Rider Sin #1 – Pulling Back an Elbow

Or Why “We Can’t Ride on the Horse’s Head”

Horses are not built to be steered by their heads but by our seat and legs.

A rider attempting to control the horse by its head – i.e. “hold” the horse by the bit, with running reins, or other contraptions – will fail because riding front-to-back is against the nature of our prey-animal horse.

This is also why Rollkur and LDR training fail and, in their extremes, physically and mentally ruin the horses subjected to it.

Timing is Everything

Any rider restricting in particular the inside rein, with no matter how sharp or mild of a bit or additional gear, will be counterproductive.

This is particularly the case when a rider with insufficient awareness or feel of the forward swing of each individual leg fails to soften the inside rein during the phase of the inside foreleg’s forward swing. 

Counter-productively drawn back or pulled back elbows on the forward movement of the inside leg.

All of this equally applies to rider hand-induced changes of bend, flexion, direction, rhythm, cadence, or simply tempo, half-halts, transitions, etc.

Pulling the head (or bit) is wrong at any time. – It is the horse after all that needs to establish the contact by searching for the bit – we will talk about this in another blog.

It is absolutely dead wrong however when a rider balances herself on the inside rein or draws back the inside elbow at any time; even more so when the inside foreleg is ready to swing forward!

Pulling on the Rein Builds Active or Passive Resistance

Fixating the head, even temporarily, results in a dropped cervico-thoracic spine junction (the famous C7/T1). The vicious cycle is complete with the horse’s spine slanting downhill even more than naturally, the nose coming behind the vertical and, consequently, the poll lowering and making the C3 area the highest point of the neck.

Broken elbow-to-bit line: The fulcrum and leverage of horizontal elbow-lower arms that fixate a horse behind the vertical.

Here things can go two ways:

  1. Either the horse is getting heavier and heavier in a strong-handed rider’s hand. The horse “leans” on the bit or grabs the bit (compare the many GP riders hanging on to 90 degree curb bits). Rollkur-type riding and arm-wrestling become unavoidable.
  2. The horse pulls its nose back in order to allow the lower jaw to evade the rigid contact in form of a blocked elbow. The horse comes behind the bit in a false “light” contact.

Riders and spectators often get excited, “oh my horse is so light!” They forget – or haven’t been properly educated – that a correct light contact still forms an elastic thread of silk; one that the horse at any time and in any phase of a movement is willing to follow forward or forward-downward without any change in consistency or weight and elasticity of the connection.

The desired contact is always “alive” with the horse searching the bit and the rider following or by gently, more or less straining (not re-straining), the length of the frame.

On the other hand, it is the worst basis for further training if in fact a vacuum  exists. Latter being expressed by a non-existent contact with a horse that has stopped searching for that lightest possible of connection (combined with its ever-existing willingness to reach forward). 

Thus, front-to-back riding can be a matter of too strong a contact or one of a non-existing contact.

So, how do we know if we are on the right track? In both cases the test is if the horse at the lightest cue is willing to open or compact its stride and frame without losing rhythm or changing contact.

Quite obviously, such a trusting connection can only be achieved if and when the rider too has achieved the independence of seat and hands (following elbows) that allow for his hands to follow the horse through each phase of its movements.

Elbows Can Block Out the Quarters

Moreover that act of pulling back an elbow also blocks out the horse’s quarters. The astute spectator will detect most horses so “reined in” in the literal sense as they are obvious by their quarters’ pushing instead of carrying.

Such horses lack self-carriage and balance. A fact that will become obvious by the clear tracking pattern being lost.

The horse that pushes instead of carrying: Typical lack of parallel leg diagonals and, most importantly, note the different pastern/fetlock angles.

Along with either diving into the bit or coming behind the bit these horses evade the rider and go behind his leg. Such evasions commonly take on the form of

  • going downhill, i.e.  on the forehand. Look for the drop of the spine buttock to nose (not their topline!)…
  • loss of proper footfall, i.e. becoming lateral at the walk, loss of suspension at trot or unclear diagonals, 4-beat canter…
  • hindquarters pushing rather than carrying. Stifles, sacroiliac and lumbar joints are stressed excessively…
  • fetlock suspensory ligaments and tendons being overstrained while the cannon bones move at different angles and loads when we compare hind vs. front legs…
  • falling over the outside shoulder…
  • along with bringing in its quarters…
  • unable to bend around the corners, etc.

An inside rein-hold, by blocking the joints of that (ipsilateral) hindleg, forces the inside hind with rigidly held joints to foot either medially or laterally to its track.

Latter is particularly visible on circle lines where that hindleg, without equally flexing its hip-buttock-stifle-hock-fetlock angles, raises its quarters and evades such joint activation by crossing tracks and footing in behind the outside shoulder.

And nearly always, a rigid or uneasy wringing tail is another give-away for the front-to-back ridden horse.

Rigid tail as sign of front-to-back riding.

Again, rigid rider elbows control the head but not the quarters! In all cases the horse loses straightness and its back cannot swing.

We all know (or should know if we have learned on properly trained schoolmasters) that a back that doesn’t swing properly will not let the rider sit. The rider consequently balances himself on the reins. Yet again, another vicious cycle just started all over again.

The Problem

So, when I hear comments and commands by less than experienced or correctly trained coaches and riders to “slow down” a horse’s front, or to “bring back the [inside] elbow” in order to achieve a softer horse, I know one thing for sure: the correct basics were shortcut or are missing entirely.

Not only does such a horse not stand on the outside aids, such a rider’s horse is not in front of his leg. Such a horse doesn’t go through its back. Such a horse isn’t supple and swinging. Such a horse is not “through.”

Consequently, the horse fails the requirement of straightness and cannot reliably accept the aides nor follow its rider’s commands to engage and come uphill.

Sadly, experience teaches that overtime such a horse is prone to break down. Suspensory ligaments in particular are at risk. Sore lumbar areas are also common in such over-pushing horses. And often their muscles get tense and their minds become reticent, not least due to their restricted jowl and the herewith connected painful pressure on the neck artery.

This picture clearly illustrates the narrow jowl area at risk of putting painful pressure on the artery. On the other hand, the rider’s elbows, while pulled back, at least maintain a straight line to the bit and hence allow the nose in front of the vertical.

The Horse Problems are Rider Induced

Let’s not forget, it isn’t the horse that has failed here. If the rider would have been taught properly he would recognize that any need to use a rein in more than a lightly directive and softly yielding or “straining” (not restraining!) manner is a direct reflection of a rider not having achieved an independent and following seat.

And as a big PS… Yes we see the above described issues of pulled back elbow – nose behind the vertical mostly with riders who call themselves dressage riders and with some Western riders. If they were jumpers they would very quickly realize that they’d be causing a nasty crash over the next obstacle. Pulling back that inside elbow brings nothing but bad future work.

Oh yes, we do see this all the time at the international GP dressage level as well, not solely in local beginner circles. Having Olympic riders arm-wrestle their rigid straight-as-a-sawhorse moving mounts in the warm-up arena and literally cut corners due to non-existent longitudinal bend even in the competition ring doesn’t make a wrong right.

The Lesson

Watch and learn to keep those elbows no further back than the midline of your body and make up for balance in your lower back and core along with supple and elastic hip-knee-ankle joints that are able and willing to absorb the shocks of the horse’s movement.

Look for our upcoming articles including, Rider Sins – Arm & Hand Position, in order to learn how to bend and influence the horse without pulling back.

copyright Rivkah Roth DO DNM

Dr. Rivkah Roth is the founder of Equiopathy and a natural health practitioner, lecturer and author with over five decades in the saddle as a correction rider (Swiss National License LMS since 1968) and many hours as a National Grand Prix and FEI C dressage judge. Student successes include professional coaches on five continents (incl. CDN/EC I to III, ISR I to III, Dutch 3rd Level Instructor, USA, AUS), 1986 Dressage World Championships alternate (CDN), 1986 National GP Kuer Champion (CDN), 1992 Barcelona Olympics Longlist 3-Day (CDN), 2002 Young Horse Dressage World Championships – Verden/GER (ISR), World Cup and WEG dressage horse (CDN), many Nat. and Provincial Champions all levels (CDN / ISR / SUI).