Shoulders, Arms and Hands
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, June 29, 2015 04:42 PM
I continue sharing my thoughts on rider's seat and balance. These ideas were inspired by my trip to BC in May after continuous 5 days of teaching. In the previous blog I was talking about general upper body alignment, particularly effects of leaning to one side. This time it is about shoulders and arms.
Shoulders, Arms and Hands
- A big misconception is the shoulders are part of the hands and must stay relaxed. This misconception comes from the fact that shoulder joint is actually between the upper arm, scapula and clavicle bone. Moving shoulder joint means moving your whole arm like a pendulum. But moving shoulder itself means moving scapula, sliding it up and down. The shoulder itself, or scapula must stay quiet and stable, pushed down and away from the spine. If rider relaxes muscles around scapulas too much the scapulas will bounce up and down with the movement of the horse (trot, canter). This destabilizes the rider's balance enormously, prevents the hand to be quiet and stiffens other parts that supposed to stay supple (like shoulder joint and elbow joint).
- It is much more effective to imagine a supple elbow. The elbow joint is actually bends and unbends with the rider's motion allowing the rider to keep hands quiet in relation to the horse. The challenge is - humans usually have one arm that have more supple elbow than another. Riders have a tendency to stiffen one elbow and compensate with too much wrist and shoulder movement. Usually the hand with a stiff elbow is carried lower compare to the other hand and shoulder of the stiff elbow is carried higher. In order to use the rein the rider lifts the shoulder or bends the wrist but not elbow. It can negatively impact on the whole upper body alignment, elasticity of the contact and ability to keep it. The hand with a stiff elbow makes jerky movements being too stiff to follow the horse's head. This particularly detrimental during bending when stiff elbow is on inside. Riders struggle to keep the inside flexion, they overpower with outside rein which has better contact. Also, the horse may become very unstable in his head due to lack of adhesive and elastic contact on inside rein.
- I cannot tell to what extend the stiff elbow correlates with leaning to one side. I do not have enough data for such statement. In my own case, my right elbow is rather stiff one and I lean to the left. That makes riding to the right even more challenging for me. Though, now I have been working on all these issues for sometime I feel a steady progress. Mind you, when I ride I spend enormous amount of time "observing" myself, at least as much as my horse if not more. When I hack I spend most of the time working on myself.
- Also, on the leaning side (see the previous blog) the shoulder is very often pushed forward no matter which direction the rider is traveling. This unbalances the rider even more on a difficult rein. In previous blog's example we had leaning to the left (left seatbone is unstable). This makes left shoulder go forward. I have seen this tendency in many riders. However, I lean left but my right shoulder is unstable. This makes me lean forward on the right rein as both shoulders go forward. I have a student with the same tendency. - As you can see it is not that straightforward and the best way is not to assume that you have certain problems but observe and develop a plan with a few simple ideas to keep in mind when in the saddle.
  • Slide your shoulder blades down into the back pockets of your pants
  • Feel of shoulders being away from each other
  • Close the backs of your armpits (MW). This one is my favorite for my right shoulder.
  • Exercise: Slowly lift and lower one hand a few inches then another, alternating them. Keep adhesive and even contact throughout the exercise.
  • Avoid pulling down on the reins, it stiffens elbows
  • Sometimes look down on your hands and check how level and even they are
  • Half-halting rein works either as a resisting rein or lifting rein not pulling backwards or down rein. And, especially, not as a wiggling rein.
  • Be aware that unstable shoulders will be pulled forward by the horse no matter how much the rider pulls on the reins. Hold contact with your armpit!
  • Straight line from the bit to the elbow is the real deal not just a line from a book. Adhere to it as much as possible!
  • The arms/hands are extensions of the rider's seat. Bending wrists will cancel the connection between the seat and the hand. Lifted shoulder will not allow the seat to participate in the half-halt.
At the end I would like to stress one more time. It says all and not really says much -
The goal is to stay level, square and vertical at ALL TIMES in ALL MOVEMENTS. The forces your body will feel are pull and push. Your body must respond with compression and torque to avoid being misplaced. It must be done without overtightening because you also must be able to absorb, match, feel and influence rather than stiffen and bounce. And it must be done without collapsing upper body. Your frame will help your horse develop his. If you cannot create your frame your horse will not get his.
Focusing on horses
-This is not my statement. The way I am going to describe it I heard it from Jonathan Field. Though, I knew the principles before I really liked how Jonathan worded them. The first two things a riding horse must understand is path and speed changes are controlled by rider. The rider tells the horse where to go and how fast. The horse's job is to follow directed path without drifting or leaning in or out. The horse's job is to keep a prescribed speed without slowing down or accelerating until it is requested by the rider. If you must choose between path and speed control in the case when you do not have neither, speed control is more important. It is amazing how this simple approach can improve your horse's training including on more advanced levels. This fundamentals are applied on a young horse after initial backing. Not the bend, contact, or any kind of head set but going forward at a certain pace on a prescribed line. Just paying attention to these two basic ideas makes the rider work very hard in terms of focus, timely corrections, patience and persistence.
- Humans like to help others including their horses :) Horses are very happy to transfer their responsibility to us. In reality the job of a rider apart from being responsible for her own balance is like a job of a project manager :) The rider tells the horse what to do and then monitors the activity providing corrections when necessary. The rider does NOT do the work for the horse! Examples of such work: kicking every stride just to keep the same speed or pace, moving in the saddle to make the horse move, leaning forward when initiating trot or canter, turning shoulders ahead of the horse during turns (because that is how humans turn on the ground).
- On the other hand, horse people have a tendency to humanize horses :) In this particular situation I want to focus on just one parameter as this issue is multidimensional. While in the saddle riders often give a horse too much time to process the request. Like they are waiting for a horse to realize: "Oh, I was supposed to do something? Sorry! Right away!" This does not work like that. Horses do not feel sorry, pity, etc for their riders. So do not count on these emotions waiting for your horse to come around, he will not! If after 2-3 seconds max nothing happened or still happening in the wrong way a rider must take action. This action must impress the horse and make him pay attention to the rider.
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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