This is part 2 in a four-part series on how to quickly look at the rider’s posture in four different, major, areas to give the best improvement to the rider’s posture, in the fastest amount of time. See Part 1
This simple & easy approach came about because “posture testing” was becoming more and more involved and more and more complicated – especially for the higher level riders, leaving junior coaches, and parents who just want to know if their kid is crooked, without a quick, simple easy way to check the rider’s posture.
In Part 1 we looked at the rider’s head position and how it can make a horse go crooked, jack-knife, lose a shoulder and get head tilt if the rider holds one ear lower than the other, or one more forward than the other on straight lines. (That’s the left/right plane).
We also saw how simply looking down puts the horse on the forehand. The rider’s head alone 4 or 5 kg – a huge amount of weight to be going down onto the two front feet. But, also, just by looking up that weight is then distrubted onto the two back feet, thus creating engagement rather than on the forehand. (That’s the forward/back plane)
Why not shoulders?
You would think, after the rider’s head, if we’re going down the body that the next logical thing to work on would be the rider’s shoulders.
However the problem with shoulders is that you don’t have anything to measure them against. You will get one higher, or one more forward, or one moving more than the other, but the rider can’t really measure it against something else and therefore can’t consistently repeat the improvements the coach makes.
However, the elbows are right there at your waist, you can feel them, you can even see them. You can feel if one is lower – compared to your belt. You can feel if one is more forward – compared to your belt. You can also feel if one “flaps around” more than the other.
Elbows are VERY measurable – comparing them against your waist or hips. If you can measure it, you can repeat it.
A simple question, e.g.: “which elbow is lower compared to your belt, the left or right?” It’s the comparison that makes the difference!
One shoulder (elbow) higher?
A common question…if a rider has one shoulder (elbow) HIGHER than the other…do you lower the high one…or raise the low one?
Sounds like there’s only two answers to that question…Well there’s nearly always a 3rd answer to most questions, and it’s as simple as this…just make them level.
There is a tiny bit of leaning in on any circle, however it’s normally way overdone – which explain why most horses fall IN rather than fall OUT. It’s not the horse – it’s the rider.
Reminding riders to keep their outside elbow down stops the horse losing balance and overweighting the inside front foot on any circle, spin our pirouette. But for normal riding…just keep them level!
One shoulder (elbow) more forward
A very common problem is the rider carrying one shoulder more forward than the other. This is especially problematic on a circle when the inside shoulder is more forward (exactly the opposite to what it should be).
With the inside shoulder (incorrectly) more forward on a circle you start to get wrong bend, jack-knife, cross-over of the hind legs or head tilt. If one shoulder is more forward on a straight line, you’ll most probably get some kind of quarters-in/jack-knife.
It’s much easier for a rider to answer the question “are you elbows at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock compared to your belt” rather than: “which shoulder is more forward”.
Using elbows gives us a measurement, in exact “o’clocks” around the belt, and if we can measure it, we can repeat it consistently. Shoulders are just “mid air”, and very hard to measure & repeat.
Why elbows not hands?
We certainly do work on hands! The old “egg and spoon race” we thought was a game as kids was actually designed to increase our dexterity with our fingers wrists and hands. We also have amazing advanced exercises for those with real problem hands. Download free curriculum
The best thing about elbows is…they’re in the middle. If you fix the elbows, you stand a good chance of your shoulders and elbows being fixed as well.
However if you concentrate solely on your shoulders, then your hands might never improve or be affected.
And if you only work on your hands, your shoulders might still remain twisted forever.
Work on your elbows, work on the MIDDLE, and you fix what’s upstairs and downstairs – you fix BOTH the hands and the shoulders at the same time!
Elbows (Hands) in walk
The horse’s head raises up and down “flicks” in time with the horse’s two front feet. You can see it in the horse’s forelock bobbing up and down.
If you have super loose reins, you’re a trail rider, or western, or you trained in Spain or Portugal with their light contact, and you ride very loose, you’re the lucky ones as you’re unlikely to be bumping the horse in the mouth at every stride as the horse bobs his head down.
If you have super tight reins, and stiff elbows, every time the horse “nods” he will bump his mouth against your hands (or even worse, the sensitive part of the nose if you’re in a bosal or hackamore and it’s far more sensitive than the mouth. To test, simply press anywhere on your gums, tongue or mouth and rate the pain out of 10. Then, press on your nose and rate the pain out of 10!!! Some of the worst bolters in the world will ONLY stop to a bosal or hackamore because the nasal bone area is highly sensitive and very susceptible to breakage.)
If you are riding “on the bit” then your hands (ELBOWS!) need to move forward and backward, softly, subtly in time with the horse’s head nod. Not excessive, but just like a dance partnership moving forward and back in time with the horse so as to never bump him in the mouth.
NOTE: It is important to note that in the dressage test you are only permitted to WALK on the bit for just a few strides as it is said to wreck the horse’s other paces. Dressage insists on free walk on a long rein or extended walk, which is why most “on the bit” work is done in trot.
Elbows (Hands) in trot
The horse does not move his head in trot, and if he does, he’s sore or lame and professional advice needs to be immediately sought. This is why it is called a “trot up” in FEI and endurance events – to check to see if there’s nodding in the trot. Seek veterinary advice. See grading lameness
As the head does not move in trot, then the hands must not move. You’ll often hear the coach say “keep your hands still”, but they should then add ONLY IN TROT.
However, even in sitting trot, the rider goes up and down. If you follow a rider’s head and look at the landscape behind them in sitting trot you realize how much the top level horses really “bounce”.
Therefore vaulting, that teaches you to hold handles, but not at the expense of the horse’s mouth is just one way to teach the rider to keep the hand completely still for trot – while the elbows move!
As the frame must lengthen for extended trot, the hands go more forward and the elbows open more to allow more rein and length in the frame.
Elbows (Hands) in canter
The horse nods over the leading leg (inside leg at the lower levels, then later the outside in counter canter), and therefore the hands must follow.
So intent in dressage to ALLOW the headnod it is mentioned in the rule book about the hand being able to follow the movement of the horse.
Rider’s find “getting the rhythm” so difficult that jockeys in the racing industry have developed training machines to help teach their hands and elbows how to get in time with the headnod.
A great exercise for the advanced rider is to canter up a steep incline and the head-nod becomes so big it literally pulls the rider’s hands in time with the horse’s head.
We have some amazing canter exercises in our on-line course.
How high should the hands be?
For years it was “lower your hands”, then it became fashionable to hear “raise your hand until the horse tucks his head in”.
Throughout all the fads and fashions, the rule book has changed very little. It went from “the hand must be low” in the 1980’s and 1990’s to now reading “you must be able to draw a line from the elbow to the bit“. Groups like the British Horse Society have been drawing that and describing that for years, that “invisible line”, but now, as it is a rule, we all must follow to get the highest marks, and to give the greatest safety and comfort to both horse and rider.
So give the “high hand” brigade, or the “spread them wide & fiddle” people the flick, as it is against the dressage rules, and you will lose marks for making your horse hollow, and having the horse’s hind legs “out behind” instead of balanced & underneath.
Elbows always move!
Any time the horse is on the bit, the elbow must move. In walk to follow the up/down head flick, in canter to follow the nod down over the leading leg, and in trot so that your hands, and the bit, stays still.
They should never be stiff and closed, they should be relaxed and following any movement of the horse, and absorbing any movement from our body. See www.fei.org rules