Ride Fit 1-2-3: Fitness for Riders- Getting Better Arm Position and Softer Hands

Hi,
This week's topic comes from a rider (Erika) who posted the following question:
Though recently I've done very much to my core and leg positions, my arms have been neglected! Though I do not try, I know I keep my arms tense and not as relaxed as the rest of my body.
So my question(s) are, where exactly should I keep my hands (I show Training/First Level), and how should it feel? How can I relax my arms, and keep the contact that I need?

I have posted her picture in the comment section below so you can see her arm position.
In the photo, you can see that Erika is taking some tension in her shoulders, and also turning her fists downward, so there is tension in her forearms as well. I have a little saying that 'strong shoulders equals soft hands'. Correct arm position is probably best commented on by a riding coach, however classically we do look for alignment from the elbow through the forearm to the bit, regardless of discipline. A rider should also have softness in the elbow so that the elbow angle can open and close a bit as is required. In dressage, the elbow moves closer to being placed directly under the shoulder. However, regardless of discipline the main idea is to have soft arms (not clenched forearm muscles, tight trapezius, or contracted biceps).

In a clinic situation, I usually see either an arm position similar to Erika's with the hands and forearm trying to bring the horse's head down and perform half halts, or else a more horizontal hand position with contracted bicep where the same attempt is being made, but through the bicep in the upper arm. Both problems stem from weakness in the upper arm/shoulder area, and shoulder muscles in the upper back (rhomboids, between the shoulder blades).

Because the rider is weak in those areas, engagement from the upper back and shoulders breaks down with fatigue, and the rider's body shifts to reliance on the hands, trapezius or bicep. Having soft hands with contact that does not give in, but asks the horse to give in and form a correct 'frame' depends a lot on being able to engage the back and core, and hold the shoulders back. If a rider's neuromuscular connection to these areas is not established, the firing patterns in the muscles don't engage those areas first, or the areas are weak, the rider will be much more tense in the arms and reliant on the hands. If you use your hands mostly for down transitions, it's an almost sure sign that your brain is either not engaging the appropriate upper back and shoulder muscles, or there is not much there to be engaged.

Three exercises I recommend for this problem are:

1. Lateral raises: In a slightly squatting or two-point position, raise freeweights from your sides up to shoulder height. You should be fatigued after about 15 repetitions- if you are not, increase the weight. To build more stamina, do three sets of 15 reps at least twice a week. You can also do this exercise standing on an exercise tube and gripping the handles.

2. Reverse Fly: this is the same exercise I recommended in last week's blog. It is similar to the lateral rotation below, but your elbows are quite far from your sides and you have the impression of flapping. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder-blades together as you perform the exercise.

3. Lateral Rotations: This exercise works your rotator cuff and rear deltoid area. Take the same stance as you did for the lateral raises, and bend your elbow like you are holding reins with your elbow at your waist. Then move your fist out to the side, perpendicular with your body, keeping your elbow at your side. You can use freeweights or exercise tubing. If you are using the tubing, have it fixed ahead of you so that the resistance is coming from in front of you, while you are effectively moving you forearm out and back. 15reps x 2 sets on each arm, at least twice a week. Do this exercise after the other two since it works smaller muscles which are required for stabilization in the other two exercises, and you do not want to fatigue them before doing the other exercises.

To transfer this work to the saddle, be aware of your upper back and shoulder muscles doing the work instead of your hands and arms.

Happy Riding!

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Comment by Sit_the_Trot on October 1, 2009 at 2:48pm
OK, I totally agree with this:
"we do look for alignment from the elbow through the forearm to the bit, regardless of discipline. A rider should also have softness in the elbow so that the elbow angle can open and close a bit as is required. In dressage, the elbow moves closer to being placed directly under the shoulder. However, regardless of discipline the main idea is to have soft arms (not clenched forearm muscles, tight trapezius, or contracted biceps)."

But I'm curious about these other statements and your solution. Actually I'm confused, can you explain the biomechanics of this? To me it seems the rider has a balance issue and over tense shoulders.

"strong shoulders equals soft hands"
I don't think a weight lifter would have soft hands, nor a deep tissue massage therapist, nor a farrier. These people don't typically have soft hands & elbows, but they tend to have very strong shoulders. Can you explain more what you mean?

"hands and forearm trying to bring the horse's head down and perform half halts, or else a more horizontal hand position with contracted bicep where the same attempt is being made, but through the bicep in the upper arm. Both problems stem from weakness in the upper arm/shoulder area, and shoulder muscles in the upper back (rhomboids, between the shoulder blades)."

If someone is "trying to bring the horse's head down " or using their biceps (to pull basically) the problem to me would be a lack of understanding of dressage and a backward thinking hand (brain) not necessarily "weakness in the upper arm/shoulder area, and shoulder muscles in the upper back (rhomboids, between the shoulder blades)."
If the rider has what dressage folks call forward thinking hands they won't pull down and/or back on the reins, period. Strong or weak they won't do it. If they are using the reins for balance they need to develop balance, no?. And if the rider uses the reins for balance and support would the problem be weak shoulders or something else? A very strong shouldered rider could have this exact same posture and habits of balancing on and communicating with their horse. Couldn't they?
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on June 7, 2009 at 10:52pm
If anyone is unclear as to how to do the exercises, or has some comments to add...please be invited to ask/post your comments!
Comment by Heather Sansom at Equifitt.com on June 3, 2009 at 9:45am

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