Exercises to bend elbows

Okay my daughter rides like a zombie and it’s driving me nuts. Stiff straight arm - her leg is excellent and her overall position solid - minus the arms. We have tried the whip behind her back and she pitches herself forward - reverts right back to zombie arms after whip removed. Also tried using a driving rein which helps bring her elbows by her side but she still gets zombie arms after. Any other interesting exercises? Telling her to bend her elbow is just not working and she’s so stiff she gets into that perchy position. Today I’m taking her into the round pen to do some hand free work but need some helpful tips. TIA!

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Keep your elbows touching your sides.

Also part of straight arms can be wanting a shorter rein, or it can be wanting to ow the horses head down on a shorter rein. Very often our “bad” riding habits are adaptations to feel more secure.

If you have straight arms you cannot give at all, but you can take. If you have bent elbows you can give but might feel it’s harder to take. Often straight arms go with low hands and hands that try to pry the head down. I see this a lot in bad dressage riders.

She should be carrying her hands at least at bellybutton height with her elbows grazing her sides. What if she has to ride with tennis balls held between arm and body?

If she gets perchy then her seat is not as good as it should be.

But finding out why the “bad” position feels natural or safe is huge. For instance years ago I realized I was going into chair seat because I was rightly worried about some bucks, but when I finally articulated this to me coach she showed me how to drop my thigh for security rather than jamming home my heels like a Bronc rider.

Figuring out why straight arms feel right and safe to her is important. Too much emphasis on low hands can lead to this.


Put a saddle grab strap on the saddle and have her keep her pinkie holding onto it while riding. If she’s too tall for the saddle grab strap, then use a neck strap.

Driving reins. It’s hard to explain but if you Google it you can get a visual

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I’ve tied a polo around my arms and body to work on keeping my elbows in.

A mirror, she can see immediately where her elbows are and where to put them.

Photos is the next best thing.

Other than tha, as an instructor you do not say too many things at once. You say a few things 1,000 times that they do not know they are doing.

The next 500 times they go to do it but you say it before they do it.

Then they do it before you say it.

Then you start saying something else for a thousand or so times.

When I have kids with “Barbie Arms”, I have them ride with a small pillow balanced on their forearms, at all there gaits. Works great.

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I struggle with this, especially on larger horses (I have very short arms). Having a grab strap at the pommel helps, not for balance, but to make sure there’s weight in my elbows (It’s impossible to grab the strap and have stiff, straight arms). I don’t use it the whole ride, just whenever I’m getting to Frankenstein’s monster-y.

For me, the problem comes from following with my hand. The arm opens–and then stays open, and gets stiff. Holding the strap forces me to keep weight in my elbows, not just in my hand.


I agree with the - it’s coming from a place - it is where she feels safe - even if it’s really not. She has had a lot of bad experiences on different horses - bolting bucking rearing you name she’s had it happen. So my theory now is she tips forward and gets these short reins not because she’s trying to get the horse round but because she’s afraid he’s going to do something. When she walks around the property she tips even more forward, more straight armed and looks petrified he’s going to spook. He’s a very good boy and safe but she’s only been riding him 2 months. I’m wondering if I just need to chill out until she learns to trust him? Or keep pushing to get those elbows bent? The whip behind her back and the polo wrap around her body makes her super nervous. As I kid I was super ballsy - jumped barrels bareback and did other stupid things - so this is all new to me having a timid kid.
Today we went in the round pen - no reins - she was a whole different rider. Elbows bend butt in the saddle - I think being on the lunge line made her feel safe.

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How old is your daughter? If they’re at an age where they can start understanding at a slightly higher level, I like to have a conversation with them about “finding the middle position” (or whatever you want to call it). It works for all sorts of things with position…

Basically, when using your arm with the reins you have two extremes and a bunch of options in between. I like to do this at the halt and get the student to sit nicely balanced on the horse… Then shorten their reins all the way until their arms are straight. Ask them- “from here, can you take if you need to?” (Yes) “cool, can you give?” (No) bummer, so from this position we can’t get softer.

Then do the same with very long reins and hands pulled back AS FAR AS THEY GO. It’s ridiculous, but it’s the other extreme. Then I ask the same questions, obviously with the opposite answers.

Usually somewhere in here it clicks and when I ask them to show me the middle they go right to where they should. I ask the questions again and they show me that they can both take and give.

When they start riding around again, if their arms straighten I can usually just ask them to “find the middle” and they will correct themselves.

I used to love those convos when I taught… Fun little lightbulbs going off.

However, if she’s nervous, you may also need to wait it out for awhile or do some confidence building exercises with the pair before she’s able to let this info sink in. People learn when they’re ready to :woman_shrugging:


She sounds like a nervous rider that is just waiting for something bad to happen in your second post.

She needs to build her confidence, so lessons with no reins and just riding a quiet horse where she doesn’t have to be so defensive in her position. Would be helpful to work on ground work just to build her trust in the horse.

Back in the dark ages when I taught lessons, I cut a pool noodle into fourths and used to put a piece between the riders arm length wise and body. Worked great and they could feel when they squished it and it dropped if the arm got straight.


That is a very good conversation I need to have with her - finding the middle ground where when does she have enough to rein to whoa and enough rein to give. Very helpful thanks!! The pool noodle idea is fantastic. I’m pretty sure she has some PTSD - our last mare - was black and very good when she wanted to be very good - but every blue moon could have naughty moments forgetting small human was aboard. She also has ridden ponies with pony moments…and some jumper type rides where she has discovered she does not care for super forward horses. Funny I rode Arabs growing up and they were crazy - I don’t know why I never developed a fear of something bad happening…

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Ah the new information is interesting and totally changes my opinion of what’s going on. The issue is not hands or even seat. It is fear. Or at least anxiety.

Doing things that mess with your perceived stability and control do nothing to help riders whose position problems stem from fear because these exercises increase the fear and your fear responses over ride what you want your body to do. I speak from experience :slight_smile:

She needs to back up a few steps and get over her fear of this horse. Perhaps longe lessons, perhaps just walking on a loose rein for a few weeks. Perhaps a coach who isn’t mom.

Once she is no longer afraid she will be able to adopt different positions on the horse as needed. While she is afraid her brain will short circuit her attempts to fix her position

Forward seat and short reins is actually a good safety seat for a pro rider on a green horse. It’s not a bad instinct. But it’s not useful on a kid who is doing it out of fear.


Agree with others and your follow-up posts that suggest this is more of a physical manifestation of a mental issue, rather than simple biomechanics. So, I wouldn’t turn to the things that feel restrictive and thus even more scary to her (tying arms, whip behind the back) but rather focus on exercises that increase her feeling of control without relying on her hands. I would also put “feeling in control without relying on her hands” into two categories… controlling her horse, and secure position. Some exercises will address both, but some target one or the other.

So in terms of feeling in control of her horse, transitions (downward, but hey, you have to do upward to get there too, so, bonus) are HUGE in building confidence. Focus on doing the transition from the body first and only adding rein if needed. This takes sitting up tall. Challenge her to see if she can do a downward transition with no pulling at all. Use markers like pylons or standards to make it a game.

Steering is another big part of feeling in control. Again, teach her that the body (And eyes, here) do most of the work and challenge her to see how little rein she can use. Try doing steering exercises with the reins in one hand.

Then, you also want to make sure she feels secure in the saddle… lacking that can certainly cause various versions of the death grip to happen. So, first of all, make sure the saddle fits her and the horse. Then, think about all the typical exercises to build strength in the saddle. Two-point, 2-1 posting, dropping stirrups. Also any exercises that get her to drop a rein (like arm circles, hand on the hip, etc), even if at the walk, have the bonus of not only building balance, but also “letting go” up front.

Also, I would give her a holy sh*% strap. While they can put the hands a little low (which might sound counter-productive here), it is something she can grab when she’s truly scared. But as she grabs it, always have her think “Push away” or “Sit up” or… well, whatever phrasing works for her to think and then develop the habit of grab mane if you need to, but plant your butt and sit up when things get tough.

The neck strap can also help her develop a feel for the horse’s motion. I had a period where I struggled to get the “still hands” everyone was telling me to do. Then I realized that I was trying to keep them “still” relative to the rest of my own body, rather than relative to the horse’s mouth. Really what I needed to do was move my hands more (in a particular way).

Finally, it sounds like your daughters fear and nerves intellectually make sense to you, but that you don’t really understand them from experience. That’s all ok. It doesn’t make her a bad rider or you a bad parent or coach. But I will say from my nervous nellie experience, taking the “just do it” approach may not work… “Look what you can do. And how about a little more?” tends to be better.

Good luck… I’m sure she’ll have a great relationship with her new boy and some jell-bows to show for it all in good time.


Even if the issue is coming from a defensive place, being stiff on a horse only projects fear and uncertainty, so I do think it’s going to be good for her to learn to relax. For the arms, I’d start with longe lessons, where you are controlling the horse so she can trust it will be safe. Work on all of the no hands exercises to try to loosen her up. Especially at the shoulders. Then have her lightly hold the reins and if she can reach, press her knuckles into the neck or withers as she rides, especially at posting trot. I think that works better than holding something like a strap if her arms are long enough or horse’s neck carriage is high enough for this. As she picks up the reins, she needs to keep replicate the movement with the elbow. If not, back to knuckles on the neck.

You can then progress to doing this free in the round pen and then in the arena but with the no hands part of the exercises becoming one hand with both reins in the other.

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You could try the Equi Cube. https://www.equicube.net/


This is great! I agree with all of the above and doing walking exercises with one rein. I notice that her reins get shorter and shorter as the ride goes on and she goes from neutral reins to really short reins. What I think struck me most about this post is - you’re right when we do the whip behind her back or polo wrap around her arms it makes her super tense and pitch forward - and it doesn’t improve over the course of the lesson. She thinks the safety spot is in that short rein pitched forward straight arms position- until she feels safe again - confident without relying on her reins - I don’t think we are going to fix this with traditional exercises ): Ugh…

Stiff arms (which I struggle with) is usually bc tension is held somewhere else, often the seat or legs. There’s a good dressage video about it (Amelia Newcomb???).

Things that have helped me? Looped reins so I can’t slip them and have a short rein
Think of her arms being heavy from the shoulder
Ride w/o stirrups toes pointed down (you can’t pinch), until her seat gets fixed.

Good luck!

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I was probably older but what helped me was leaning that the safest position is heels down, butt in saddle and sitting up straight or leaning back if the horse is bucking. So practice the right position as being the safe position for if something goes wrong. Sink down into that saddle.

I also recommend trying an Equicube. I have the “light weight” one, and at 4 pounds of weight I simply could not hold it for long unless I bent my elbows.

I gave a few of the Equicubes to my lesson stable. The beginners’ teacher uses them to correct all sort of seat faults, including elbows that just will not bend. She has reported groans from the kids, but she does not care, a lot of stuff she has them do elicit groans. After all her students are all smiles when they win their show classes which helps make up for the groans while they learn to ride properly.

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