Riders often have challenges with their hand and elbow alignment. It may manifest as issues like riding with your elbows out, or with turned down “piano hands.” It may also be a problem that only pops up at specific times, like a hand that drifts during specific movements. Either way, it disrupts contact between the rider and the horse’s mouth.
Hand and elbow alignment problems have two main causes. The first is poor alignment of the whole arm, starting from the shoulder. This can be improved with exercises that get the correct shoulder muscles engaged and supporting you. The second cause is incorrect movement patterns. When you do something incorrectly often enough it becomes your new normal. This can be improved by exercises that increase your body awareness, helping you to feel when you are defaulting to the old incorrect habit.
Shoulder Setting Exercise for Horseback Riders
Shoulder setting using a band can help to correct both causes of hand and elbow alignment problems. It strengthens the muscles in your shoulder while also increasing your postural awareness. You can use a pre-made resistance band loop, but any loop of suitably stretchy material will work.
In a seated or standing position, simply wrap the band around your wrists with your arms in your typical riding position, like in photo 1. Then, gently push your wrists into the band while keeping your elbows at your sides. Stretch the elastic an inch or two, like in photo 2. Hold this position for five to 10 seconds, then relax. Repeat the motion for approximately two minutes.
As you do this exercise you should feel like your shoulder blades slide backward, creating more room in the front of your chest. Focus on creating a soft and elastic tension in your shoulders, which in turn will translate to soft contact when you ride.
This is a fantastic exercise to do right before riding. It warms up the correct muscles to support your arm posture throughout your ride. The more challenging you find this exercise, the more consistently you should add it into your routine.
For some English riders it’s beneficial to take this exercise one step further. Photo 3 shows the band being used while riding. While you ride, only apply enough pressure to keep the band taut, even if this position is a little wider than your normal hand position. This minimal effort is enough to improve your posture. You will also feel changes in the band’s tension whenever you move your hands, increasing your body awareness. Assuming you are safe to do so, you can use the band in all gaits and movements, including jumping. You can even use it during a riding lesson. The more typical the ride, the more value you will get from the feedback from the band.
A great exercise can make you aware of problems you didn’t know you had. This exercise should be gentle and pain-free. There should only be a subtle difference in strength between your left and right sides. If you have troubles with any of the above, it can be worth visiting a physiotherapist