How to Develop Soft Elbows, 9 Rider Tips

I believe the most important element of a soft connection comes from your elbows. Our hands should be soft, our forearms relaxed and our elbows bent and connecting with the horse in a smooth fashion.  But that is certainly easier said than done!

Common Faults:

  • Moving the hands up and down instead of receiving the energy back into the elbow
  • Crossing the neck, commonly known as an indirect rein
  • Pulling the hands towards the belly and rounding the upper back
  • Holding the forearm muscles tightly with clenched fist

Any of the common faults listed above will create resistance in the horse's mouth. All of these habits reveal an inefficiency of the use of the elbows. If you brace the horse will brace, if you break the connection to the elbow the horse will break his connection and come above or behind the vertical. I also find that the hands coming towards the belly creates a mental and sometimes physical block where, instead of keeping your seat moving forward with the horse's center of balance, the rider ends up pulling the seat towards the back of the saddle. A simple solution is to practice riding with the hands approximately hip-width apart and keeping the elbows bent. This opens up a space for the seat to "go through" your hands and keep a correct position. Sometimes just changing your mind and imagining that the horse's topline is a channel will help keep your hands in the correct position.

Believe me, I know how hard it is to have soft hands! For years I wanted to keep a tight, steady contact on the horse's mouth.  I would finish riding and my arms would be tired from holding them in tension against the horse.  It has taken over a decade of riding to develop softness and the feeling of lightness in my hands. Mentally I was trying too hard and the tension came from frustration at myself. When I became more confident and relaxed in my riding I was able to feel softness in my reins. Our arms will also reveal a lot about our security and confidence as a rider. If you are tight on the reins that typically means that there is some insecurity or fear related to being out of control. Other times it just has to do with a lack of balance, and the arms will bounce or tighten up as a result.  Quiet hands will come from a quiet seat, quiet mind and relaxed elbows.

9 Tips to improve your elbows:

  1. Have a friend hold your rein so you can practice gently pulling and giving, focusing on the bend in your elbows.
  2. Take a lunge lesson so you can ride without holding the reins. Practice keeping your elbows bent and mimic the actions of the reins, pulling and giving, keeping the motion smooth and relaxed.
  3. Imagine your elbow is like the rails on a train- the motion never stops, it is a continuous motion, similar to a circle.
  4. Keep some space between your hands, generally hip-width works the best. This will help keep your elbows by your side.
  5. Have someone place a hand on the back of your elbow so you can practice pushing back against them. This will help if you tend to lock your elbows.
  6. Review photos and/or video, focusing on the use of your arms. Watch for negative habits and tension. Try different arm positions in the video so you can make a connection between what you feel and what you see.
  7. Imagine your elbows weigh 100 pounds but your hands are light, this will help them to stay bent correctly.
  8. Gently wrap an elastic band around your elbows behind your back. One of the fitness bands you would use at the gym works really well. When your elbows drift too far away from your body you will feel the resistance.
  9. Imagine that you are jogging and move your arms back and forth to simulate that movement. This will keep your elbows loose and bring awareness.

I know that everyone talks about the importance of using the elbows, and for good reason!  I hope this information helps bring more awareness to your riding and improves the connection you have your with horse. Please leave a comment below to let me know what has helped you improve your elbow connection. Or feel free to ask any questions!