Q: How do I best position my arms for a correct contact? My tendency is to have relatively straight elbows while trying to have giving hands. Someone suggested I should have a real angle in my elbows to have better contact. But when I bend my elbows, I feel that I am hanging on my horse’s mouth. —Name withheld by request
A: This is a common problem for riders at all levels. I wish I could give you a simple answer, but there are many factors to consider for each individual partnership of horse and rider. Rider conformation and balance combined with the horse’s conformation, neck length, stage of training, degree of collection (balance) and willingness to accept the contact will all play a role in how a rider carries his or her hands and arms.
For example, a rider with a long torso and short arms will have a completely different feeling than a rider with a relatively short torso and long arms. A horse who has achieved a degree of collection for Second Level or higher will have a different head carriage than a Training Level horse. This head carriage, relative to the stage of training, will affect the rein length and the amount of following required in the rider’s hands and arms.
For the purpose of answering your question, let’s start with a couple of suggestions and images I hope will help you. Your ability to develop following hands and arms largely depends on the independence of your seat, legs and hands. The best way to establish this is on a longe line, on a steady horse who is fairly easy to sit and safely accepts side reins, with a knowledgeable person handling the longe line and whip. This takes the focus away from trying to bring your horse onto the bit, which often creates stiffness in the arms if you haven’t yet gotten a feel for the concept of riding from back to front. When a horse pulls or gets heavy in the bridle, a less experienced rider will often try to resist that pull by stiffening and straightening her arms. When you learn to engage your core to stabilize your seat, you can develop the necessary suppleness in the arms. This is done through many varied exercises on the longe line (beyond the scope of this article). Many times at the end of a longe lesson, I will have the rider take the reins back while the horse is still in side reins to recognize the different quality of contact and, therefore, the difference in her hands and arms.
One exercise I have had good luck with, assuming your horse is fairly steady and reliable, is the following (this can be done in an arena, not necessarily on a longe line): Allow your reins to become long and then put a dressage whip behind your back in a horizontal position, hooking your elbows over the whip and carrying the reins this way for a short time (it’s helpful to be wearing long sleeves for this). When the horse pulls, you are not able to stiffen or straighten your elbows and arms and you learn to resist the pull through your core and lower back. Be aware that while in this position your elbows will be too far back and your hands will be in your lap. The purpose of this exercise is to find the ability to bend your elbows then remove the whip and, without straightening the arms, bring the elbows to the front side of the hips and allow the hand to follow the movement of the horse’s head and neck. Pretend that you have a very short, perhaps 2-inch, bungee cord hooked from the inside of your elbows to the front side of your hips. When all is well, that bungee cord is stretchy, which allows you to follow the movement. When the horse becomes too strong in the contact, the bungee cord shrinks to keep your elbows in place as you learn to add the leg aids necessary to engage your horse’s hind end.
I also like to tell my students that the horse is responsible for the weight of the bit in his mouth and the weight of the reins. The rider is responsible for the weight of her own hands and arms. Imagine that you are walking down the street with nothing in your hands. Your arms hang relaxed next to your body, swinging softly in rhythm with your strides. Now pick up your hands with a soft bend in your elbows as if you were carrying something extremely lightweight in plastic grocery bags. That’s all you want in your hands when you hold the reins. Of course, there are varying degrees of contact with different horses and different times in their training, but the important thing is to develop a strong enough core with a low enough center of gravity to enable independent hands and arms. Consider your own unique body type and proportions in combination with your horse’s way of going and conformation and realize that the contact and hand position will vary as you progress.
Sandy Osborn is a USEF “S” judge and a USDF gold and silver medalist. Former Director of Equitation at the University of Massachusetts, she has studied extensively with international Dutch trainer Roel Theunissen. She is based in Georgia.