Soft Hands? No - Soft Elbows

One of the highlights of my riding career didn't come from winning a blue ribbon at a prestigious show, or laying down a perfect trip aboard an expensive sales horse and getting a nice piece of the commission - it came when I was walking around the ring at Hunterdon at the end of a flat session, and George, who was teaching a lesson, used me as a "Do" example.

"Look at Sophie over there. Look at how soft her elbow is. Look how at the walk, her elbow follows, follows, follows her horses head whenever he takes a step. That is what you want. A soft elbow is a soft hand."

I can still hear his voice, and I still feel proud, even 14 years later sitting on my couch in my pajamas.

We all know that having good hands is one of the hardest things to master, and also one of the signs of a great rider. You want to be tactful with your hands, and always kind to your horse's mouth. This doesn't mean that you never want to touch it, but you always want to touch it in a way that gives a positive command in a very clear way.

But the idea that a soft hand comes from barely gripping the rein was an idea that George did not agree with. The reins needed to be held firmly, and the wrists were to remain straight, so that you had a straight line from the horse's mouth to your hand. This position didn't change as you rode, and the hands stayed soft by following your horses mouth from the elbow, not by looping the reins or almost dropping them entirely.

And as much as I was once praised for having a soft elbow, it is still probably the one thing I need to be most aware of whenever I'm riding a horse, because I do have a tendency to brace in my elbow when I'm concentrating on other things, and before I know it, my horse becomes heavy, and I need to actively tell myself to RELAX and poof! Light and soft where there was once dead weight.

Sometimes, you might hear your trainer say something like "Push your hands away with his head," or as I was recently told, "Put your knuckles in the neck."  This will help you develop a feel for the movement of the neck and head at each gate if you think it's something you need to build awareness of, or if you just need a refresher.

You might have also heard phrases like, "It takes two to pull." "You need to give in order to get." "Don't brace against his mouth, he will just brace against your hand." Whenever I feel the horse get heavy, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and really make myself give with my elbow and lighten my contact (but still supporting with my leg!) to see what happens before I start to play around with other methods.

There are of course many reasons why your horse could be heavy or leaning into the bit besides your elbow (which I'll write about later because the topic is so interesting!), but that's probably the first place you'll want to look. So the next time heaviness happens, shift your awareness there, just to check in with what's going on. You might be surprised that such a teeny joint can make such a big difference!

Happy Horse, Happy Elbows! 

** Disagree with anything above and want to start a discussion? Let's talk! But first, please read my disclaimer post. 


Popular Posts