How Rider Shoulder Position Affects Hand Position and Contact

Equestrian biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze offers exercises to help a rider adjust her shoulder position and therefore, improve her contact.
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In this photo, Tessa Davis is competing her 17-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Shadowfax, at Training Level. Tessa wrote that she is now currently schooling First and Second Level.

Tessa Davis rides her 17-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Shadowfax, at Training Level. 

Tessa Davis rides her 17-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Shadowfax, at Training Level. 

Shadowfax looks light and elegant, with long legs and harmonious conformation. He is in a nice frame for Training Level. I like how he appears willing and eager to follow his rider’s aids. There is slight tension visible in his back—behind the saddle—that causes his hind leg to lift more from his back than from his haunches. When I look at the space between his front legs, I notice there appears to be a nice open triangle formed between his two front legs and the distance between his hooves on the ground (see photo, above). When I compare this triangle to the triangle formed with his hind legs, I can see that the latter is a little narrower and the distance between the hind legs (length of the stride) appears shorter. In a balanced working trot, we would like to see a more equal stride between the front and the hind legs. It does not mean that Shadowfax is not active. This moment simply shows that there is some tension in his back causing a shorter stride.

When I look at Tessa, my first impression is that she is a very caring rider. She is attempting to sit lightly and keep her legs long with her heels and hands down. She clearly does not want to disturb her horse. The picture is probably taken when she is in rising trot at the moment she is just sitting down. This explains why her upper body is in a slightly forward position.

Next, I notice that her hands are a bit too low. The classical line from her elbow to her hand to the horse’s mouth is not straight. Her downward hands are breaking this line and her elbow looks nearly straight. When I look carefully at Tessa’s arms, I can see that her upper arm is not very long. Her elbow joint is located pretty much in the middle of her upper body. The length of the upper arm can vary from person to person. The location of the elbow joint determines the degree of angle a rider needs in her elbow to establish the correct line to the horse’s bit. The shorter the upper arm, the straighter the elbow joint will need to be. I do notice slight tension around Tessa’s shoulders and this may cause her to move her hands together with her body. This would cause her hands to move a little bit up and down with her body in the rising trot. In her attempt to keep her hands quiet, Tessa is stabilizing them by holding them a little low. She is not pressing her hands down, or restricting the horse’s frame, but she is not supporting the forward movement enough.

Simply correcting Tessa’s hand position will not fix this underlying issue. If she merely carries her hands higher, that will most likely cause stiffness and more tension. Tessa needs to open her shoulders and learn to feel how the reins are not just from her hands to the horse, but how her whole arm is part of the reins and contact.

The following image can be very helpful: Imagine that you are riding in a snaffle bridle with one continuous rein—the inside and outside rein are part of the same rein that is running in a circle. The circle of the contact is running from one hand along the rein to the horse’s mouth, along the bit through the horse’s mouth to the other side, up the rein to the rider’s hand, continuing up the arm and shoulder, then following the shoulder blades around the rider’s back to the other shoulder, down the arm and into the rider’s hand. The ultimate image is that the rider is carrying a copy of the horse’s bit between her shoulder blades, too.

To keep a soft and elastic contact, the rider must be able to be supple and elastic in all joints: fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Also think of the connecting muscles that run from the shoulder blades to the spine as the foundation for an elastic and controlled arm position. Elasticity needs to be secured at the ends. To stretch and create length, one end needs to be securely anchored. For example, I can only stretch an elastic strap if I fasten one end and extend the elastic part.

To apply this idea specifically to Tessa’s riding, she needs to control her shoulder blades in order to allow her arms to function with elastic, forward movement and to feel steady contact with her horse’s mouth. However, in order to effectively do this, she actually needs to move them. It is more complicated than simply moving her shoulders up or down or pulling them back, as it is more a rotational movement that will help her coordinate between her shoulders and hands.

Try this: Imagine the strap of a backpack around your shoulder. This strap symbolizes the line of the rotation of the shoulders. If you move your shoulders following the direction of the strap around and forward, this will cause your hands to drop down. If you rotate your shoulders in the opposite direction, this will help you carry your hands. If Tessa learns to activate this little rotational movement with every step of the horse, it will make it easier to ride with better hand carriage and light, forward elastic contact.

Here’s another exercise to try to help you get a feel for soft and elastic contact: If you hold the reins only between the thumb and index finger, it will suddenly give you a clear feel of the direct connection into the horse’s mouth. It will help you feel how your arms are 50 percent of your reins and how you must move your elbow and shoulder joints to maintain a steady and soft contact.

Once this elastic contact is established, you need to learn to move your hands without disturbing the contact. A rhythmic juggling movement of your hands up and down or opening and closing your hand position a bit can enhance your horse’s lightness and self-carriage within the contact. Eventually, you will learn to use rein aids in harmony with your horse’s movement and rhythm of strides. This is essential for both you and your horse to maintain balance while moving forward.

When I first ask riders to juggle their hands up and down, I often get the looks of disbelief, as we are so often told to keep our hands quiet. But quiet does not mean still, and posture is learned through movement. When you correctly juggle your hands, the reins slide along the ring of the bit and the contact to the horse’s mouth is not disturbed. Often, the horse prefers a rhythmically moving hand to a rigid one and becomes lighter. Over time, the visible movement of the juggling should then be minimized to tiny up-and-forward movements. This will teach correct hand carriage to the rider and self-carriage to the horse. I am sure that Tessa and Shadowfax will be able to use these ideas and incorporate them in their training. Anything that helps elasticity will help an older horse to stay young!  

About Susanne von Dietze

Susanne von Dietze is a leader in equestrian biomechanics. A physiotherapist, licensed Trainer A instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping, she gives lectures and seminars throughout the world, including at the prestigious German Riding Academy in Warendorf. She is a native of Germany and now lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. She is the author of two books on the biomechanics of riding: Balance in Movement and Rider and Horse, Back to Back.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue. 

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