The Aspire blog posts about contact, whether about how not to pull on the reins or improving a forward thinking hand have been incredibly popular this year so here is yet another suggestion, albeit quite unusual, for an exercise on those “hands that just don’t feel”…
The exercise has some very good results with a few common contact issues like:
– lack of symmetry in the seat (showing in one hand being more dominant than the other/pulling/dropping connection)
– lack of awareness of neutral connection that is neither resisting not dropped but is simply supporting and “closing the circuit of energy from leg to hand”
– lack of awareness of a forward thinking hand that simply “carries the bit” while the horse moves towards it
I am sure many of you recall Luciana Diniz and recently Nicole Pavitt riding is a Carson bridleless bit…
I immediately thought about trying this with those of my riders who are almost moving to Development programme but are still working on quality, forward thinking hand that can offer the horse a neutral contact to work into.
Here are the results of this experiment with one of the riders.
Please note: I have known the horse in the video for over 8 years and have taught many different riders on her. I would not recommend this exercise with a nervous horse or a rider who isn’t ready (i.e. does not have the good beginning of an independent seat). The bit is her usual bit with the rest of the bridle unclipped. The exercise lasted 10 minutes and was done at the end of the training session.
The rider’s contact and symmetry perception improved as the exercise progressed. She realised she was not really carrying her own hands before and discovered some muscles she needed to use to provide stable, sympathetic hand position that wasn’t reactive to losses of balance.
I noticed an overall improvement in the rider’s awareness of her hands – their position in relation to the horse’s mouth, their “connection” to the seat and their relationship with the seat.
The exercise also taught her how to release the connection without dropping the rein and how to follow neck movements in walk without allowing the rein to go slack and taut alternately.
I will be including this exercise in education of my riders as and when possible and when other perception exercises don’t have a desired effect.
CAUTION: Use your common sense if you try this exercise. Observe how the horse deals with having just the bit in his/her mouth. Always have horse’s welfare a priority when training yourself. Always have someone experienced with you on the ground and be ready to stop the exercise at any moment if needed. Performed well, this exercise shouldn’t change the way the horse feels the bit in his/her mouth.
IF YOU DON’T HAVE A HORSE SUITABLE FOR THIS EXERCISE you can still try it: simply imagine that you have no cheekpieces holding up the bit…imagine you have to hold the bit for the horse…
Many riders struggle with the concept of forward thinking, soft contact that isn’t a loose rein. This seems especially so when we learn about the connecting aids and the concept of riding the horse from leg to hand. I’ve used the below suggestion with riders who tend to pull back on one or both reins, with riders who have hard time understanding how to encourage the horse to seek the contact forwards or riders with busy hands altogether. It has worked a treat 100% of the time so I am sharing it on here in case it helps you too.
All you need to do to try it is to go food shopping 🙂 You will need to go to one of the bigger markets with trolleys available, load it with decent amount of products (you can always replace it back if you don’t actually want to buy anything!) and take a stroll around the shop…
Your mission is to make the trolley wheel smoothly, dynamically, walking rhythmically yourself, purposefully and straight.
As you attempt to accomplish that mission, make mental notes with answers to the following questions:
1. What’s the best way to keep the trolley straight when in motion?
2. Which side of my body works harder during turns?
3. What happens if I only engage/use one side of my body?
4. What happens when I pull back towards me on the handle?
5. What if I alter my steps?
6. From which part of my body is “the forward pushing” coming from when it feels most effortless?
Let’s assume you went and did the little experiment. Are there any immediate ideas coming to you that might connect the feel you just had with most ordinary object and the complex and emotional process of having forward thinking, soft hand on a living animal? Give yourself a minute or two before you scroll to read further. Your own ideas might be better than mine! Apparently, we learn more effectively when we figure things out ourselves based on helpful clues…
Here are my suggestions:
– learning new feel can be helped by comparing it to similar feel that is easier to experience
– picture the trolley as shoulder/neck and head of your horse
– when taking up the contact, always maintain the “ready to push the trolley forward” feel through your lower and upper arms,
– when riding downwards transitions, keep “the trolley” off your own feet to discourage yourself from pulling your hands towards your own belly…keep it at a distance that allows you to effortlessly move it on again,
– your arms transmit forward energy from your body, if you retract them back you are confusing your horse (with a sensitive horse it doesn’t matter if the rein actually pulls on his/her mouth, they will feel the backward action/energy from you)
– your forwards thinking hand comes from forward thinking body – not so much the legs although they are important too – but from your lower back/pelvis
– to have “forward” hand you don’t need to extend your arms/loosen your reins/drop connection but you can set boundaries of energy that are very alike the ones you set for a trolley full of food! Fixed upper body and shoulders but supple elbows that transmit the go or whoa from your own legs to the trolley…(or a horse).
– every time your horse hollows his back and lifts his neck, visualise the trolley being pushed back into you by another shopper in front of you. If your seat is balanced (i.e. if you are independent of your horse’s back posture and can maintain your own position) it should be possible to stop the head/neck and shoulder of the horse (the trolley) from coming at you. In those moments, visualise stubbornly maintaining your hands in front of you and pushing the energy away from you and forwards.
Let me know if the above image/suggestions were helpful and what your first ideas were…
All the best,
P.S. This experiment is not designed to work “literally” i.e. it is not aimed at achieving certain hand position (since hands on trolley handle sit differently to when we hold the reins correctly), exact body positioning (since we are standing on our feet rather than sitting on our seat bones) etc. It is designed as a fun experiment in discovering how to create energy in our bodies and make things move, how to taste the feel of “letting the neck move away and relax”. If your arms get tense as you direct the trolley, investigate – “push” harder with your legs/hips, focus on where you are going, check and triple check your posture…Happy playing! 🙂
Before we come back to the muscle shown above, let’s look beyond some obvious answers here. Yes, first of all we want to stop pulling as it’s simply painful on the horse’s mouth but there are other aspects too. If you use the reins to pull (act directly backwards on the reins with prolonged pulley pressure) you are very likely creating a dysfunctional posture in your horse (via defensive and strenuous use of his/her muscles in the neck, back and legs). Dysfunctional posture leads to dysfunctional movement which in time can easily lead to a plethora of unexplained soundness issues.
Pulling reins will also never let the rider achieve real throughness in transitions, they act like hand breaks on horse’s hind legs, create tension in the neck muscles and generally produce variety of micro-evasions that the horse employs in order to find some acceptable comfort.
The “Long” answer
To be able to be independent of the reins and apply their action without stress/tension or pulley action, the rider needs good basic balance throughout their seat. In other words they need to be in control of own frame and not be dependent in it on how the horse moves. It might seem obvious to say this but it’s important to mention that the seat balance is the pre-requisite to what you will read in ‘short answer’ below – if you struggle with some aspects of seat stability AND tend to pull on the reins in transitions, then the short answer below might not be for you yet…
The “Short” Answer
If your seat skills are decent and you can easily go from full seat to half seat (two point/ light seat) and back to full seat without altering horse’s rhythm and feeling out of balance yet you struggle with correct rein action, this short answer might be for you. Otherwise, seat developing/improving exercises might be the ones to go to first. However, even when your seat skills are yet not up to scratch, you can still practice the below “short” answer exercise in walk to halt transitions.
To stop or to ride a transition without pulling action on the reins it’s important to develop feel for passive resistance. The difference lies in which muscles you use and how you use them. Cue: check out the photo of muscles shown in red…) To test yourself, you will need someone on the ground holding the rein whilst you are in the saddle (as shown on picture below):
The person on the ground will need to pull on both reins as if trying to pull you forwards. A moment later, they can release the pressure without warning you. If you were pulling back you are likely to lose your balance as the ground person lets go. Now, experiment with engaging your lats muscles together with correct posture (neutral spine and “standing with knees bent” feeling through your thighs instead of “sitting in a chair” feeling) in order to withstand the momentary pull. You should notice that as the ground person releases the pressure, you stay unmovable and balanced thanks to passive resistance you created.
This stability producing passive resistance let’s you regulate the horse’s speed and weight distribution with your body/seat rather than backwards traction on the reins. The reins themselves transmit this resistance to the horse’s mouth or nose (if riding with bitless bridle) but very often, no rein pressure is necessary as the horse will react to the seat/lats resistance alone.
This passive resistance can be used in half-halts, transitions within paces, direct transitions – always with forward “thinking” hands i.e. with no backward traction and no negative tension in rider’s joints (elbows, wrists, fingers).
The key with this exercise is to introduce it slowly and develop feel for resisting in the rhythm of the horse’s movement. At the beginning you might find yourself tensing up too much, holding the resistance out of sync with horse’s movement, clenching your buttocks, tensing your arms or fingers etc etc These are all “normal” mistakes to make so do make them, read your horse’s reactions and keep trying until you can isolate the right muscles and until your timing and feel improves.
Please feel free to comment with any questions, thoughts or experiences if you do try/have already tried this exercise!
Arm stiffness comes in various forms. Some riders ride with straight elbows which automatically stiffens not only the arms but the neck and shoulders. Some keep their hands very low almost beneath the pommel of the saddle closing their chests and perching forwards. Some lean back and stretch forwards through their arms as if wanting to reach the reins.
Whatever the visual representation of stiffness I am yet to meet a rider whose actual arms were the primary issue…So let’s look at where they might come from and what we can do to un-stiffen those arms.
DENTED SELF-CONFIDENCE or RELYING ON WRONG BODY PARTS FOR BALANCE
There is nothing that gives us more confidence than a hand on something even if we are to keep it there for reassurance. Picture this: right in the middle of your living room there is a wooden panel about 2.3ft wide. The panel lies flat on the floor and goes from door to the back wall. You are asked to walk on it without a step sideways for a hefty reward. You will likely find it pretty laughable that someone thinks you can’t walk on a wooden panel 2.3ft wide and wouldn’t think twice about going for it.
Now, picture this very same panel going over a bit of a ditch…
Many would still go across albeit slower and probably with some more attention to where they place their feet. Many would likely hold or just hover their hands on the ropes.
Now, picture no ropes on either side, just the wooden panel…just your body, your balance…and feel the hair at the back of your neck rise as you put your foot on the panel..
When you ride your horse that’s all you have – your body control, your confidence in it and your eyes for guidance. Rigid joints will make balance that more difficult and it will make the rider hang on to “their ropes” more and more at any sign of trouble.
WANTING TO KEEP “HANDS STILL”
Many riders become stiff armed riders because in their early education when their confidence in own balance was still low they either told themselves or were being repeatedly told to keep their hands still. They then try very hard to follow this command forever on but as they feel their bodies moving significantly when the horse moves they try to immobilise their wrists by going rigid in their arms.
If you are a rider who hears the above command a lot, first check if your elbows are bent. If they are not, then you are denying yourself a very important movement absorption mechanism. bend your elbows so they are just in front of your hip bones and then try to imagine that your hands need to be held in front of you in a box. This box is as wide as your horse’s bit and as high as it is wide. It’s lined with soft material so your hands feel warm, relaxed and cosy enough in there that they don’t want to leave much. There is just enough room inside for little movements left and right but not much up and down.
Whenever you need to use an opening rein or lift your hand a little, always return it to your little box.
TRAINING THOSE STIFF ARMS OUT OF THE RIDER
My personal belief and experience tell me that to improve rider’s arms we need to first improve rider’s confidence in own balance, centred position in the saddle and feel for movement.
There are many exercises we can employ here and I will share a few with you in case you would like to try:
1) Lateral sliding.
You need a helper for this to hold the horse and walk with him. First at halt, slide your seat to one side as if you wanted to clumsily get off the horse. One of your legs will be travelling towards the ground, the other will be hooked over the saddle. Once you can’t go any lower, pull yourself up using your hands on the pommel and own abdominal muscles. Go shallow slide at first, then as you get braver slide lower. Do it 10 times on each side (20 in total). This exercise helps very cunningly with rider’s ability to feel centred in the saddle, makes rider less worried about being moved from the centre and switches on the muscles that stabilise the upper body on left-right panel. Additionally it tires the arms muscles which then makes the rider want to relax them. Win – Win.
You can do this in walk and trot on a suitable horse and with an experienced helper.
Many riders only feel up-down motion of the sitting trot which they tend to control by holding on with their thighs and lower leg, going rigid in their hip joints and “wavy” in their spine. This amplifies discomfort and sense of insecurity or wobbliness so the arms tend to stiffen more as an after-effect.
Riding in a mini-trot (almost walk) gives the rider the feel for the three dimensional movement of the horse’s back (up-down and left-right). They can feel how each seat bone moves with slight independence of the other and how holding through their legs kills that little motion. I like to call this “oiling” the hips because when done well (no slouching, neutral spine, relaxed neck and centred position in the saddle) it has a fantastic supplying effect on the rider’s pelvis, especially when done after the sliding exercise. Slow motion of the mini-trot also gives the rider confidence to “let go of the ropes” and switch on the real balance keeper, their seat, their upper body.
3) Imaginary juggling
When in mini-trot I like to ask the rider to imagine they juggle something in front of them in the rhythm of the trot. I guide them in when and how to release through their elbow joint so they can feel the movement of the horse’s back not only in the seat bone and the hip joint on one side but also in their elbow on this same side. Once they can relax each elbow in this manner we do mini-juggling: moving hands up and down on alternate sides an inch up and an inch down. Although at first counter intuitive, the exercise teaches the rider that they can only achieve stillness through motion. They are often surprised to see on the video that the hands which they thought were moving (juggling) a lot they actually look still on the footage 🙂
For this you will need a Pilates ball (or something unstable to sit on), pair of reins (or dog’s leads, lead ropes, thin ropes) and someone willing to play the game with you!
Perhaps the most simple exercise is for the “rider” to close their eyes and establish a connection through the reins with the helper that is neither pulling nor slack. The helper will then move their own hands in various directions by using small movements, they can imitate the motion of horse’s neck in walk and canter or be totally random.
First, helper asks “the rider” to feel for those movements with straight, stiff elbows. Very quickly it is obvious that it won’t be possible.
Then “the rider” bends elbows and locks them rigidly by their sides – the effect will be felt also.
The actual rider behaviour can now be acted out here so the rider can sit in their usual riding position and test how much feel they have. If they ride with opened fingers they can try this now too to feel how helper’s hands motion reaches them with delay…
Once the rider starts discovering where to release tension in their arms to feel the movements easily and quickly, more seat exercises can be added using Pilates ball. “Rider” can do rising trot on it and re-test the connection again. Canter movements through the hips can also be practised and then confronted with feeling through the arms again.
Most often than not, stiff arm rider needs to supple up through their hips first, build their confidence in upper body position second and establish more secure seat overall as a third step.
5) Rising Canter
This is one of my favourite exercises with novice and advanced riders. It really improves joint suppleness in the rider, feel for rhythm, improves the quality of the canter (because rider feels loses of rhythm or impulsion straight away) and makes any rider more agile. It’s impossible to do a good, balanced rising canter on every stride if you are stiff in your knees or hip joints and once these release the arms also follow pretty quickly.
If you would like me to write more on rising canter, how I teach and see it on a video let me know and I will make a post on it as I don’t want this one to become too long.
To sum up…
Stiff arms start with a hidden stiffness somewhere in the “main” body. If you teach try not to correct rider’s arms but switch on your eagle eyes and search for rigid spots in the seat, positional faults (like chair seat) or general nervousness.
Many a time asking a rider with stiff arms to relax them is the same as asking them to walk with courage to the other side of that wooden plank bridge without holding on to the ropes. Balance first. Then suppleness.
It’s the same with any horse. Without basic balance, suppleness never improves.
Please share your own ways of dealing with stiff arms or rigid hands. Do you battle with this issue?