Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, January 21, 2012 02:07 PM
Contact has been on my mind for quite a while. It started during summer when I was analyzing my own pictures and noticing that my elbows are too forward and my arms do not look structured enough. Then I watched Heather Blitz riding her wonderful horse, Paragon, and again I noticed how her upper arms are almost vertical at all times. At first I even had a feeling her elbows are not forward enough. Well, her elbows are just fine. Mine were too forward! :) Since then I started working on my connection and I came up with few conclusions and ideas I would like to share with you.
The mistake of elbows being too forward is extremely common. This tendency has two common sources: One, riders are shortening their reins too much and then they are forced to push the elbows forward (happens very often due to fear factor). The other, riders are trying to be soft and they are following horse's mouth with their hands too much. Consequently, elbows end up too much in front of the body.
Now I would like you to do an experiment:
Fill big pot with water and carry that pot in your hands. The most comfortable position would be to carry it very close to the body, with elbows bent close to 90 degrees, upper arms are hanging down along the sides of the body. In this position the load is spread through your entire frame not just your hands and shoulders. Now push your hands forward to carry the pot father forward away from your torso. Notice the difference in how difficult it is now to hold this pot, how your shoulders and back are straining and stiffening.

Every single time your horse leans on the bit you carry a weight that compares to the pot. If your hands are too forward you will not be able to counter act your horse with your whole seat letting your frame support this weight. You will be pulled forward which results in several conditions: leaning forward and heels coming too far back and up, rounding shoulders or/and back and pushing into stirrups with lower legs coming forward, lifting hands up and leaning back may or may not pushing into stirrups for support.
There is another way a rider can have their elbows too forward. This happens when rider pulls down on the reins trying to make his/her horse round. This action unbends the elbows. As long as wrists are in front of the body and not directly below hips elbows will be too forward. The straight line from the shoulder point to the wrist will be a diagonal and elbow will be a point on this diagonal. Vertical upper arm requires an angle at the elbow joint if wrists to stay in front of the body. Another draw back of straight elbows is they are extremely stiff which ruins any chance for elastic connection to your horse's mouth.
Here are few ideas that can help you improve your contact:
  • Imagine your elbows have a small but heavy metal balls attached to them. This makes elbows weighted down.
  • Pretend that you do not have wrists and contact goes directly to your elbows. Your elbows connect to your horse's mouth not your hands. Ride with your elbows not your hands!
  • Lets go even father and pretend that reins are continuing behind the elbows and join each other behind your back. The location will be at the bottom of your lower back or lumbar spine. Every time your horse leans on the bit or pushes into it you imagine instant response in your back. Your back connected to your elbows and through them to reins. You half-halt your horse with your back/seat! Hands just transmit that action.
  • Pretend you are gently pushing your knuckles into imaginary wall right in front of you. Think about the backs of your armpits and push them forward. (Mary Bond, "New Rules of Posture"). This action will widen your shoulders and stabilize your scapulas giving you a straighter more efficient upper back.
One very important thing to remember. The contact is much more complicated concept than simply hands holding reins. Your whole seat including your legs are in contact with your horse. They play very important role in creating a horse that accepts the bit and stretches into it without running through. Good contact is a consequence of good balance of both horse and rider, supple and straight horse that is engaged according to his level of training. Always keep your whole horse in mind when you need to improve your contact do not just fix the head!
Here is the citation from Charles de Kunffy's book "Dressage Questions Answered":
A knowledgeable rider...will always remember that the rideable areas of the horse are not those visible to them; those being the hindquarters and the back. They will ride by feel rather than by gaze. They will know that the horse's neck and head position are merely symptomatic as to the activities of the all important hindquarters (locomotion) and back (communication).
Happy riding...
Comment by Carolyn on Sunday, April 27, 2014 03:32 PM
Thanks so much, for your article. I will print it off and hang it in Tango's stable!! I have a big problem with elbows but hopefully now with the help of your ideas my position will improve and my very lazy thoroughbred will be easier to keep in front of the leg, he will be rounder and i wont have so much trouble keeping him on the bit!!!!
Comment by Irina Yastrebova on Monday, April 28, 2014 07:21 PM
You are most welcome, Carolyn! I am glad I could help :)
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