In one of our Facebook groups someone asked a question about elbows and hand position. She had been told by a trainer that she should keep her hands forward, close to the withers of the horse. Since she is not very tall, she has to round her shoulders or tip forward with her torso in order to put her hands where the trainer wants them to be. That compromises the integrity and the effectiveness of the seat, of course. Here are Shana’s and my answers.
If you're built like Arthur Kottas, you can actually have your elbows on your hips, a 90 degree angle in your elbows, and your knuckles touching the withers of the horse. That's the sort of image that many trainer have in their mind when they tell you to lower your hands and bring them more forward. But we all have to make adjustments for our own body. In real life it comes down to a choice, a compromise because perhaps you can't have your hands by the withers AND your elbows connected to your body with a 90 degree angle in your elbows because your arms are simply not long enough.
What is more important? What is the bigger mistake?
Is it better to have your hands on the withers with no connection between your elbows and your hips? In that case, the rein contact that the horse makes travels up your arms to your shoulders, and it gets stuck there. It doesn't connect to the hindquarters. You can’t support the rein contact and rein aids with your weight, so that your rein aids won’t go through. Your shoulders may even be pulled forward by the horse so that you lose your seat, and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders may get stiff.
Or is it better to have your hands a little higher and a little closer to your body, farther away from the withers, but with an angle in your elbows, a connection between your elbows and your pelvis (i.e. your core muscles), so that there is a direct energy transmission between the hind legs and the bit, and your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are relaxed?
The answer is pretty obvious.
Many riders and trainers have formed certain superficial ideals that they try to impose on every horse and every rider. They value form over function. So they may demand that someone's Haflinger moves just like Valegro or that a rider with a long torso and short arms sits like Charlotte Dujardin, when that's anatomically not possible, and it would be unfair to the horse and rider to expect that. Instead, we all have to work with what we have and find the form in which we can function most effectively.
For the individual rider that means that they have to find the seat in which they are the most balanced, stable, supple, most connected to the horse, and therefore most effective in communicating with their horse. And that may look a little different for everyone.
A rider with a long torso and short arms is obviously going to have her hands in a different place than a rider with a shorter torso and long arms. For instance, Thomas can put the knuckles of his hands on either side of the horse’s withers. If *I* did that I would be markedly hunched over, in other words... the rest of my seat would be seriously compromised.
The correct place for your hands is relative to the rest of YOUR body. It very much has to do with the ratios of your body parts to each other.
These are the parts that take a higher priority:
- pelvis neutral
- shoulders should be relaxed down and back
- upper arms hanging downward naturally
- elbows within approx. 2 inches of your torso - where this occurs depends on the ratio of your torso length to arm length - it could be hip points but it also could be lower rib cage or anywhere in between. Elbows out too far to the sides off of your torso disconnects the reins from the circle of aids but it also invites the hands to work INwards towards your belly. Elbows too far forward also disconnects but also straightens and stiffens the arms causing a rigid insensitive contact.
- there should be a bend in the elbow at MOST times (straight arms are stiff arms)
- hands should then seek forward from this point towards the horse’s mouth (this may put them quite low if you have long lower arms or a little higher if you have shorter arms). Make sure that the hands are always yielding forward in sentiment.
- wrists need to stay relaxed, never tight, tense, or rigid.
Arm and hand issues are often a SYMPTOM of a seat issue. But we SEE it in the hands. It isn’t wrong to correct the hand position but you simultaneously need to look deeper to the seat to see what is deficient there which is causing the hands to, essentially, do the job of the seat.
Think relaxed forward-giving hands and arms. And strong core/mid-section, stable seat.