One of the secrets to maintaining an elastic connection with your horse’s mouth is to ride with a soft, bent elbow. When you straighten your arms and brace you are unable to follow the movement of the horse’s mouth so you are holding rather than supporting. You also lose the benefit of your body’s core.
I know one of my bad habits is to straighten my arms and drop my hands. Even worse, I don’t even know when I do it! However, I got a tip last weekend from Ellen O’Brien, the director of CANTER New England. Here’s an exercise you can do on the ground to increase your body awareness. I’ve been doing it for a couple of minutes a day and I can certainly feel the difference.
Put a few marbles on two small plates. Hold one plate in each hand and walk around the house (put your thumb on top of the plate, like you were holding reins). To keep the marbles on the plate you need to keep your elbows bent and soft; just how you need to hold your arms when you’re riding. If you drop a hand, you get immediate feedback!
Here’s another way to visualize the correct position: imagine you have 10lb weights hanging off your elbows. The idea being that your elbows should have a bend in them and act as a well oiled hinge and should never be braced. If you have a “weight” hanging off the elbow it makes it much hard for you to straighten your arm and lock your elbow.
To illustrate how much more effectively you can use your core with a bent elbow, try this exercise with another person: Hold a lead line with your arm locked straight out and leaning slightly back. Pull the line with your arm like this, while your friend pulls you back. Most of the time you will end up off balance and be pulled forward. Now stand in the horseback riding stance, with your knees bent, everything aligned, hands out with limber elbows and pull and release. This allows you to feel how a balanced position and soft elbow lets you follow your movement without being thrown off balance.
While many people associate the bent elbow with dressage, a soft elbow and a steady hand also enable you to achieve a good jumping release. So regardless of your discipline, concentrating on your elbows will help!