I recently read an article by Wendy Murdock about the rider’s elbows and was immediately struck by how few articles I have seen written about them recently. And more importantly I realised that I had never written anything about elbows myself.
Yet, how we hold our elbows when we ride has a major influence in not only in the way our horse goes but on our stability in the saddle as well!
So next time you ride, stop for a second and pay some attention to your elbows. Notice how close they are to your sides and whether they are bent or straight. Check whether you hold one elbow in front of the other or whether you hold one higher than the other. Try taking both your elbows away from your body, so they stick out like chicken wings. Then try clamping them tightly to your sides. Compare how these two positions feel, and then try waving (one hand after the other) and just letting your upper arm drop down from the wave.
If your elbows are straight you place weight on your horse’s forehand and compromise your own and your horse’s balance. All too frequently riders with extended elbows tip forward, which puts the horse on the forehand and if you throw your arms forward when moving off, you can knock the horse off balance too. Straight elbows also mean that you can be easily pulled from the saddle and finally straight elbows are stiff elbows, and unforgiving on the reins.
Elbows that are held too far back are less common but cause a different set of problems. If your elbows are behind your back, there is nowhere else for your arms to go. The next step will be bracing against your stirrups and leaning back. Pulling your elbows back means you are pulling on the reins and as such pulling on your horse’s mouth. The chances are if you do this, your horse will hollow his back and throw his head into the air.
A soft connection with your horse’s mouth comes from your elbows. Your hands should be soft, your forearms relaxed and your elbows bent and connecting with the horse in a smooth fashion. When your elbows are by your side your centre of gravity is much better and you will be able to hold a more elastic and softer contact on the reins. The ideal arm position is one that keeps a vertically straight or just in front of the vertical upper arm. There should be no rigidity or tension in your arm or elbow, your upper arm should just hang down softly by your side from a relaxed shoulder.
Essentially, the upper arm belongs to your body and your lower arm belongs to your horse. In other words, if the upper arm comes away from your body either forward or backward, the arm is interfering with the horse in some way. Only move your elbows forward an inch or two to invite your horse to move forward, then return your elbows to your sides BUT allow your elbows to move a little as you follow the movement of the horse’s head in walk and canter.
If one elbow is lower than the other then it means that you are collapsing to the side that is lower and putting more weight on the other side. If one elbow is further forward than the other (assuming you are on a straight line or at a halt) then you will be carrying that hip further forward and the chances are, carrying more weight on that side.
When you trot the horse’s head should not move so you need the hinge of your elbow to open and close as you rise so that your hands remain still in relationship to the horse’s head. All too frequently our elbows (and hands) stay still in relationship to our own body and go up and down as we rise. The end result is an on-again, off-again contact with the horse’s mouth – in other words, a pull/release repeated over and over again. One way to ensure that your elbows open and close correctly when you trot is to gently rest your little fingers on the front of your saddle and make sure they stay in contact with the saddle as you rise.
Another great way to check out if you are using your elbows correctly is to take a PI (Posture and Alignment Indicator) assessment and see just how much your rein contact changes when you do a rising trot!