Elbows
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Have you ever watched riders going around the ring with straight, stiff arms?

What have you noticed?

The exact opposite of what they probably want is happening. Although they are likely trying to be quiet and still, their hands are in fact bouncing up and down with the horse's movement. 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.

Some horses truck along and find ways to hide behind the pressure, and other horses complain through head shaking, rooting of the reins, or shortening their strides till the movement minimizes. In every case, the communication between horse and rider suffers.

Of course, we know very well that contact is more than just about the hands and reins. But for today's purpose, we'll focus on one part of the body: the elbows.

1. Hang Your Upper Arm Straight Down

The ideal arm position is one that keeps a vertically straight upper arm. Essentially, the upper arm belongs to your body. In other words, if the upper arm comes off the body either forward or backward, the arm is interfering with the horse in some way.

The arms (and hands) should only aid in conjunction with the seat and upper body aids anyway. Therefore, keeping the upper arm on the body helps to prevent what we would naturally like to do - move the arm forward and backward in attempt to influence our horse. 

2. Create A Light "L" Shape in Your Elbows

While your upper arm stays on the body, your lower arm comes off the body toward the horse's mouth. The arm takes the shape of a soft "L", hands staying in line with the reins that go to the horse's mouth.

Elbows can not point out ("chicken elbows") nor pull backward (pulling).

In this way, your arms will position your hands quite naturally a couple of inches in front of the saddle pommel. That is the ideal place for the hands.

3. Put Some Life Into the Elbows and Wrists

Now all you need is to find lightness in the joints. It is almost counter intuitive that stillness comes from movement (but it does make sense if you think about it). At first, it might feel awkward while you try to figure out how to move your elbows so that your hands can stay still on the reins.

Try This Trick

Hold your reins with your hands in front of the pommel with the light "L" shape in your elbows. Get the horse moving (walk, trot or canter). Put your pinkies down on the front of the saddle pad and work out how you must move your elbows to keep the hands steady on the pad. Once your hands are fairly steady, lift them off the pad and keep the elbows active in the same way.



After you have discovered soft, moving joints in your arms (all the way from the shoulder down), you will wonder how you ever could go with straight or pulling arms. You will discover so many benefits. Your horse might move forward more eagerly, start to swing through the back and maybe even give you a snort or two. All your aids will "go through" softly and with less interference, making communication suddenly easy and matter-of-fact.

But the bottom line is that your horse will benefit from a kinder, gentler bit that communicates rather than punishes. And isn't this what we are always working for?

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If you enjoyed the above article, here are a few more:

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To Lesson or Not To Lesson? That shouldn’t even be a question!

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33 Comments

  1. I am excited to try this exercise but I am wondering if maybe you could offer some more advice on how to move the arms and hand while circling. Since one should open the outside rein so the horse has room to move his shoulder in the bend, right?. For some reason I have been having issues figuring how to make that “look” right without moving my elbow and had too far out, or getting “chicken wings”. Thanks!

    1. On moving the outside hand AWAY from the shoulder – that only pulls on the outside rein and puts pressure on the horse’s mouth. If you are able to leave the hand/rein close to or on the outside of the wither and move him with the inside leg into your SOFTand ACCEPTING outside rein, then you hold your horse with MAGIC and you will GET magic!

  2. Many years ago an instructor said “thumbs to the sky”. ‘Nuf said, thumbs to the sky it is. Another instructor said “in front of the pommel, 4″ apart” and that is true, too.

    I am a firm believer of “collected on a loose rein”. not to be confused with “throwing the horse’s head away”. A draped rein still provides plenty of contact.

    Another instructor said, “Imagine you have a tiny baby bird in your fingers” Fairy fingers.
    Another instructor said ” Strive for an intelligent seat, a hand that consoles”.

    All these little wisdom bites.

  3. To Heather: this is what I do (remember, straight on a circle) Primo, elbows tucked in. From the shoulder to the elbow, drop straight down your side(s). Inside rein slightly higher and in synch with the horse’s mouth. Outside rein LOW and steady. The horse will try to find his “comfort zone” by releasing to the inside rein and lowering his neck and head. The outside rein simply supports his effort. Am I clear? (No, I didn’t think so).

  4. Good post! I’m always trying to have a good angle in my elbows, the contact will be much softer with an angle! Nothing in your body should be stiff and tense while riding 🙂

  5. An exercise that might appall more than one is this: In an enclosed area and mounted, release your reins. Just hold them at the buckle. Then ask your horse to walk on and turn in a circle. Obviously if he or she takes off at a dead run, pick up your reins. If not, practice riding without reins. You will instantly the effects of your seat (read:butt) and legs (read: inside thigh, calf and ankle) has on your horse.

    In my humble opinion, the reins are no more than a telephone line, connecting your brain to your horse’s brain. If you practice riding without reins, you will realise how little reins have to do with discipline or “punishment”.

  6. Elbow bend has been a challenge lately for my short-armed, short-legged, long-torsoed 12-year-old daughter, to the point that it has hurt her in equitation classes. (One never realizes how lucky tall, angular folks are until you realize you are NOT one yourself!) She has since learned to close her hip angle much more in order to create more bend in her elbow.

  7. I find I can only ride my horse well with bend in the elbows for another reason. I am short and have short arms. I only have enough arm to release forward as I need in reward for correct responses from him if my elbows are normally bent. I never need to be able to pull back, so it makes it so I can only have forward thinking hands.

  8. The rider has to realize when the horse is moving you must move with them. It took me forever to get it. Something I practiced was with warm water in filled mugs. Hold the mud like reins in your hands with them wrapped around the handles. Now walk forward. If you hold stiff and unyielding in your hands water is spilled. If you relax thinking level hands moving with your hips it stays! Your horse is your steps and your hips swinging as you walk. Now try it jogging along… Then run. Not too fast. You can see just how much water you lose… WTer was warm so if you sloshed badly you felt it hit you. Hot summers day use cold!

  9. Maybe an other tip; Don’t focus to much on your elbows. Focus on the contact and on the tension in your reins and try to keep that still. If your contact and tension is still, your hand is still (in relation to the hoses mouth anyway) and your elbows will move in the right way.

    I sometimes find that focussing to much on one thing, and thinking to much and trying to do it right makes it harder to get the right feeling..

  10. I struggle so much with my elbows creeping out in front of my torso – a chain reaction is set up where my shoulders then lock, my back stops moving and my contact becomes frozen. My reality check is to slightly alter the ‘inside leg to outside hand’ phrase to become ‘inside leg to outside elbow’ this allows me to recover my outside elbow on a turn and make it part of my torso again. If I think of inside leg to outside hand then that hand hovers in front and I forget my elbow connection. A simple rephrase of inside leg to outside elbow works wonders for my elbow placement.

  11. To be fair… you are assuming that your rider is not short and does not have short arms. I am both of these and even riding an appropriately sized horse (15 hands), if I hold my elbows at my sides, my hands are NOT several inches in front of the pommel, my arms are just not long enough.

    It is VERY annoying to explain this over and over to trainers who just do not take the rider’s size and shape into account. All the “standard” position tips work for people of average to tall height who are fairly skinny and don’t have a large chest. The rest of us? Forgeddaboudit!

  12. I’m struggling with this too and am getting so frustrated. Ride beautifully then it all goes wrong and I stiffen up and give my hands away .

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