The human body is a fascinating thing. When one thing doesn’t work the way it should, something else will adapt to make movement as efficient as possible. The body will also always do it’s best to balance itself, in whatever way it can, which is also accomplished quite often by something doing what another thing should be.
Let’s talk today about the elbows and the mid-upper back.
One of those things should hinge and flow, while the other should stay stable through movement in the tack. One is compared to an elastic band, while the other could be related to the mast and supports on a ship (I don’t know the technical terminology…). One is a hinge point for two dynamic resistors (hand and core), and the other is the stable base point from which all control stems from.
Our elbows are pretty much a direct contact to our horse’s mouth (via the hands). Intuitively this means they should avoid being stiff and instead be fluid (even through resistance) and allow the hands to do their work on the reins. This is another reason why we are coached for thumbs up,or in an “A” position, and coached out of flat hands. Not only is the forearm better positioned with thumbs on top, it is a much more biomechanically efficient position for the muscles that control the wrist and fingers to work from. The ideal position is just a touch past the centre line with the thumb coming into very slight pronation. This also creates an optimal grip position for the ring finger on the reins. Why is this important? The hands and CORE should create active resistance through a ride, NOT the elbows. A firm grip and a steady, strong position is a better solution then a locked arm and a compensated torso position.
Hand position is an important first step to establishing elbow fluidity. There are two reasons I find that the elbow locks up on riders and you see them riding with stiff arms.. sometimes even to the point of the arm being almost straight.
- Postural dysfunction/poor motor control in the upper body. This what we’re going to focus on in this article. What do I always come back to? Body awareness and core activity are a athlete’s best friend- especially for riding athletes. Let’s say the shoulder girdle is unstable. The muscles in the upper back aren’t doing their job and the shoulders are rolling forward. Combined with this, the athlete in question doesn’t have a clue how to stabilize their core through movement and doesn’t have great posture. This is demonstrated by a collapsed forward position, a slouch in the upper back, and in movement, a hinging in the mid-back. Something has to be stiff and stable.. so the elbows (and sometimes the hips) take over.
- Fear or nervousness. It’s human nature to stiffen up when we are nervous or afraid. Whether a rider is a novice, or is returning from injury or a bad fall.. underlying fear is completely understandable and I’m sure any rider can admit to being there at least once in their career. Unfortunately, the stiffness developed in the early stages can stick around long-term if it becomes a habit. So coaches, if you notice a returning rider with stiff elbows.. do them a favour and start assisting them in breaking the habit before it forms. The great thing about the musculoskeletal system is that it is under our control, so even if we have fear or an underlying emotional issue causing symptoms such as stiffness… we can learn to control them separately. We’ll discuss this in another post.
These two facts apply to all riders, right across the board. Dressage, hunter/jumper, western dressage, rodeo, western disciplines, and even recreational riders. If you’re stiff in your elbows, likely another piece of your posture puzzle is out of place.
We’ve talked about the upper back and shoulders before, so for anatomy and correctional exercises here I’ll refer you back to this post. Also, if you need a reminder on how to properly activate the core and a few exercises for that.. check out this previous post.
What I haven’t discussed is the hinging effect in the mid back. The exact location is different for everyone, but it is commonly where the thoracic spine and the lumbar spine meet (T-L junction)… right around here:
It’s easiest to see this in the sitting trot. Look for any movement through the mid-back that seems excessive. Many riders, due to not understanding how to use their core appropriately resort to what I like to call “jello-spine”, clench their glutes (locking the hips), round their shoulders and lock their elbows. This creates a false sense of stability, but really it is a very unstable position. I also see this in jumping athletes, both in flat work and in over fences during a release. Arching and hinging in the back makes them feel like their sitting up tall and strong, and while they are sitting up tall, they are taking away efficient stability in the core because of the hinge and opening themselves up to wear and tear injuries in the upper body. This hinging habit is commonly formed early in a rider’s career. “Shoulders back” is a commonly used cue for riders, but coaches need to be aware that athletes like to cheat (whether they know it or not) by hinging the back instead of moving just the scapula (shoulder blades). Missing the correction of this early on enables the habit to be formed. That’s when you meet someone like me down the line when you have chronic pain in your back and shoulders!
Why do we care? Hinging in the spine causes undue stress on the vertebrae/discs/tissues which will cause pain over-time. Postural dysfunctions as a result of that hinging (poor shoulder posture/motor control, head poked forwards, locked elbows during movement) can cause pain, muscular tension, headaches, and stiffness that will translate into our horse’s health and movement. Check out this study done a few years ago that relates a rider’s posture back to the horse’s health.
So, now we know whether we’re locking our elbows or not, and why that’s not a good thing.. How do we fix it?
The first approach I use with my clients is building their awareness of the stiffness. Working at a gait their comfortable in, or even off the horse completely, we first improve their position overall. Then, I like to relate the elbows to the hip. They should be equally fluid. The posting trot is the easiest to demonstrate this in. If the hips are moving appropriate, pushing up and forwards and then down and backwards, the elbows should coordinate to open as the hips open and close as you sit back down. Same pace, same elasticity. Some clients have been so reluctant to let those elbows go that I put them on a lunge line and practice “jello-arms” while holding an activated core. Here the rider is instructed to let the arms hang loose while maintaining the rest of the position correctly. This encourages them to relax, let the arms specifically loosen, and build awareness of how tense they get otherwise.
In the video below, we see the rider in the top frame (before instruction) bouncing and very stiff in the tack. This rider does have a history of fear in the tack and has developed an overall stiffness to compensate. You’ll also notice that her horse is on edge with his head high and back hollowed. The bottom frame is after instruction (keep in mind this was all within a 45min session, so changes are small). You’ll likely notice less bounce in her seat. This was after teaching core activation and encouraging hip movement. Her hands and elbows are better, but not great yet.. but you can already notice her horse beginning to relax with the small changes to her seat.
Awareness is always the first step. Then rebuilding posture, then improving fluidity. I’ll will discuss the relationship between emotions and false stability (stiffness) in the body in another post, as it is also an important piece in the posture puzzle. Having somebody there to help you build your awareness of hinging and stiffness in the upper body is a great first step. Then trying the Wall Slides and Retraction exercises, along with the core exercises is this post and this post are the first steps in postural correction and improving fluidity in the tack!
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about your position and how to take the next steps in bettering your performance for you and your horse!