Tricks to Achieve Soft Arms
My trainer rides with the most beautiful softness in her arms, and uses her fingers primarily to "ask" or "demand". She doesn't or rarely ever pulls back with her arms or tighten up her elbows or shoulders. I am forever forgetting this aspect and tend to tighten up at the elbow, as is probably pretty common.
I know its a "feel" thing, and in today's lesson she gave me feedback by her being the horse -- taking the reins at his mouth (giving him slack) and me being the rider, trying to just use my fingers while keeping my arms soft. We moved back and forth and she was trying to demonstrate how 'hard' a feeling can be for the horse, when you tighten up at the elbow or pull back with the hands/shoulders.
What tips do those of you know to keep my arms soft, soft, soft and still effective at following, while using my fingers to squeeze without pulling back?
I'm trying to practice this everywhere, including me leading in hand with a lead rope or bridle reins...just so it gets better ingrained in the muscle.
Try riding with a thin Dressage whip tucked under your thumbs, across the tops of your hands. I regularly still ride like this when I'm warming up to just keep tabs on myself that I'm not relying on hands without realising, when I don't have someone on the ground to help.
You won't be able to use the reins individually, and if you are pulling back, trying to use your hands to create what the seat and leg should do, then it will be very apparent!
Another one is to hold onto the velcro or monkey strap on your saddle cloth/saddle, just with your pinkies tucked under. It will make you realise how much you are or are not relying on your hands for balance, as you will pull on the strap rather than the horse's mouth.
Riding without reins on the lunge is also great, as you then cannot rely on the reins at all for balance. And riding with reins in one hand is also very beneficial.
You might be depending on the reins for balance, in which case you need more of an independent seat. Try some lunge line lessons with no reins and two point work.
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I like the idea of the dressage whip across the top of the hands. I had to do that when my hands would be high on one side than the other....another use for that idea.
I have a fairly soft following arm but want to get even softer by using only my fingers. I realize there are times when my reins get too long so I end up pulling back somewhat instead of adjusting them, especially in canter. It's been a long time since I was told I was balancing on the reins but I can check with her.
I enjoy longe lessons and we do 2 point and ride w/o stirrups. I guess it takes awhile to over come the neural feedback loop of survival: yikes, he scooted forward- jam on those arms! Sigh. Perfect practice makes perfect!
Though you may think that feel is from the fingers, it actually comes from the elbows. If you start focussing on keeping your fingers soft, you will lock your elbows, which will stiffen your shoulders, wrists and whole upper back. Then you may have soft fingers, but the horse is going to feel bracing and discomfort.
Concentrate on softening your elbow while keeping your fingers closed on the reins. You don't need to have a death grip, but you don't want your fingers to be open enough to allow the reins to be pulled out of your hands.
A soft, following elbow will allow your arm and hand to move with the topline - acting as a hinge. The wrist and hand shoulder remain as quiet as possible. Fingers may occasionally squeeze and release, but not more than that.
The progression I used when teaching was while still riding on loose reins, teach the sequence of footfalls and accompanying movement of the head and neck, have students practice calling out the sequence while they learn to feel it. Next have them work on following the head and neck gestures with their arms. Sometimes it was helpful to let them take their pinky finger off the rein anod put the tip on the neck, to feel the movement. When they could follow the head and neck, we starting taking the remaining slack out of the reins and riding on contact. I did a lot of the exercise that you described - I held the reins and mimicked the horse's motion and had the student follow, and then I let the student pretend to be the horse while I changed hand and arm position or dropped the contact and let them feel what the horse felt.
Now, here's the tip that I particularly wanted to share with you - at the stage where students were taking the slack out of their reins and actually riding on contact, I would sometimes ask them to hold the reins in a driving rein position to help them get the feel and get started. Using a driving rein makes it really hard to lock your elbows and facilitates the following. Once you feel like you're following consistently, you can switch back to holding your reins normally.
I've got the same problem, my ''ex'' trainer used to pretty much be about beating the horse until it did what you wanted and now I'm riding with a dressage/parelli trainer.
We went on a long trail ride a couple days ago. My guy is so forward with such a big step that I was forced to be soft soft soft in the shoulder and elbow to follow him. His head was up - but not on high alert. Eventually I just let him on a loose rein to the buckle (picture him speed walking home, head up), but not before I got a very good feel of giving with firm finger/thumb combination and soft arms. Thanks for your tips, they helped.
I think I know what I am supposed to do, but even knowing that, does not mean I can do it so well. I appreciate reading the good advice here and will continue to work on improving my following feel. I got a long way to go.
Sort of related to my OP, I found a recent suggestion by my trainer helpful to keeping my shoulders relaxed and not forward: imagine a pencil coming out of my belly button - it should point foward (ouch?). If it seems to point down, that's because I allowed my upper toso to collapse down. Its odd but this visual works for me.
As to the soft arms elbows and shoulders, I am still practicing using my fingers only when I am leading my boy on the ground, trying to keep the elbows soft and imagine these small movements. Anything to help get the muscle memory going!
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