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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