Maybe I should call this article something like, "How To Maintain Quiet Hands."
That's because we are more likely to notice the hands of the horse rider more than anything else. We likely never notice the elbows at all but there is quite a lot to be said about the elbows (see my previous post here).
This time, we're going to take a look at the two extremes of what can happen in the elbows, and then see what the in-between can do to help us keep quieter hands, more subtle rein aids, and generally become more stable in our riding position.
The Jelly Elbows
These elbows are often so willing to open that the rider often goes around the ring with straight arms. Jelly Elbows open whenever there is any pressure on the reins. Sometimes they close when the rider feels that there is little control of the horse, but then then they open again. Sometimes, they open wide even when the horse isn't pulling or falling to the forehand (and thereby putting pressure downward). You can get a feel for the confusion that these elbows can create just by reading through the above description!
When the elbows are inconsistent, the horse ends up feeling the result in his mouth. On-again, off-again contact often ends up being reflected in the horse's head. If you notice your horse bobbing his head up and down repeatedly, it might be due to on-and-off contact. Which might be due to jelly elbows.
The Clutched Elbows
These elbows are exactly the opposite of the the Jelly Elbows. These elbows stay tight and strong constantly. They usually have a strong "L" shape to them, and sometimes, they might be so tight that the rider can actually hold the horse's head and neck in place regardless of the amount of pressure on the bridle.
You won't see the horse doing much head bobbing with these elbows, because the pressure is consistent. But what you might see is the horse going around with a tighter, shorter neck outline. You might see the horse bracing through the jaw and neck because invariably, the horse is stronger than the rider and can capably hold that kind of pressure with the front end.
Some horses and riders go along seemingly fine for years and years in this manner, and many horses (but not all) comply without too much fuss. The thing is, if the rider tries to work on more demanding or advanced movements (like lateral movements or collection), there will be major stumbling blocks to overcome.
Well, this third alternative is absolutely the most difficult to achieve. This is why it might take years to develop really, truly "supple" elbows that can navigate through the gives and takes - and not change the pressure the horse feels in the mouth. Tiny, not-more-than-needed movement in the elbows is the key to achieving quiet, responsive (but not throw-away) contact.
How To Work On The In-Between
The best thing I know about finding those in-between elbows is to stabilize your hands and let the elbows do what it takes to keep the hands stable.
If you ride in an English saddle, place your hands on the pommel of the saddle right above the saddle pad. If you have a bucking strap on your saddle, actually hold on to the bucking strap with both hands.
If you ride in a Western saddle, you have the pommel as well that you can just rest your hands on. Make sure they don't move.
Make your reins long enough that your horse is comfortable, but short enough that you have enough control to be safe (safety first always). Then start riding. (If you ever need to take your hands off the saddle to take up the reins to maintain control of the horse, do so. You can always stabilize the hands again after the horse is moving quietly)
Don't move the hands!
In trot, you'll be amazed at how much your elbows will need to move in order to keep your hands still. In canter, they move slower and more deliberately but your hands can still be steady and sure if the elbows open and close enough.
Don't worry if your horse isn't going perfectly for the moment, and just focus on your hands. They must stay still while the elbows do their job. You'll notice there will be times when the elbows MUST open and then there will be times when the elbows MUST close - all so that the hands can be quiet and calm.
When you get nice and comfortable with the elbow movement, take your hands off the pommel or bucking strap and try to maintain those In-Between elbows. Keep the hands close to each other, near the front of the saddle.
Every time you feel that you're heading back into the Jelly or Clutched elbows, go back to the pommel to remind your elbows of the feel you need. Then let go of the pommel and try again.
The thing is, if you can achieve suppleness through your elbows, you will also free up through the shoulders, the neck and even through your lower back. It's all connected. And guess what? Better contact will also be a part of the aids that free up the horse's poll, shoulders and back too.
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Read more here:
12 Rider's Quick Tips - #2: Don't Forget The Rider's Elbows: Quite a lot of flexibility is required from the joint; the opening and closing of the elbow, in relation to your horse's movement is something that can only be achieved through enough practice to develop muscle memory.
Why We Dressage: The Rider: Because dressage training is rooted in the absolute basics that all horses will go through (whether or not the riders are aware), time spent on developing the dressage in the rider is never wasted!
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Go With The Horse: Isn't that what you're supposed to do? I mean, if you're on the horse's back, and the horse is moving, you're undoubtedly going along with him (unless you're off his back and on the ground - fairly undesired). So what's the fuss about "go"ing with the horse?
"You're STILL Taking Riding Lessons?" Maybe you've heard that question more frequently than you'd like to.