Floppy Thumbs

With a lot of my teaching I try to come up with catchphrases, so I can say a word to trigger my rider to make a certain correction or check. They often aren’t very technically correct, such as a “squashy trot” for collecting the trot.

This catchphrase has developed over this week due to some recent observations I’ve made, and I think it works quite well.

Most riders don’t carry their hands with the thumbnail pointing vertically up – even if you think you do your thumbs will still point slightly inwards. Now, don’t pretend to hold the reins and say they’re 100% correct, have a look next time you’re in the saddle.

With riders who have the classic “pram pushing” hands with knuckles facing skywards, they often have the elbows sticking out slightly. They may not be flapping like chicken wings, but they will be loose. With loose elbows, the core is weaker and less engaged.

In a nutshell, I find if I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top, I also have 5o tell them to keep the elbows snug to their sides. The two faults are linked.

When I tell a rider to put their thumbs on top there is usually an improvement, but only a 90% improvement at most, and they very quickly let the thumbs flop in slightly.

So I needed a phrase to correct both parts of a rider’s anatomy. The next time you are riding, rotate your hands outwards so that your fingernails point upwards. Can you feel your elbows squeezing against your rib cage? Can you feel your core slightly more engage? No huge clenching of muscles, but your posture and deportment improves.

Yes I agree, riding with your fingers up is a bit extreme, and not very correct, but if you over correct your hands in this way, as soon as your mind drifts to your next circle or change of rein, your hands start to revert. But because of the extreme positioning of the hands, the thumbs end up pointing to the sky, and the elbows snug by your ribs.

Now for the catchphrase. “Flop your thumbs out” seemed to work quite well for my clients this week. It’s short and sweet, draws a smile, no one feels like their being reprimanded, isn’t technical, and gets the desired result.

Now for the core effect. Once my riders have gotten the idea of flopping thumbs, I ask them how their seat and core feels. Often, they don’t notice a thing, so I get them to ride a normal trot-walk transition (with sitting trot beforehand). I haven’t corrected their position or aids for half a lap or so. I ask them how it feels. Then we repeat the transition, but this time I remind them to flop their thumbs out just before taking sitting trot, and then explain how different it feels.

With one rider this week, she noticed a huge change in her balance in the downward transitions, and could feel her core working harder to stabilise her when her elbows were by her side. We took it forwards to the canter transitions, and by the end of the lesson she could feel an ache in her abdomen, which showed she’d worked harder and differently that usual. Like I said earlier, there isn’t a huge visible change to a rider’s torso when flopping their thumbs, but they feel more stable and secure without being tense when the elbows are closed against the ribcage, and it is definitely more noticeable during transitions and sitting trot.

Try it; flop your thumbs out slightly every so often when you’re riding or are about to ride a movement or transition, and see the difference it makes to your balance, stability, and contact.

Anchored Elbows

Recently I`ve taught two girls with wobbly arms, and have used the same demonstration with them both, which I thought was worth sharing.

First of all, I explained to each client that their elbows help stabilise their core, and upper body, almost as if they`re holding you together. To help them understand, I had them ride sitting trot and then stick their elbows out, like a chicken. It was an exagerrated fault but both girls immediately felt their upper bodies wobble like jelly on a plate. Then I asked them to squeeze their elbows to their sides. Voila! The felt and looked more secure and balanced, and their arms weren`t moving around nearly as much. Give it a go yourself next time you ride, and you`ll suddenly have more respect for the positioning of your elbows.

Next I reminded them of my age old adage, of “heavy elbows” with “helium balloons tied to the wrist” to remind them that a fixed wrist, and straight arm cannot absorb the movement of the horse, and the horse will respond by hanging back on their arms. One of the girls tends to straighten and tense her arms when she sits, which causes her elbows to fly away from her sides and her arms to bounce up and down. When I remind of the balloons she does improve.

Then I moved onto the fact that both their horses can get a bit strong. One tugs his head down and the other bears down onto the forehand. Both girls end up tipping forwards and losing control. I don`t mean control of the speed, but control of the relationship. They become the submissive partner. So how do you remain the dominant partner without force? 

It`s all in the body language. And the elbows. I told the girls to sit up tall and open their chests. Then I stood in front of them, with a rein in each hand. I asked them to hold their arms normally, and then gave a pull on the reins (pull away from the rider, so the horse is unaffected) and both girls shot forward onto their horse`s neck. They sat up, and I asked them to anchor their elbows by their side, as we had done in the trot earlier, before I gave another tug. The girls barely moved! 

Now, they weren`t being aggressive in their manner, and hadn`t changed their position in the saddle. It was just the extra stability of their core which helped them stay upright. I went on to explain that their horse would try to pull down, but this increased security in their position meant that they wouldn`t be able to get away with the behaviour and would submit to the whims of their riders.

For the girl who`s pony bears onto the forehand and gets strong, I suggested she thought about her half halt again. Instead of feeling like the rein half halt comes from her wrist, it begins at the elbow. The elbow should close against her side before she thinks about half halting with her rein. This means that her upper body is more secure, and her wrist doesn`t take the strain so she is less likely to fold forwards over her wrists. Also, the security of her elbows and core means that the half halt of her body is more precise and clearer to her pony so he will be more responsive.

He was. Here she is demonstrating a much more positive position and her pony responded by following lighter aids.

All this talk about elbows got me thinking today. I rode a variety of clients horses and I really thought about how I used my elbows.

The first pony I rode tends to snake quite a lot as he travels forwards so the first part of the schooling session I really have to hold him in the right place and provide that consistent contact and use my seat and legs to generate the straightness. I found that I closed my elbows a little tighter to my sides to increase the stability of my contact to best help this pony. In the second half I tend to relax and back off him a bit, to see if he has learnt from the earlier part. This is when he has to carry himself in a straight line. This was when I noticed I relaxed me elbows.

The next horse I rode needs a light hand and contact otherwise he hollows against the rider, and I noticed that my elbows were much more relaxed, and hanging by my sides, as opposed to holding my sides together. This obviously gives a softer contact, even though the reins were held in the same way and with the same amount of grip in my hand as with the pony.

This lead me on to thinking that when I find a horse becoming strong, or heavy in the contact, it is actually my elbows that kick in first – closing against my sides to give me more stabillity in my upper body, but also increasing the contact without tension by gripping the reins tighter. It doesn mean you can be more succinct with aids, and even more subtle by altering your upper body position and adjusting your elbows.

Next time you ride, just take a minute to think about what your arms are doing and the effect your elbow has on your riding. Both my clients found themselves more secure and with an increased ability to affect their horse`s way of going.