the time. (Maybe here the would wind a pinky in the mane to remind themselves what they have to do to have their hands still relative to the horse). When they have it (and sometimes it is lightning bolt miraculous and sometimes it takes a few lessons where the student unnecessarily self-flagellates. I wish we were as kind to our learning selves as we are to our learning horses!), then I ask them to focus on the feel while looking at the reins. When that works, I ask them to look up, keep the required movement in their elbows and focus on the feel. This simple exercise has surprised me in its effectiveness. I do canter next, (first watch the reins and experiment, get it right or reasonably close, then look up and feel). The movement in walk and canter is very similar (but slower in canter). Then we tackle trot, which is more a vertical movement correction than the horizontal correction required in walk and canter. Walk and canter are forward and back with the elbow. Trot is open and close the elbow (if posting).

                              In my own riding, I visualize a shoebox in front of the saddle; long-side parallel to the horse's neck. My hands should always be in that shoebox, and more toward the front of it than the back. I ride around dressage warmup thinking, among other things, "elastic" and "shoebox".

                              I've long thought the elbow is the most important joint in riding, from a horse's perspective. Good luck. All your work on this will pay off in spades.
                              Last edited by Camstock; May. 8, 2013, 12:17 PM.


                              • #16
                                It helps me to focus on my shoulders and visualize/feel the connection between the mouth and the shoulder. I try to think of the rein continuing up my arm and ending with the shoulder. This seems to allow me to relax my entire arm, keeping it straight, and keeping my shoulders back. This also forces me to keep the reins short enough.


                                • #17
                                  Originally posted by ahbaumgardner View Post
                                  It helps me to focus on my shoulders and visualize/feel the connection between the mouth and the shoulder. I try to think of the rein continuing up my arm and ending with the shoulder. This seems to allow me to relax my entire arm, keeping it straight, and keeping my shoulders back. This also forces me to keep the reins short enough.
                                  This is it for me, too. Every person is different, but I find if my fingers are opening it means I'm bracing and trying not to move elsewhere. So I think of closing my fingers so my horse has something to trust in contact, and think of moving my shoulders so I'm not locked there. Now for me, I have tendonitis so the fingers are never closed too tightly because I'm not physically capable of that, so it may not work, but thinking of the shoulders should help. I don't know if it's possible to hold elbows tight without bracing in the shoulders.

                                  Lots of other great ideas here which may work for you, but don't for me, because we're all different. I'm stretching my instructor's vocabulary and library of images to try to fix me.
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                                  • #18
                                    *** Ok, three of us jumped on the shoulder bandwagon at the same time!

                                    I control my arms via my shoulder blades and try to forget there is anything between the reins and my shoulders. This works really well for the very senstiive horses, and maybe not so much when you need a little strength, but it's hard to have tight elbows when all your arm movement comes from your shoulderblades & upper arms. It also helps your posture.

                                    The driving rein idea is also a good one to keep you from pulling. It's how I learned to do the auto release over fences, but sometimes when my arms actually take over and won't listen to my shoulders, holding the reins driving style can help.


                                    • #19
                                      I was at a George Morris clinic the other day, and one thing that he said that has resonated with me is:
                                      "The hands belong to the MOUTH not the WITHER!"

                                      So, in that reasoning, the hands must follow the mouth and not stay with the wither. I have a HORRIBLE habit of opening my elbows and letting my hands sit/hover just above the wither and not move. One thing I try to do to help this is lift my hands up and really actively FOLLOW the mouth. It feels strange at first, particularly if you're not used to moving your arms at all, but once you start doing it (repeatedly!) it will become natural and you'll feel the even tension it creates on the reins.

                                      It's a never ending process of going to far soft, or too ridgid and figuring out what best suits your horse and yourself for any particulary situation.
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                                      Not all those who wander are lost.
                                      ~J.R.R. Tolkien


                                      • #20
                                        I have trouble with the soft elbow/shoulder concept, but it made a bit more sense when I read a Beezie Madden article in which she said the rider should think about letting her shoulder blades roll up and down the back rather then bracing the blades and letting the shoulder move out from the deltoids (which I tend to do and which exhausts my shoulders and tightens my trapezius and right up my neck). Also I didn't realize until it was pointed out to me that I need to breathe deeper and more deliberately to stay soft. When I remember this, I notice a marked difference in my horse's relaxation. I've yet to experience that miraculous ureka moment with finding the proper contact, but I do believe visualizing the rolling scapulas and remembering to breath helps. Or maybe it just gives me something to focus on that I can control so my arms can figure things out on their own without my head interfering. Good luck!