Shoulders. Arms. Hands.
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, January 10, 2009 02:03 PM
I would like you to do a simple exercise to imitate what your shoulder blades should feel like during riding. Sit on a hard chair without leaning back. Create an abdominal push. Keep your pelvis and spine vertical. Relax your shoulders and arms. Focus on the spot in the middle of your back, just below your shoulder blades. It does not need to be precise location. On every exhale think about drawing lower points of your shoulder blades closer to your spine. Almost like there are ropes or lacing that gets slightly tighter. And I emphasize word slightly. You will feel your shoulders move a little down and backwards. This not only keeps your scapulas steady and well connected to your ribcage. It is also engages other muscles of the back to help stay balanced on a moving horse.
Now keep that feeling and swing your arms gently back and forth. You do not need amplitude, 10 degrees is enough. However, notice the swinging is easy. You can bend your elbows and try swinging. Observe that when you let your arms stop your elbows want to come back and hang slightly behind your shoulders. And as you know your elbows should be slightly in front of your shoulders when you ride.
You must carry your arms yourself to keep the elbows slightly forward. You must not let your horse's mouth carry your arms. This is one of the most difficult habits to develop - habit of slightly pushing your hands forward without loosing contact, without unbending your elbows, without drawing your scapulas forward/upward or becoming stiff.
If you let your horse carry your arms it will mount to about 1 kg of weight. (I'm not talking here about hands that pull back, because that means lack of stability and balance in the seat. Riders that use reins for support to stay in the saddle must first work on their seat.)
Try yourself the following experiment Take a nonstretching rope or a pair of reins. Ask someone to hook a measuring device (I used one for weighing fish) at the other end. Sit on a chair, keep your back straight. Ask you helper to keep measuring device slightly lower than your hands where horse's mouth would be. Shorten your reins as you usually do when you ride with elbows slightly ahead of shoulders without creating a pull. You want the device to show 0. Now relax your arms completely and let them hang on the reins. Notice how much weight is shown on the device. Next step, without actual movement think of pushing your hands forward, the device will come to 0 instantly. You need very little force to carry your hands to eliminate the hanging effect. You may argue that with soft joints and allowing hands why is it matter to carry them instead of letting them hang on the reins, hanging soft arms will allow the movement for the horse's head and create gentle traction for a good connection. The problem here is the traction is created by you and not the horse. If your horse is honestly stretching into the bit there will be no difference to him between carrying hand and hanging hand. However, if your horse decides to back off the bit carrying hand will know it instantly, hanging hand will not. And if your horse does not stretch into the bit but simply holds your hands with his neck muscles he will be using himself completely wrong. The other problem is the hanging hands do not have stability during faster gaits and the whole arm will start wobble and swing. When you carry your hands you can very quickly decide if you want to yield or create momentary resistance by closing your fist/s and setting your elbow/s. You do not hold resistance for long and you keep your whole body toned and balanced. If your half-halt was successful you will feel instant softening. If your horse ignored your request, do not hold, release and ask again.
Many riders realize that they have to do something with their arms and hands, they do not usually let them hang in a relaxed manner. However, this is where problems arise. Riders keep their arms stiff with raised shoulders, elbows are stiff because they are either too straight or locked, wrists are often stiff because they are not straight. They are bent to the inside, upward or downward, rotated too much inside to become flat or too much outside to become too vertical. Some riders feel that something is wrong because the connection is stiff and jerky and they try to open their fingers in attempt to create softness. Some riders do it because they are afraid of connection altogether.
Hands that are carried by the arms with stable shoulder blades, supple elbows, straight and soft wrist joints and softly closed fingers create very steady and elastic union between the horse's mouth and the rider. Horse knows where bit is, is not afraid to stretch into it because it is carried quietly and softly. And rider knows the state of the mental and physical balance of the horse because with such hands he can instantly feel when the connection is lost, uneven, or has changed. He can then evaluate and decide either he has to drive his horse more forward, rebalance, fix a problem of crookedness, or allow the horse to stretch and relax. Mouth is an indicator, it is a consequence. You do not fix the mouth, you fix the horse and then check with the mouth if you did it right. Sometimes it takes a while to fix the horse. However, if you try a short cut by cranking horse's head and neck into "correct" position using strong hands, harsh bits or draw-reins you will never allow the horse to move with power, proper balance and correct use of his whole self.
Note: I have only talked about general principals. There are many situations when things are more complicated and require experience and great deal of tact to work difficult horses, who have conformation faults, have been badly trained, mishandled, etc. Horse's mouth must be approached with great respect and fear of spoiling it. It is very hard to earn horse's trust back and teach him to stretch into the bit and take it if he has learned to shy and retract from it by compressing his neck and consequently dropping his back.
Happy riding...
 
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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